Greg Berger makes short films about political issues with a humorous twist. This one is about fracking in Mexico, pun intended.
Greg “Gringoyo” Berger has the rare talent of making serious political issues seem funny. Imagine if Jon Stewart moved to Mexico, that’s Greg. A Jewish New Yorker, political activist, and filmmaker who headed down south in the nineties to cover the Zapatista uprising. He kept going back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico making documentaries and trying to change the world. Eventually, he stayed in Mexico and his films started to transform. It turns out humorous films about serious subjects get people to pay attention. That’s what he’s been doing ever since.
Frack U. Mexico is his newest short film. It just went up on YouTube last week and already has close to 50,000 hits. Motivated by recent legal changes in Mexico that allows foreign investment in the oil industry Berger made an instructional video of sorts. Dressed up like a Texas oil tycoon and laying on a heavy gringo accent with a pretty lady wearing a stars and stripes bikini by his side Gringoyo took to the streets of Mexico City to warn everyday citizens about the dangers of fracking (yes, we know exactly what word that sounds like.)
We caught up with Berger to talk about his newest film, how he wants to avoid the U.S. from fracking the hell out of Mexico, and what it was like to blow up Emiliano Zapata’s grave.
Can you explain your connection to Mexico and how you ended up living there?
Why do I live in Mexico? That’s obvious. Have you tried the tacos al pastor in New York? If there’s anything we New York Jews like, it’s a good pork taco. So I live in Mexico. No hay de otra. That, and because I’ve been covering Mexico’s amazing social movements for fifteen years, just after the rise of the Zapatista movement in the 90s. Also because my son was born in Mexico and he can tell you that Mexican sushi is the best sushi on Earth. Nothing tastes like camarones in chipotle sauce deep fried in seaweed.
Who is Gringoyo?
The clueless gringo who has appeared in all of my political comedies is played by my alter-ego, Gringoyo. Sometimes Gringoyo is a drifting trust fund hippie who follows social movements for the free food. Sometimes he’s a greedy businessman, or a clueless gringo foreign correspondent in Mexico. The name Gringoyo is a compound word: “Goyo” is short for Gregorio en mexicano, and gringo, is well, you get it.
Is your Spanish really as bad as it is in the video?
¡Yo ser súper chingon español hablar! Haha. If you really want to know the answer to that question, give me a buzz next time you are in Mexico City, and I’ll invite you out for some chelas and conversation.
Why did you stop making “serious” documentaries and start making funny ones?
Because boring videos can’t change the world. Fun videos get you up and out the door, and into the street to start organizing. That’s where it’s at.
What motivated you to make this specific film? Is there any awareness in Mexico about fracking?
The Mexican government just changed their constitution to allow private and foreign companies to get involved in the oil and gas industry. In September I read an article written by the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza (who has worked extensively with the Texas oil and gas industry) talking about how the coming changes in the constitution would lead to a fracking “revolution” in Mexico. And as I researched further it dawned on me that what was driving changes in Mexican energy policy was a desire from U.S. companies to come in and frack the hell out of Mexico. And no one in Mexico was talking about it. And experience has taught me that the way to start a conversation in Mexico about a serious and difficult issue is to become a jackass gringo pendejo and do silly stuff in the street.
Can you explain your collaboration with Narco News?
Narco News is an online newspaper that has been reporting on the Drug War and social movements in Mexico and Latin America for over ten years, founded by my friend and colleague Al Giordano. I run the video channel of the project, called Narco News TV. Al and another Narco News collaborator, the well known labor and community organizer Oscar Olivera from Bolivia, were the ones who finally convinced me that my comedies were better journalism than my serious documentaries. (Don’t ask me what that says about the quality of the serious documentaries I used to make!) One of the most important projects of Narco News is the School of Authentic Journalism, where we teach organizers and journalists how to make effective media about social movements.
How did people react when you were walking around Mexico City dressed as Joe T. Hodo alongside a woman in a stars and stripes bikini?
Well, it’s not as strange as you think. Imagine the Star Wars cantina with 25 million people in it. That’s Mexico City. That’s why I love it, because it’s a very welcoming place for genre rara like me. Actually, what’s really great is that people could tell what it was about straight off the bat…a gringo playing another gringo, and they willingly entered the fantasy world when they step in front of the camera. And people knew that the woman playing Miss Houston was a smart woman playing an outdated stereotype, and they got into that too, and showed her respect.
How did you get permission to shoot at the Mexican National Congress?
Are you kidding? The United States gas and oil industry owns the Mexican congress! That, and a few other secrets that I can’t reveal or you’d have to kill me.
Any funny stories from the shoot?
In the final scene, when we literally set Emiliano Zapata’s grave on fire on Día de Muertos, the local police were there, about three of them, eating potato chips and looking at us with an empty stare. They didn’t do anything. Then they started to harass a couple of kids with baggy pants who walked by and we were like, “Oh, glad to know the cops have their priorities straight.” We told the cops that the kids were with us and they backed off. I guess dressing like a young person is a crime but setting Zapata’s grave on fire is acceptable. Seriously though, we created that scene with some of the descendents of the 1910 Zapatista rebellion, which was an honor, and no Emiliano Zapatas, living or dead, were harmed in the making of the film.
After watching this video, what can people do to help the cause?
Get organized to stop fracking. From New Brunswick, Canada, to Rumania, people are halting powerful interests from the gas industry. It’s hard work, but it can be fun too.
You have an interesting distribution model to get your films out there. Can you talk about how you work with the pirate DVD sellers in Mexico?
As long as people use our original title and credit us appropriately, DVD pirates are welcome partners. So we give our DVDs away and they multiply like rabbits through Mexico’s pirate DVD network!
The School of Authentic Journalism, a project of Narco News, is currently accepting applications for a four-day intensive workshop on making effective media about social movements.