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Dir. Richard Ray Perez on "Cesar's Last Fast" Part 2: An Imperfect Man Capable of Great Things

Interviews
by Carlos Aguilar
April 24, 2014 1:00 PM
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Cesar Chavez

In the first part of this extensive interview with Richard Ray Perez, the filmmaker revisited in detail the unbelievable course of events that would lead him to helm this project. In this second part, Perez talked to us about the challenges particular to his film in the editing room, his profound relationship with Chavez' cause from an early age, the distinct strengths of both his piece and the recently released narrative film on the leader's life.

Read the first part of the Interview HERE

Carlos Aguilar: Besides the fact that opportunity to make the film presented itself to you in such a incredibly serendipitous manner, did you have any sort of personal connection to the Chavez story? 

Richard Ray Perez: In 1969 I was 4 years old, I was in Head Start, which is this public pre-school for poor kids where you get free lunch. There were these university students who used to come and volunteer, mostly from Cal State Northridge. One day me and the other preschool kids were sitting around the desk, we were having our free lunch, and part of it was a fruit cocktail. I noticed one of the college students when he started eating his, he was plucking the grapes out of the fruit cocktail. I asked him,  “How come you are doing that?” and he said, “Because the people who own the grape fields they treat the people who picked the grapes terribly. They pay them very little money, they make them live in shacks, they humiliate them, and if they complaint they fired them.” I remember looking down at my grapes, and I saw everything he said in my them. They looked really ugly, and I couldn’t bring myself to eat them, so I started plucking the grapes our of my fruit cocktail. All the other kids that were listening, they looked down at the grapes and they also started plucking them out. None of us ate the grapes for the rest of the year. After that, the ones that continued to be on the free lunch program all through elementary school, I remember we would never eat the grapes.

That was when I was 4 years old, then I went on to learn that my dad had been a migrant farm worker before I was born for 22 years. At that time when I was in preschool I still had aunts and uncles in central California who were farmworkers. Within a couple years the boycott came to my hometown, 20 miles from here in the Northeast valley. They came and they set up picket lines in front of the super markets. My parents would join and they'd take me, and my brothers and sisters. Very early on I was aware of the grape boycott but not really knowing much, then eventually I became more consciously aware thanks to my family supporting the movement.

Aguilar: When did you become aware of Cesar Chavez not in an abstract way, but as the face of the movement?

Perez: I would probably say 7 or 8 years old, not long after. I remember watching TV in 1970 and understanding the news about the Vietnam War. I remember seeing him on TV with the grape strikes. When he came to town, we would go visit my aunts and uncles and my dad would talk to them and ask  "Has Chavez been around here?,"so I was aware if him pretty young.

Aguilar: After reviewing the footage and learning so much bout Chavez, how did your perception of him change?

Perez: That was the hardest part, learning that Cesar Chavez wasn't a perfect man. It really began around 2005, there was a series of articles in the L.A. Times written by Miriam Pawel. She is somebody who has written one book about the farmworker movement and one about Cesar Chavez - the first comprehensive biography. When she was a writer for the L.A. Times, she wrote a 4 or 5-part article about the UFW. It started with the ineffectiveness of today's UFW and how today's farmworkers are living under the same conditions before Cesar organized them. Then it started going into the latter years and accused Cesar of being an authoritarian, purging people from the union, suspecting people were communists and marginalizing them, really having this control impulses.

Cesar's Last Fast

There was starting to be more writing about that. People who were purged for the union themselves started writing. One very credible guy, who is now a professor at Harvard, he wrote a book. That was the tough part, to realize all these things about a guy who up until then had been inaccurately portrayed as a saint. His sainthood is edged on your psyche, he is an icon. To learn that he has this darker side, that he is imperfect, and then try to reconcile that realizing it's possible for imperfect people to do amazing things. Because he left a trail of wreckage by not tolerating descent and authoritarianism, that doesn't diminish what he did, it just adds to the complexity of this man. In the end what he did was phenomenal, how he did it, or how his control issues may have halbert the success of the union in the later years, that's a different problem. But I do think those negative things are also true.

Aguilar: The narrative film focuses on the lack of a close relationship between Cesar and his family, why did you decide to not delve into this subject?

Perez: The family relationships didn't seem penetrable. There was no real way to getting that in an honest manner. During the interviews I asked Paul some questions like "Was it hard being his son?." He gave very generic answers "I knew I had to share him" or "He would only show up for part of my sisters' weddings." I didn't have the material to really convey the emotional weight, if there was any behind it. Also, it wasn't that interesting, I didn't think it was interesting in the narrative film. I thought it was forced. It wasn't fully developed, it was like "Cesar go take out the trash and talk to Fernando." It was pasted on the way they tried to deal with his shortcoming of some sort. I'm sure he couldn't have been a perfect dad because of the life he chose. It wasn't the story I wanted to tell. The power was in the fast, and the spiritual commitment, that's what came from the material. I really worked with the most emotional and powerful material that there was, and I constructed the story around that.

Aguilar: As you mention, the spiritual component is crucial for your film. How did you deal with this idea of sainthood around him?

Perez: What was interesting about that sainthood thing, and we talked about this early on with Paul. The archdiocese at one point went to the Chavez family and said, “We want to put him up for sainthood”, and he replied, “My dad was not a saint we don’t want to go there." Whoever represented the church said, “You don’t understand, some saints were really bad people. Some were murderers, and philanders, etc. But they had a shift in their lives”. Some of them have these questionable backgrounds, so we have a misconception of sainthood. That was something really interesting. It also sort of intersected with where I was in my life at that point, spiritually. Growing up, they tried to raise me Catholic, and I was really rebellious. I was very anti-Catholic and anti-Christian for most of my adult life. By the time I came across that material I was much more understanding of the power of Christianity. I’m not a Christian anymore I’m a Buddhist, but by the time I was working on the film I had been meditating regularly for about 7 years. I had a lot of compassion for Christianity, and I saw this and thought, “What this man is doing is intense.” There was all this passion we are not even used to seeing, certainly not in this country, in Mexico yes, people are willing to crawl on their knees for a mile based on their faith. I was raised here, and while I knew that was sort of my grandmother’s Catholicism, I was still shocked by how intense this was. I got it right away because where I was spiritually I saw the power in what he was doing.

Aguilar: With the recent release of the narrative film Cesar Chavez, what do you think are the differences and individual strengths between that film and your documentary? 

Perez: I think they are complimentary. The narrative is great because it is getting a broad audience and it is almost like the “Cesar 101,” really introducing this generation of Americans, and possibly a global audience, to who this man was. In that respect it’s doing a wonderful job. From what I hear, people that knew nothing or very little about Chavez really liked the narrative film, this is a mainstream audience. I think it really opens up the door for my film, which, like most documentaries, is targeting a different audience. The documentary is an opportunity for a deeper dive into the subject and much heavier part of his life – the spiritual life.

There is a difference in the form itself between the two. There are two reasons why I’m a documentary filmmaker. The main reason is the power of the medium. The most powerful films I’ve seen have been documentaries. Of course, there are some narrative films that I could never forget, but there are more documentaries that have had that impact on me. The power of the documentary film, when done well, I think is usually more impacting than a narrative, at least for me. The other reason is that documentaries are cheaper, they are more accessible to make.

Aguilar: How did you manipulate and balance the material to create the powerful effect the film has on audiences?

Cesar Chavez

Perez: That’s exactly what a filmmaker working with his editors does. How do you edit this material against all the other material? How do you, on the micro level, sequence the shots to get that effect. Then on the macro level how do you arrange them in the larger 90-minute arc? When I first started watching the footage I had a conceptual idea, but then the challenge was to figure out how to organize that idea onto paper, and then into the edit room being limited by the material you have. Like most documentary editing it was a lot of trial and error. For me it was always important not to bore the audience with information but keeping it around storytelling. I tell people “I’m not a journalist and I’m not a historian, I’m a storyteller."

Therefore I’m going to manipulate these pieces of reality or these piece of truth –because there is no one truth- to put them together into this shape with a desired effect. That’s what I think the essence of documentary filmmaking is, how do you manipulate the material to create an emotional impact, as opposed to just delivering information. “Cesar Chavez was born in Arizona in 1926, then this happened, etc” like those old school PBS documentaries. An example of how we approached the sequencing is the fact that Lorena Parlee didn’t start shooting until day 23 of his fast. We didn’t have Day 1, or Day 2, none of that, but we had to create this impression that the cameras were there at the beginning to sort of launch the ticking clock. I think there is like a Day 10 in there or a Day 15, then Day 24. In the credits we admit “Hey we got a bit creative with the Day numbers” That was a conscious decision I made as an artist.

Aguilar: Where there any images or episode that you decides not to include? If so, why?

Perez: There was a great story where Martin Sheen talks about how he first met Cesar Chavez. It’s a funny story and Martin Sheen is a great storyteller, but we could not find place for it. There was other material I wish I could have included like the granddaughters stitching the lining of the coffin. On the other hand, there were some interviews where people had some really strong opinions about Cesar in the latter days. First of all, I don’t know how credible they were, and I think it would have been irresponsible to include them. There was stuff like these examples that didn’t make it because I don’t think they would have helped the story.

Aguilar: How do you think your film will resonate with "Chicanos" or Mexican Americans, given that Chavez is perhaps their most iconic hero?

Perez: Chicanos are an interesting group, partly because we tend to self-segregate and we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder. A lot of ethnic and minorities do that, that’s why there is a craving for feel-good history, they might say “We are just as good as everybody else, we can fight”. I’m sure it’s going to resonate with them. That’s great. One of the powers I saw in my lifetime came from Cesar Chavez organizing. My dad was beat down from being a farmworker and an uneducated factory worker, and he had this inferiority complex because of that. When he would go out and interact in the “White World” he became a demure man. But when Cesar Chavez came along and showed him that Mexican Americans and Mexicans had power to fight back and challenge the system, I could see that it gave him pride. All of a sudden he felt empowered, that’s incredible. It is not just Chicanos or Mexicans; it is really about poor people. For them to see the film and think that poor people can organize and demand dignity and rights and that it has been done in the past, that would be a wonderful for them to get from the film.

Aguilar: After all the difficulties to make the film, the endless hours watching footage, and through that, getting to know this man, who is Cesar Chavez for you?

Perez: Cesar is this is uniquely committed man. He is committed in a way I think few people on this Earth are. Now, he has flaws, and probably some serious flaws, but it could take that type of person to make those changes. Yeah, he was probably a control freak, yes he probably didn’t tolerate descent, but if you think about what he did, and the commitment, that’s some heavy stuff. I wouldn’t be able to do it, most people wouldn’t be able to do it. He is a deeply committed man who is complicated, but most interesting human beings are complicated. He made immensely positive impact on society. The fact that he was a flawed man shouldn’t undermine all the positive that he accomplished.

Cesar's Last Fast opens in L.A. on April 25th and it's currently playing in New York

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