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Case Study: Changing the World, One Documentary at a Time

By Gary Weimberg

On September 10, 1999 Dylcia Pagan walked out of her prison cell in the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California. Her incarceration as a political prisoner in the United States was over. She had served 19 years of her 55 year sentence. She had been set free by an act of Executive Clemency from then President Bill Clinton.

The documentary The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez that we had made about her, her son Ernesto, her years as a political prisoner, and her political struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico, had aired on the PBS series P.O.V just 8 weeks before.

For over 6 years my wife, Catherine Ryan and myself and worked on this documentary as part of an international grassroots campaign to achieve this very thing: freedom for Dylcia and 11 other Puerto Rican nationalists who were serving lengthy prison terms for their political belief in the independence of Puerto Rico.

I have never had a more profoundly emotional and beautiful moment in my life than there outside the prison, when Dylcia took her first free steps and was finally reunited with her son in freedom. Then we all drove off to the airport together, to go to Puerto Rico to begin her new life.

Arriving in Puerto Rico, 10,000 cheering people greeted her at the airport.

The experience was unforgettable, seared into my memory, and it remains to this day a high point of my life and of my lifelong commitment to activism and media. We had begun this work with hope, but without a real expectation of victory. We had begun as a matter of principle, to fight the good fight: for the rights of political prisoners, for the rights of prisoners victimized by injustice in general, for the principle of self-determination of peoples, causes so noble and worthwhile that we never believed with certainty that we would achieve a victory.

That it came to be makes it all the more worthwhile to look at the reasons why.

How it began

In the early 1980's a small group of us worked together to make a series of documentaries about El Salvador in opposition to the US funded war there. We tried many different styles and techniques in a search to be effective, from "objective journalist" to "strident advocate."

The most effective of these was Maria's Story, a personal biography of a peasant woman, mother, leader, and revolutionary, broadcast on P.O.V in 1992. What worked so well was the program's specificity: one woman's life story. Inside of her life, we could explore the truth of the general injustice of the situation of El Salvador. Viewers might disagree with Maria, but they couldn't disagree with the reality of her life.

The second and even more important reason for the effective nature of Maria's Story is that we made it in conjunction with CISPES (Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). The grassroots usefulness of the project was tested and reviewed at screenings and fundraisers from day one. The documentary was not made by us as outsiders, nor advanced as a "top down" solution. It was made hand in hand with the people doing the work, who knew what was needed, who held work-in-progress screenings at countless political events and fielded the questions and the praise, and who never failed to be passionate about the importance of the documentary we were producing.

That became our road map for our other political film work and as that work continued, eventually in 1994, we met Dylcia's son, Ernesto Gomez-Gomez.

Ernesto was 15 years old when we met. As a child he had been raised under another identity in Mexico because Dylcia wanted to protect him from political harassment. In Mexico, when he turned 10, his Mexican family finally told him the truth: that he was adopted, that his mother was in prison in the United States. So at age 15, he had come to the US to live in San Francisco, near to the prison where his mother was being held, to visit her and to build a mother-son relationship.

His guardian was a dedicated woman, a Puerto Rican nationalist and activist. She moved to San Francisco just to be his guardian and it was she who realized how lonely he was. At that time Ernesto did not speak English and he found no one in his high school who could relate to the issues of his life, or of the lives of political prisoners.

Because of our past work, his guardian suggested that we take him out to a meal and a movie. We got along immediately. He borrowed a copy of Maria's Story to watch. The next day he came by and asked, "Could we make a movie that would help free my mom from prison?"

And so it began.

The grassroots plan

We were 4 months into it when Ernesto told us he was invited to go to a conference in Puerto Rico on the nationalist political prisoners and asked if we wanted to come. We did and got introduced to some brilliant activists (Jan Sussler, Luis Nieves Falcon, and others) who had a plan.

In 1992, shortly after Clinton was elected for his first term, these activists anticipated that Clinton would win a second term and so in 7 years time, at the end of the 2nd term, he would be a lame duck President with nothing to lose. That was the optimum moment, they reasoned, to achieve for executive clemency for the Puerto Rican political prisoners. They began an international campaign, planned to culminate in 7 years, to create the strongest possible petitions for clemency, and with petitions and demonstrations and the written support of Nobel Peace Prize winners from around the world, convince the President of the injustice of the lengthy prison sentences.

Two years later, 1994, we show up with Ernesto and our still-unformed documentary and they immediately promoted us to be the media wing of the campaign. Our goal and theirs would share a strategic vision and timeline, planned to coincide with 1999.

The use of the video by the movement

It took 5 years to complete the documentary, but through out the entire time, just as we had with Maria's Story, we used clips and fundraising reels at events. Portions of The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez were shown at nearly 100 events and helped to raise thousands of dollars for the movement. We never refused an activist request to show the video, in fact we never even wanted to refuse. Those screenings became our psychic re-charger when faced with the often dismal reality of political film making.

In return, the movement came to our aid when we were challenged by James Yee Executive Director of ITVS to prove that there would be national interest in a Puerto Rican issue. With in a few weeks the movement was able to generate a couple hundred letters from people around the country who had seen portions of the video and could testify to what it meant to them.

We also promised ourselves and others never to raise money for the video that would take away support for the movement. Video is so expensive that we were concerned it would become a drag on the direct organizing needs. So we tried to use the video as a tool to create new support, new dollars. In the end, I can only wish we were more successful in this regard. The truth is that we raised a limited amount of money and mostly supported the project ourselves, around other jobs. But in an era of inexpensive camcorders and home computer editing systems, everything is possible.

Another important benefit of this true and active collaboration was that whenever the valid question came up of "who are these white people?" we were never compelled to defend ourselves. Puerto Rican activists with years in the movement could speak of the real collaboration that was occurring. We ourselves have always been sensitive to the issue of cultural imperialism, the story of Puerto Rican nationalism is not ours to tell. It was incumbent on us to demonstrate that we could be faithful to other people's story, and contribute by helping them to tell their own story for themselves.

In a small way, this collaboration was wonderfully illustrated in the final translation/voice over session, where people from California, New York, Illinois, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, El Salvador all worked and argued together over the correct way to translate the English in the video into a trans-national Spanish.

The results

Most amazing of all, was that it worked.

The timeline, the strategy, and the response was exactly as those brilliant activists had planned 7 years before. The additional component of a national broadcast of The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez in the P.O.V series on PBS was helpful both inside the movement, gearing up for the final push; and also it was helpful in discussions with the White House Chief Counsel, Charles Ruff who watched it the week before he made his recommendation for clemency.

Besides the broadcast, the documentary won a number of film festival awards: Best Documentary at the Big Muddy Film Festival, Best Documentary at the San Antonio Cine Festival, Grand Jury Prize (for best film overall) at the Image (Atlanta) Film & Video Festival, Documentary Competition Winner at the Athens International Film & Video Festival, Award of Merit from LASA 2000 (Latin American Studies Association), and a nomination from the Director's Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary, 1999. The film was screened at the Berlin Film Festival and 21 others.

The lessons

For political activists and advocacy film makers, these then are the things I come away with as lessons:

  1. Don't focus on the issue. Focus on a person.
    It is the individual human experience (or small group) that illustrates the truth of larger societal issues. But our human compassion and understanding is best reached by the stories of people, not by generalizations. If your issue is real, find the human face that exemplifies it.
  2. Collaborate actively with existing grass roots organizations.
    Don't go it alone, don't think you know it all, don't re-invent the wheel. Someone out there is already doing what you think needs to be done.
  3. Have a strategic goal.
    Don't just shoot. Think about what it is you wish to accomplish, or find others who have already thought about it. Make every minute, every dollar, every effort count.
  4. Small is beautiful.
    Don't get caught up in expensive gear / crew / production. Don't get caught up in endless fundraising. Embrace your limitations, start shooting and create your path one step at time.
  5. Si se puede!
    Most importantly of all, the lesson of The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez-Gomez is simply this: si se puede. Yes it can be done.