The Feedback: Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale's 'Patrimonio'
By Tom White
Since IDA's DocuClub was relaunched in 2016 as a forum for sharing and soliciting feedback about works-in-progress, many DocuClub alums have premiered their works on the festival circuit over the past year. In an effort to both monitor and celebrate the evolution of these films to premiere-ready status, we reached out to the filmmakers, as they were either winding their way through the festival circuit, or gearing up for it.
In this edition of "The Feedback," we spotlight Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale's Patrimonio, which they presented at DocuClub NY in October 2017.
We caught up with Jackson and Teale via email in the days preceding their premiere at Berlinale. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Synopsis (courtesy of Berlinale website): Patrimonio takes place in Todos Santos, a community of 6,000 on the Pacific Coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. The film's narrative arc tracks the town's rising resistance to a multinational mega-development that plans to build 5,000 houses in this vulnerable desert town. The development, called Tres Santos, is billed as "mindful" and "holistic," but it threatens the dwindling water supply and the local beaches. We witness the town's burgeoning awareness and activism through the eyes of Rosario Salvatierra, whose family has fished these hard waters for four generations, and John Moreno, a surfer, lawyer and environmental activist who takes on a life-altering cause.
How did you happen upon the story of Tres Santos and its encroachment on the people and fishermen of Todos Santos?
SARAH TEALE: Lisa and I have both made documentaries for HBO and have known each other for years. We had just completed a film together on farmers in upstate New York, and I invited Lisa to visit Todos Santos. My husband, Gordon Chaplin, has owned an old house in Todos Santos for over 35 years and I have been coming here for 20 years. Lisa and I thought that we would start a film about the ecology of the Sea of Cortes, but instead we heard that there was a mega-development starting to build on the fishermen's beach. We were told that the fishermen were fine with this and had probably been paid off, but we decided to ask them ourselves. From that one meeting we met all of our main characters, and that was the start of a three-year odyssey.
LISA F. JACKSON: Sometimes you find the film and sometimes the film finds you; Patrimonio was the latter. Hearing the fishermen's concerns about their diminished beach, the harassment of increased inspections and their suspicions about the legality of the planned construction on protected dunes sparked our interest immediately—especially since the development was being sold as "green" and "sustainable." We committed immediately to following the story, and I made it my business to keep showing up at the fishermen's beach—being there at dawn when they launched their boats and at sunset when they came in with their catch, hitching rides on their heaving skiffs, being invited to their homes, learning the bawdy local slang, and asking and answering endless questions until a trust was forged and my camera became practically invisible to them.
How long did you spend in Todos Santos before you started filming?
ST: We started filming right away and kept on going. We were at the first meeting that John Moreno [the attorney who takes up the case] had with the fishermen, and we filmed with him early on about the background to Tres Santos and his deep concerns about the environment and the water. From the first day, John and the fishermen were forceful and compelling and they never stopped.
LFJ: For the first six months of shooting, I was spending a month in Todos Santos followed by a few weeks in New York, and when I began to see that we were missing key moments, my time here grew longer—six months at a stretch, with a quick trip to NYC to put out fires—until I realized that Todos Santos was where I needed, and wanted, to be. I moved here in 2016 and after 35 years in Manhattan, I am now a permanent resident of Baja California Sur. It was a lot of work being on call for almost three years, the majority of the time shooting alone, but it would not have been the same film had I not been here full time.
Journalists are an endangered species in Mexico; a recent study by Reporters without Borders deemed Mexico the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists, after Syria. How did you protect yourself as filmmakers? Were the journalists in your film ever in danger?
ST: Although she does not like to admit it, Lisa was in danger. As the camerawoman, she was the everyday face of the film and was an obvious target. Early on, Lisa—along with five other supposed "activists"—was sued by the developers, and that started months of harassment. She was living at our house at the time, and the police regularly arrived to try and serve her papers; my husband denied knowing her on two separate occasions. There were also threats of Lisa's imminent arrest, my email server was breached several times and my daughter and her friend were threatened. But the developers had picked the wrong filmmakers. I have made several investigative documentaries, and you know you are on to something if you are threatened. Lisa has been in serious danger throughout her career, and she never backs down. We laid low and carried on, inspired by John and the fishermen, who were on the frontline and refused to be intimidated.
LFJ: Journalists in Mexico are indeed an endangered species, and it rips your heart to hear of yet another being killed because they spoke truth to power. I tried to put that out of my mind and just kept going, even when arrest warrants were issued and the others went into lockdown. I would hide out at a friend’s remote ranch to evade the immigration police and process servers, I had trusted locals drive me around so my car wouldn’t be recognized and I registered my concerns with the US Consulate in Tijuana. When our main character (spoiler alert) was arrested and thrown into jail on fraudulent charges, my anxiety level cranked up another notch. I got a restraining order, which I carried constantly as a kind of talisman, even while knowing that it was probably worthless. And now that the film is about to go public, there is again concern that the developers might retaliate.
Did anyone from Mira, Black Creek or Tres Santos ever consent to sharing their side of the story?
ST: We sent several requests directly and through their public relations company, and they always denied our requests for interviews. We were open to sharing their side of the story but they were not amenable—which made us feel that they had something to hide.
LFJ: They totally shut us out, which only encouraged us to keep at it.
A number of the protagonists in your film died either during production or while you were in post-production. How did these passings impact how you shaped the film in the editing process?
ST: It is always hard. I made a film in the psych wards of Bellevue Hospital, where the main psychiatrist and lead character was dying of breast cancer throughout the year that we were there. Teresa, Rosario's wife and Maria's mother, was very sick during much of the filming and was in hospital and dying towards the end. But that was not the subject of our film, and while it is tempting to address that, it is a rabbit hole that you cannot go down. The impact of Teresa's illness and Yaqui's is on the intimacy with the subjects. Lisa became very close with the Salvatierra family and was there at a very difficult time in their lives. It shows in the intimacy of the film and closeness of the camera work, but it does not shape the edit.
LFJ: There are times when you have to leave the camera behind. During Teresa's long illness my focus was on easing her suffering and supporting the family. The death of Rosario’s brother Yaqui did become a story beat to help mark the time that John Moreno had spent in jail. Oxiard, the third character to die during production, was killed in a car crash early in the filming before he had time to emerge as the strong character he might have been.
With regard to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening?
ST: Lisa was filming in Baja during the DocuClub screening and I attended it alone. I found it extremely useful and surprisingly nerve-wracking. I am used to showing rough cuts to a few friends but not to a room full of mostly filmmakers, many of whom I really admired. It was both intimidating and necessary. Lisa and I also are used to talking about this film together and I missed having her there, but I was grateful that Pilar Rico, our wonderful editor, also attended and could respond to much of the advice.
LFJ: I was especially sorry not to be there because ten years earlier, in 2007, I screened a rough cut of my film The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo for DocuClub, and their advice was invaluable. My expectations for this screening were the same.
Was DocuClub your first public screening?
What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening?
ST: We knew that there was a problem with the beginning of the film, but Pilar, Lisa and I were far too close at that point to know how to solve it. Also, Pilar had only cut the ending of the film a week or two beforehand and we wanted to see if it worked with an audience. It is a sudden and unexpected ending. Was there enough information there? Did it work?
LFJ: Getting their response to the ending was critical. On the day of Moreno's release from prison, I knew there would never be another scene of such nail-biting intensity and high emotion and that we had our conclusion. To our great relief, the DocuClub audience agreed.
What were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?
ST: We came away with two excellent consensus notes: we needed more intimate family scenes, which we had and could include, and we could strip out much of the information from the beginning and trust the emotion of the scenes to inform our audience. We made those changes and it helped enormously. From the reaction of the audience, we also knew that we had our ending.
LFJ: I listened to the audio recording of the Q&A, and another nugget that I gleaned was the interest in knowing more about the "bad guys." Who exactly were these developers? What was behind their "green screen"? Which led us to dig deeper into that aspect of the story. Coincidentally, I was given the same advice at my DocuClub Congo screening in 2007: The audience said, "Show us the enemy." When I returned to the Congo to shoot a few weeks later, I found perpetrators who confessed to multiple rapes, some of them even bragging about how many women they'd assaulted. It made the film.
What observations did you find most surprising and unexpected?
ST: I loved it when people laughed, and many cried at the end. The ending always makes me cry but it was gratifying to see that it had that effect on an audience who did not in reality know the characters. You know you have done your job when people laugh and cry.
LFJ: I was struck by how closely the audience tracked the many lawsuits and legal battles. We were ready to excise a few if necessary, but in the end they all stayed.
When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made?
ST: We knew that we had more intimate family scenes, and we went back and found them. We had been editing throughout the filming period, but we had concentrated so hard on making a very complex story understandable that we had neglected to include enough of the beautiful, intimate moments that Lisa had shot. It was a good steer to be reminded that it is in those moments that the characters and the story really reveal themselves.
LFJ: Giving our main characters more of a backstory was a great note that we addressed immediately. We also eliminated several title cards in response to the comment that they were redundant, and we added a card at the end to clarify a story beat that several had found confusing.
What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for your Berlinale premiere?
ST: The ending. We had no idea how long this would go on, particularly given the complex nature of the law in Mexico and the length of time it takes to get anything done. It was also in the interest of the developers to string this out while they continued to build. But suddenly we had our ending almost overnight. The developers retreated and closed their sales office and have not been back. In that moment, it became clear that we had a film and a great, unexpected ending. For once, the little guy triumphs. We hope that this will prove an inspiring message at the Berlinale and to the world.
LFJ: I was in the online in New York in late January when I got the call from Baja that the fishermen had finally won back their historic beach concession. This was the one story beat still dangling, and while the ending we had was satisfying, to be able to add that one last title card really iced the cake: Rosario and his compañeros stood up to corporate America and got back what was theirs. What could be better than that?
Patrimonio premieres February 20 at Berlinale.
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.