Where Are the Maya? The Making of the Documentary

By Al Giordano

As Jill Freidberg, dean of the documentary filmmaking department at the 2010 Narco News School of Authentic Journalism mentions below, there was some understandable skepticism before February’s boot camp, er, session started that a group of people from different lands and languages, most of whom had not worked together before, could produce a meaningful documentary film in just ten or eleven days.

I just smiled, with the knowledge that we’d already done it before, in Bolivia back in 2004, when the j-school documentary team planned, shot and produced Chew on This: For Us, Coca Is Life, in just ten days. It is a work that, six years later, not only withstands the test of time, but also added its grain of sand to push big changes in Bolivia. (Evo Morales, for example, went from union leader, member of Congress and then-professor of the School of Authentic Journalism – where he was also a volunteer advisor to our film - to becoming president of his country 18 months later, and reversed the government policies that oppressed the subjects of that film.)

That 2004 ten-day documentary was a little over ten minutes long, and we put it on the Internet before YouTube existed. Then Narco News webmaster Dan Feder created an entire online platform for it, from raw Internet code. It filled me with enough faith in our students and professors, and enough pride in the horizontal work model of the j-school, to never doubt for a moment that the 2010 documentary filmmaking group would be able to meet and exceed the standards set by that pioneering video.

At 15:34 seconds, Where Are the Maya? will, in the same spirit, put a struggle ignored by the national and international media on a somewhat bigger stage (and DVD copies of it will also be delivered, as before, to the local people and organizations whose voices, faces, words and homes are seen in it, so that they may use it as an organizing tool in their struggles).

It was a gargantuan task, and it meets every standard that I consider to mark excellence. I asked team leader and cutting-edge documentary filmmaker Jill Irene Freidberg to pen a few words about the process by which the film you see, above, was made. Jill writes:

"When Al asked me to join the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism to ‘lead’ the documentary team as a ‘professor,’ I balked. Knowing how to make a documentary is one thing; teaching others how to make a documentary is something else altogether. But Greg Berger assured me that there would be a lot of overlap, at this j-school, between ‘professor’ and ‘student.’

“He was right. And that’s why we were able to make a movie.

“There were ‘students,’ like Edwin Reed-Sanchez, Marine Lormant Sebag, and Amanda Huerta Morán, who already had plenty of video production under their belts before j-school started; ‘students’ like Edwin Alvarez, who had never made a documentary, but who contributed a wealth of experience in leadership and community organizing; a ‘student” like Ter García who came to j-school with very little hands on video experience, but after years of daily newspaper reporting in Spain sure knew how to pull a story together. There were also ‘professors’ like Quetzal Belmont, Andrew Stelzer and Vanessa Ortíz who brought yet other skills and talents (from investigative reporting, interviewing, audio to extensive knowledge of community organizing dynamics) and hard work to the team.

“J-school took place in three different locations, across the Yucatan Peninsula, over the course of eleven short days. Making a documentary, in less than two weeks, in three locations, in two languages, is not an easy task. Early on, a consensus emerged that we wanted to focus our lens on the contrast between tourism and the reality of the people who live and work in the shadow of tourism. But with so little knowledge about the region, its history and context, narrowing the scope of our focus seemed like a daunting task. It was French journalist in Mexico Anne Vigna who, over beer and cigarettes, on the ‘smoking bus’ from Puerto Morelos to Merida, pointed us in the right direction with a wealth of contacts and suggestions, putting us in touch with the courageous people of Colonia Maracuyá and the folks at the Tzolk’in Center for Culture and Ecology."

Everyone should know that I - as the School's director - didn’t always make it easy for the documentary film group at the 2010 j-school. They wanted, needed and kept pushing and organizing for more time to work on it. I insisted that they could use the three or four hours a day of "free time," usually in the afternoons, and plus the hour or two of daylight at dawn, but that everybody still had to attend the four hours of morning plenary sessions and the nighttime plenaries and events as well (half the afternoons were devoted to work groups – a total of 24 hours in all out of an original 27 planned).

Members of the documentary filmmaking workshop at the 2010 School of Authentic Journalism, left to right: Andrew Stelzer, Quetzal Belmont, Marine Lormant, Edwin Reed-Sanchez, editing video through the night in team leader Jill Freidberg's hotel room-turned-work studio in Playa del Carmen. Photo DR 2010 Jill Freidberg.

As Jill mentions, they had some good local support, from the authentic journalists in the state's biggest newspaper, Por Esto!, its publisher Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, its state editor Renán Castro Madera, and its Playa del Carmen bureau chief Manuel Chuc. Our old friends who we filmed back in 2006 with the Other Journalism with Other Campaign from the Tzol'kin Center for Culture and Ecology and other organizations did yeoman's work introducing the documentary film team to the local people in struggle. Anne Vigna, Natalia Viana and other members of the 2010 School's investigative journalism group did everything the documentary group asked of them, too. When the documentary group needed a van to go filming in Cancún, Mercedes Osuna (who has a special message for Narco News readers today) took the wheel. This team goes down in the j-school annals as 11 on a scale of 10.

To have watched, nursing my first coffee, Quetzal Belmont, Marine Lormant and Ter García marching out of our Playa del Carmen campus at six a.m. one morning, having recruited Mercedes Osuna as their early morning driver, to film a construction site (“we’re architecture students,” the authentic journalists pleaded with the site foreman, “can we film you doing your work?” - they had him at "we"), tripods and cameras in hand, filled with pep and vigor, hope and pride in their work, and new lifelong friendships, was a memorable first-of-the-day moment that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Nor their beaming smiles when they returned at 9 a.m. with the footage they had gone hunting to get, and the stories of how they got it.

The documentary film group didn’t stop when the School “ended” on February 13, either. Jill, Ter, Marine, Edwin Reed-Sanchez and Quetzal, along with Narco News' Spanish language editor Fernando León Romero, turned my apartment, “somewhere in América,” into a video editing studio for two weeks after the school, and I did my best to stay out of their way and just keep them in food and, a good number of them, in cigarettes. One night I came home to find the walls of my house covered with notes on pieces of paper, images, and notes atop those notes, like a Criminal Minds TV show war room. They also took over my House M.D. white board for the script timeline. Ter returned to the Yucatán peninsula to get more source materials as did Quetzal to film a few more shots of B-roll. After that, collaborating with each other long distance, they handed the draft edit, script and materials off to Jill - la maestra - to put on the finishing touches, and each and every one of them, I’m certain, knows that this documentary film happened through their creativity and labor, and is theirs as well as it belongs to the good people they interviewed in it.

I couldn’t be happier with the result. Really. You could knock me over with a feather. May the question this documentary poses go “viral” (and auténticos, you know what to do, embed this in your social media feisbuk pages, tweets, blogs and email lists):

Where Are the Maya? Where are they in the tourist Meccas of Cancún and Playa del Carmen that, day in, day out, exploit the name and the descendants of that beautiful historic peninsula whose indigenous peoples, monuments and cultures have awed the world time and time again, to be left in the dirt, to fend for themselves against greedy men, companies and governments of brutal, violent Power.

This is a documentary about a situation that cries out for justice and correction, a documentary that emboldens and comforts the inflicted to organize for it, and that inflicts the comfortable who stand in the way of that justice being made. And as another blessed consequence, I'm sure you’ll be hearing more from the members of the documentary filmmaking group of the 2010 J-School, almost all of whom will be invited back, if we’re able to do the School again in 2011, as “professors,” as Jill (excellent job, and a salute, comandanta) likes to put in quotes.


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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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