Although it had taken the family of César Chávez a few long years to release the late civil rights leader’s story to a filmmaker they felt could capture it correctly, it didn’t take much time for Diego Luna to convince them that he was the right man for the job.
“I was honest,” Luna told me during an interview in San Antonio on March 12 to promote his new film “César Chávez.” “Instead of me coming in and telling them what film needed to be done, I came in asking questions. I think [they said yes] because I made [the family] part of the whole process until it was time to say, ‘OK, let’s go make this film!’”
I sat down with Luna, who had just screened the film for the first time in North America at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin a couple days prior, to talk about what he hopes “César Chávez” conveys to audiences and why so many people already love his film even before they’ve had a chance to see it.
What resonated with you about César Chávez’s story that led you to making a film about his life?
I was very interested in doing this film because it sends the right message to young people in this country today that don’t know who César Chávez was and who don’t know what [the United Farm Workers union] accomplished back then. I don’t think we as a community have been so well organized since then. This film reminds us of the power of being united. We have strength if we raise our voices at the same time.
Do you want this film to be a sort of teaching tool for a younger generation that really isn’t connected to this narrative?
The Latino community has to make sure they find those things that connect us. Change is in our hands. I believe film has the power to trigger curiosity and raise awareness about topics that matter. Today, farmworkers in this country need our support. This is a country that keeps forgetting about them. There is still a big chunk of that community fighting for basic human rights and for dignity and for recognition.
You know, my feeling is that young people can’t afford to forget the legacy of César Chávez and the achievement of this movement. I am one of those people learning the story now. I want to share that. I have no agenda behind this film. I started from zero. That’s why this has taken four years of my life. The process was tough. I made a film that lasted four hours and I had to make a 1 hour and 40 minute film out of that. Making the choices of what not to tell was painful. It’s impossible to make a one hour and 40 minute film…on the life of someone and the complexity behind the movement, but if we trigger the curiosity in people to go out after the film and find out more about who these people were, what they achieved, how they achieved it and how that can be applied today, then we did good.
The editing process seems like it would be the most daunting part of making this film. There is just so much information out there on Chávez, but you can’t include it all. How did you make those difficult decisions on what to cut out?
I always had to remind myself that this story had to work in places like Germany and Japan. Storytelling is about reaching everyone. This was a story about a father and a son and the sacrifice a father has to make to bring something better for his children. That’s the part that connects with me. I think that makes the film universal. Before all the specific details history tells you, when you sit down in a cinema, you want to connect emotionally with the characters. That to me was the main goal. There are many characters I don’t get to celebrate in the film. There are many names and events I don’t get to say or had to compress.
Someone could probably make an entire film on Dolores Huerta alone.
There should be a film about Dolores! For example, César Chávez wasn’t driving on a highway when he found out Robert Kennedy died, but for the story, I had to put him alone and put him in that moment so he could acknowledge that his great friend and ally was gone. If I would have told that story in a documentary, it would’ve happened in many stages. I would have had to compress it. I had to take many licenses like that. That’s why when you do a narrative film like [“César Chávez”], you have to mention who directed it because it’s from the point of view of that person.
And you have to have someone to blame if it doesn’t work.
Yeah, that’s why I’ve lost so much hair during this process! I’ve aged like 10 years in the last two! This is as personal as a film can get.
Personal for a lot of people, I think, not just you and the family. I mean, there are thousands of Chávez supporters out there making sure that his name is not forgotten. They’ve been waiting for this film for a long time.
This film matters to so many people already. People are already celebrating the existence of the film. Now, they are going to get to watch it. I find support everywhere I go. I find people saying, “I’m glad you’re drawing attention to the issues that matter to us.” A lot of them have a connection to the movement and a connection to farmworkers. I hope the film reminds everyone in this country that we all have a connection to farmworkers. They feed us. We should be connected to those that are feeding us. The food doesn’t magically appear in stores. For those vegetables to get in the stores, there is the work of many. We need to make sure we recognize their work and are affected by their stories.
You’ve worked with some great directors in the past. A few weeks ago, we saw your ‘Yu tu mamá tambien’ director Alfonso Cuarón become the first Latino filmmaker in the history of cinema to win an Oscar. You’ve also worked with Gus Van Sant (‘Milk’), Steven Spielberg (‘The Terminal’), and Kevin Costner (‘Open Range’), just to name a few. As a director, what do you take from those experiences? Do you borrow anything from them to create your own style or do you start from a clean slate?
It’s easier to find what director you don’t want to become. I’ve worked with many who have showed me what not to do. I’ve [taken] things from everyone. I always blame Alfonso Cuarón a lot for [leading me to directing] because he came in during a very important time in my life. He changed the perception I had for how far film could take me. I was more of a theater person because I come from a country that had very limited options for filmmaking. Film did not connect to people [in Mexico]. In the 40s and 50s we had a huge industry, but during the time I was around in the 90s, film was a little niche. Suddenly, with ‘Y tu mamá tambien,’ I saw how far film could take me and how far I could go telling my own stories. For [‘César Chávez’], I thought so much about Gus Van Sant. [‘Milk’] and [‘César Chávez’] talk about the same period of time. Both have the same vibe of social change and how personal stories can change your perception about the reality you live in. You think everything is going well, but then you talk to someone and that might change the way you see things. That’s the power of film. When ‘Milk’ came out [in 2008], there was Proposition 8. I remember actual demonstrations happening outside premieres of the film. That’s the kind of connection film can have with the world you live in. It’s an amazing feeling.