Patrimonio co-directors Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale spent two and a half years documenting the struggle of an isolated fishing village on the Baja Sur peninsula to reclaim the right to their land from an American land developer. The documentary opens at DOC NYC on Tuesday, November 13th.
Premiering at the DOC NYC Festival this Tuesday, November 13th, Electric Bento had the opportunity to sit down with co-directors Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale on their latest documentary, Patrimonio, the story of Todos Santos, an isolated fishing village on the Baja Sur peninsula of Mexico. A U.S. land development company with ties to the Mexican government win the rights to the idiosyncratic desert town with prime beach access. Patrimonio is the story of a small village’s uprising against corruption.
A separate review will follow.
[EB] I absolutely adored the documentary. Being based in Phoenix and the politics of our neighbors to the south of us hit home. The struggles of a small fishing community on the Pacific ocean, that we might not have heard of without your documentary.
I know your process of capturing the resistance was done over a two year period. What was your experience like documenting this resistance?
[Lisa] Well, when you’re in the middle of it, you have no idea where it is heading. At times, it was frustrating, other times it was scary, it was exhilarating. The ups and downs, you never knew what was coming next. It’s like any documentary, you have no clue until suddenly its all revealed and you have your ending. We were just in there with the fishermen; their joys and frustrations were ours. It was a long haul.
[EB] I’ve spoken with other documentarians and they have expressed the same joys and frustrations. I applaud you both for your dedication to this craft because it takes a level of dedication and patience to wait out something like this.
[Lisa] There was patience and tenacity, white-knuckling it and white-knuckling rage because what was happening to them was so bad. You have two options: one is to keep going and fight it, the other is to give up and Lisa and I are not very good and giving up.
[EB] Your courage is an inspiration to all of us. I was inspired by the fishermen because, at the beginning of the documentary, because John is very much on their side and is fighting for their rights I got the sense that the fishermen were dejected by the legal process.
[Lisa] So was John at many points. It was very dejecting. They really were up against the largest developers in Mexico and the amount of money behind them is very much tied into the political system in Mexico. Thank goodness there is a new president, but at the time it went all the way to the top. It wasn’t a small thing they were taking on, and none of us really appreciated that in the beginning.
[EB] I had to look up the word patrimony. I feel like my vocabulary is wide and diverse, but with patrimony, you’re talking about land that has been passed down generationally. When the developer came in and the legal system took the developer’s side because of all the money flowing in as well as the corruption, that’s one of the most outstanding aspects of your documentary is that that none of the people who were fighting for their rights were corrupted. They were pure and it’s very rare to see something like that captured.
[Lisa] It’s really true. There were the heads of the co-op who were corrupted. But it only made the others more committed and tighter and they were uncorruptable, that bunch.
[EB] You started out with John’s family and getting to know the community and how all of this came about. It reinforced John’s struggles and his own family’s struggles because, just like you, they had to wait white-knucked and bare-knuckled for a decision that seemed against the odds.
[Lisa] Yeah, that summer where he was in jail for three months was a really tough summer, especially on the family. We didn’t know if he would get out. The Mexican their legal system is so capricious, and he was such a thorn in their side for so long that they could have taken a really harsh revenge.
[EB] On the cinematography, I picked up a couple of drone shots, you used the focus and zoom effectively. You paint a picture of serenity and calmness, but at the same time there’s disaster that could strike at any minute.
[Lisa] As they say down there, asi es – that’s the way it is. And, thank you. I don’t consider myself a cinematographer, but when you’re in the middle there, you shoot instinctively. Some of it looks pretty good.
[Sarah] It looks really good.
[EB] Your instincts were dead on.
As we mentioned, this was a two and a half year process for you and at the time, you didn’t know the outcome. Now that you know how the story ends, can you talk a little bit more about the editing process?
[Lisa] It’s kind of like trains, you go by the stations and through various landscapes, we did it chronologically and we realized that there were all these sidebar stories that we didn’t need. A lot of it was trimming down and finding the scenes that were the motivators to move things forward and the domestic scenes of sun sets , but it became a process of “you kill a lot of your darlings”
[Sarah] It was being edited as we went along because at the beginning were making short films to educate the community, so the editing was continuous. Also, if you’re shooting over that length of time, and it’s not that Lisa overshot, but there was a lot. As she said, if you don’t keep on top of it as you go along, you can drown in the stuff. There were many, many co-op meetings that Lisa shot and had to shoot because you don’t know what’s going to happen at them. And then there was stuff that we had to lose. The one I regret we lost, where they met on top of a building and the sun was going down and the light was fantastic. We kept it until the very end when we realized it had to go.
[EB] Timing is everything, right?
[Sarah] And you hate to lose shots like that. Even though they aren’t critical to the narrative arc that you’re trying to tell, it’s still a personal moment for you as a director and the opportunity to be able to share that is just as important to you as the audience. I think your personality shines through on the documentary. It’s not just about the people you captured.
[Lisa] That main character when Sarah and I met Rosario Salvatierra that he was our guy. He was the once who got in the face of the developer’s CEO and was always moving to the front of the crowd, to be brave and to hang in. Sometimes your gut just says “this is your guy.” We had great luck with him.
Did you find any difficulties with Spanish to English translation?
[Lisa] I speak fluent Spanish. It took me a couple of months to get in to the groove of the fishermen’s Spanish which is very distinct and laced with horrifying vulgarities and expletives. Initially, there was a little bump but now, it’s like talking to you. I was lucky.
Good. I had to chuckle as you were describing it because I can only imagine, when we think of English, it has so many dialects but when you get into Spanish, you’ve got Basque, Catalan, Castilian, over 350 Mexican dialects, 68 of which are nationally recognized; each region has its own dialect. For you to be able to pick up on that is remarkable.
[Lisa] I don’t think it would have been possible if I hadn’t.
[Sarah] It’s very particular. People, even from Mexico City don’t understand what the fishermen are saying. They have a very strong dialect, they have their particular words. Lisa did an amazing job.
[EB} Was John the bridge between the fishermen and the politicians?
[Sarah] In as much as there was a bridge. He attempted to build one. He was the one communicating with the top government officials and the high courts and the legal system. The fishermen, they don’t have the Internet, some of them are barely literate, nothing they could have done on their own.
They literally only know the land, the water and the air surrounding their environment.
[Lisa] They know a lot, but they are isolated. That’s another amazing thing about their story. They don’t mingle, they’re not doers, they don’t protest, but they felt so deeply that they broke the mold of their own isolation.
That’s one of the most interesting aspects, that they felt compelled to stand up for what was theirs. I can’t thank you both for sharing this. Isolation has a way of bringing out beauty when we least expect it.
[Lisa] I’m contemplating doing another movie down in Mexico. We have a distributor and this should hit theaters at the end of March.
[Sarah] We have to get it out. We’re waiting to hear from various broadcasters and we’re hoping to pick up a broadcaster.
The documentary was eye opening. Thank you for sharing this with the world. I’m hopeful audiences in Arizona and around the rest of the world will get to see Patrimonio.
For more information on the documentary and the project, check out the film’s website here.