Sundance Review: Documentary 'Cesar's Last Fast' Has All The Right Intentions, But Lacks The Execution

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by Nikola Grozdanovic
January 31, 2014 4:20 PM
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Being critical of a documentary that has such innocent and beautiful intentions is like giving your honest opinion to a smitten young couple about their ugly baby; one of those "Seinfeld" moments of brutal awkwardness. The baby in question here is Richard Perez's documentary "Cesar's Last Fast," which had its premiere at the recently-wrapped Sundance Film Festival, and details the circumstances surrounding Cesar Chavez's 36-day water-only fast in 1988. If, unlike this reviewer, you're in tune with recent North American socio-political history, then the name Cesar Chavez should be familiar. The Latino American answer to the same question asked his African-American equivalent (of sorts), Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez was a leader of farm workers, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW), a strong believer in non-violent means to ends, and a man who dedicated his life to helping others while promoting civil rights for immigrant workers. In other words, the man was a few degrees shy of sainthood if the documentary is to be believed. Believing is easy. But staying engaged is a different matter.

The film starts with a voice-over that's uncannily similar to Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a dream” speech, except it's Chavez talking about his own dream of living in a world that treats farm workers with the equality that they deserve, of his firm beliefs in organization, and with spliced interviews of Chavez himself talking about his mission in righting the wrongs that had been oppressing farm laborers for over a 100 years. This montage ends with some religious images, people praying, and Chavez quoting from the Book of Matthew; “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Freeze frame on Chavez; a man who has, in less than three minutes, already been deified. It's clear as day that this is going to be one of those unequivocally subjective documentaries, but that's OK. One just needs to look back at last year and think of Sarah Polley's relentlessly personal "Stories We Tell" to know that subjective documentaries can make for brilliant material. No, there is a different kind of animal that end's up being the bane of this documentary's existence.

The titles tell us about the fast that Chavez undertook in 1988, and we shift gears to NBC's coverage of the story, with Tom Brokaw explaining that Chavez is protesting the use of pesticide. This idea of this pesticide, how much harm it was doing to the surrounding Delano community in California, and its connection to Chavez's mission of uniting against oppression is blurry at best. If Chavez's fast was intended as penance for the failure of not having done enough to bring the facts about pesticide to the public's attention, as his son Paul says, then why is the first person to mention pesticide Tom Brokaw and not Cesar Chavez? It's questions like this, abundant in "Cesar's Last Fast," which put Richard Perez and his intentions on the spot. Luis Valdez is one of the key interviewees here; he's the founder of the Farm Workers Theatre but if you're wondering what that is, don't look to this documentary to give you the answer. Martin Sheen, labeled as actor in the archival footage and later as an “UFW supporter”, is the token celebrity. He is reduced to that because Perez never allows the opportunity for the viewer to understand why Sheen was involved in the first place.

The footage that Perez, together with his collaborator Lorena Parlee, gained access to and show are powerful without question. Moments of solemn intimacy in Cesar's bedroom as he is helped up by family members because he lacks the strength to stand on his own, or footage of the mass which supporters held on every single night of Cesar's fast, serve to strike all the right emotional chords. But the way they are edited, sandwiched between the history of the UFW, Chavez' partner Dolores Huerta talking about the conscious rise of worker's rights within the union, and the overwhelming message from all the interviewees about the struggle and suffering of it all, serve a hidden tactical purpose. The idea here is that if you're not swayed by the testimonials and the raw footage of the protests enough to believe in the cause, then just take a look at how much this one man had to suffer through it all. Look at how many people, Hollywood actor Martin Sheen included, got emotionally enveloped into this one's man's stand for justice. There is a sense of insecurity at work here, and it could come down to a lack of primary source material to work with, but the fact that these interviewees were at the ready only seem to point to opportunities missed.

The point is that if you're going to make a subjective, personal documentary about a man whom you idolize (Perez's father was a farm worker and an example of the kind of people Chavez was speaking up for, and Perez himself was five years year old when he joined a UFW boycott) then make it feel personal. Perez appears content with representing UFW's past strikes and boycotts like a segment from the History Channel, while having the interviewees—relatives, people who worked closely with Chavez—focus on how much good Chavez has done, rather than how he has impacted them. Facts such as “the first time in the history of California that an employer has recognized a union as a bargaining agent for its workers” are accompanied by Gustavo Santaolalla's woebegone strings from "Babel." Cesar's mother is mentioned, and seen as being an extremely important figure in his life, but we are left with almost no insight into who she was. All of these examples, and more, can't help but make one think of a jigsaw puzzle forced together regardless of whether the pieces fit or not.

More than this though, the documentary's structure, minimal sense of conflict, and practically zero surprises that are responsible for the viewer's wan engagement. Think of some of the most fascinating documentaries in recent memory; Joshua Oppenheimer's "Act of Killing" or Bart Layton's "The Imposter," even Polley's 'Stories'; regardless of how objective or subjective they are, how personal the subject matter is to the filmmaker, they are structured around an immediate sense of conflict, plot-twists that prove how much stranger fact can be than fiction, and ambiguous resolutions that leave you with something new to think about. And if you turn around to say that this asking too much from a documentary with a biographical nature, then allow us to turn you around to Bill Siegal's "The Trials Of Muhammad Ali" (review here). Richard Perez should feel extremely grateful and proud to have Cesar Chavez as a role model, and his intentions with this documentary should be applauded but, brutal awkwardness notwithstanding, he's made one ugly baby. [C-]

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