5 Questions With Unflinching Documentary Director Bernardo Ruiz

Bernardo Ruiz is an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker who has dedicated his career to exploring issues pertinent to the Latino community both aquí and allá. His work has ranged from public television docs about Roberto Clemente and undocumented high-school students, to his theatrical feature Reportero, which takes an incisive look into narco-violence south of the border through the eyes of the Mexican journalists who risk their lives to cover it.

His latest feature, Kingdom of Shadows, takes on the U.S. war on drugs and its repercussions on both sides of the border, and will have its world premiere this March at SXSW before beginning its international festival run.

Despite being knee-deep in post-production in the lead up to the film’s premiere, Ruiz took the time to talk about falling in love with Super 8, what makes a “Latino” film, and how everyone sounds the same on public radio.

When did you decide to pursue filmmaking?

I lived in Mexico until I was almost 7 years old. I had a godfather there who would come over to our apartment and set up an 8mm projector on the dining room table. He would spool 8mm reels onto the projector that he had shot for his son, who was living in the United States, and project them onto the wall. My padrino was worried that his son would forget about Mexico, forget about his father’s country, so he would make these personal mini-documentaries or travelogues to send to him. He would test them out on me before sending them stateside. These short works would involve verité, constructed sequences, or even little music video sequences. Frequently, they would feature his own audio narration, in which he would explain what was happening, but in his own idiosyncratic way… We didn’t have a television then, so when I saw the projected images, and even better still, saw how my godfather could control time by reversing the direction of the reels, I was intrigued. I knew I wanted to do that. I didn’t know what it was, but I wanted to do that.

Why have you tended toward documentary rather than narrative?

“I like what is happening in radio and audio documentary, although it is very, very white.”

I’ve always been drawn to reporting and journalism, and in particular journalism about Mexico and Latin America. I got involved in student papers and the like in high school and later I briefly worked as the Associate Editor of NACLA in the late 90s. But I also had a passion for moviemaking. I started working in film and television production early on as a PA (at about 18 or so) but I always felt like the commercial stuff wasn’t especially original. It wasn’t really until I saw Sherman’s March and Batalla de Chile (all in my very early 20s) that I realized documentary could be many things, deep-dive journalism, a kind of personal essay, or most excitingly a combination of the personal combined with the political — basically a conversation with the world involving, history, politics and people.

For the past 15 years I have made my life in documentary – in and around public television, and through two theatrical documentaries, (Reportero and Kingdom of Shadows). I have also made some pretty sensationalistic cable programming to pay my student loans. Thankfully, I can focus on my own filmmaking know.

Right now, I would say that independent documentary is much more exciting creatively, much more original than the majority of independent fiction filmmaking in the U.S. (How many times can we see indie boy meets indie girl… but with a twist!) I do think, however, that independent film in Mexico and Latin America is another story – there is some really exciting work happening there. But I prefer documentary in all of its forms, I love the combination of rigor and improvisation that it requires. Like life, you can prepare all you want, and then something you have no control over happens.

How do you see the situation for Latino filmmakers in the U.S.?

“Right now, independent documentary is much more exciting creatively than fiction filmmaking in the U.S.”

I think there is an obvious poverty of representation when it comes to U.S. Latinos in media, film, television… Part of this certainly has to do with the fact that we are such a diverse ‘group’ (how to categorize? country of origin, phenotype, social class, language, etc..) But part of it clearly has to do with a blindness on the part of cultural gatekeepers who are ignorant of Latinos, often willfully so.

Making things worse, is the phenomenon of programmers, journalists, and others who throw around the term “Latino” without any seeming consistency or any kind of thoughtfulness. For instance, if an Israeli filmmaker makes a film about the U.S.-Mexico border or about Latinos, say, many cultural gatekeepers will say that it is a ‘Latino’ film – simply because of the theme. Well, by that logic, if I were to make a film about Israel, I would be an Israeli filmmaker.

Perhaps because there aren’t enough works by Latino/a makers at festivals, programmers, bloggers, and even journalists who know better, rush to fill the ‘Latino’ slot, even though by doing so they render the category of ‘Latino’ utterly meaningless.

Which film has most inspired you and why?

I like to read long form journalism or journalism where reporters implicate themselves in the material, not pretending to be an invisible eyeball. I read, like and admire journalists like Diego Enrique Osorno, Alfredo Corchado, Alma Guillermoprieto, Francisco Goldman, and Jon Lee Anderson. I like Ioan Grillo’s unvarnished reporting on Mexico.

Bernardo Ruiz
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In media, I like what is happening in radio and audio documentary, although it is very, very white. Public radio, like public television is drawing from a narrow bench — it remains — for whatever reason an enclave populated by young white producers who want to sound like Ira Glass. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely admire and listen to Sr. Glass. But we are missing out on a world (or worlds) of stories by having such seemingly similar (certainly similar sounding) types of radio storytellers. I have no doubt that a new, multiracial, multilingual crop of makers will emerge, innovating the form, changing it from what we know today.

It is such a different experience watching films now that I do most of it through a streaming service or on a laptop. I don’t know anymore. I would love to see a big, exciting multi-part documentary series that had the arcs of what we are seeing in narrative TV. Not with the coked up and distracted aesthetics of reality, but something where a story could really play out over time, on a big stage. Not some verité purists idea of documentary either, it could be interpretive, even constructed at times. That would be exciting.

One film you’ve always wanted to make but haven’t been able to?

I don’t know. I’ll let you know when they try to stop me from making it.