Getting your film accepted into the Sundance Film Festival is quite an honor but doesn’t guarantee it will have life beyond the prestigious fest. Just a few weeks ago, Richard Ray Perez was one of the lucky few who sold his film to a distributor, actually two distributors, ahead of its festival premiere. His documentary Cesar’s Last Fast will air simultaneously in English and Spanish on two networks—Pivot and Univision—later this year.
The film, culled from never-seen-before footage taken by Cesar Chavez’s press secretary, offers an intimate look into the life of the iconic labor leader and United Farm Workers co-founder during a month-long fast back in the eighties. We caught up with Richard Ray Perez to talk about Sundance, how he joined the first UFW grape boycott at five years old, and how he fulfilled a dying woman’s wish by making Cesar’s Last Fast.
Where are you from?
San Fernando, California. A “suburban barrio” 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles.
What city do you call home?
Los Angeles. I live in the Silver Lake District of L.A. and I absolutely love it.
When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
When I was a freshman in college I saw the Luis Buñuel docudrama Los Olvidados. It’s a film about kids in the slums of Mexico City circa 1952. I recall saying to myself, “Hey, that looks like my aunt’s house in Mexico City. Those kids are a lot like the ones I grew up with and that bully is like the bully who lives by the park by my mom’s house.” I realized then, that my life experience was a valid source of narrative material that I could turn into film. Then, during an evocative dream sequence I found myself saying, “I want to do that!” (create scenes like the one I was watching.)
What’s a movie you are embarrassed to admit you really like?
How did you find out your film got accepted to Sundance?
I received an email from John Cooper, the Director of the Sundance Film Festival. I was sitting in the courtyard of a hotel in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where I was attending the Baja International Film Festival for work. I just about to start a meeting when I read the email. I wasn’t sure I read it correctly. I had to read it few times and I still wasn’t sure what it meant, so I read it out loud to the colleague with whom I was about to start the meeting.
When did you first learn about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers?
I was about 5 years old. After I unknowingly joined the first grape boycott he and the United Farm Workers coordinated, organizers from the UFW came to my hometown to organize picket lines in front of the local Safeway supermarket. My father informed my family that we were not to cross that picket line. I soon learned that the picket line was organized by Cesar Chavez.
Can you talk about the never-seen-before footage of Cesar Chavez included in your film and how you acquired it?
During Cesar’s 1988 “Fast for Life,” Cesar’s then press secretary, Lorena Parlee, recruited a volunteer video crew to shoot almost every day Cesar fasted. No one, including Cesar himself, knew for how long he would fast. The footage the crew captured was incredibly powerful. It shows this important historical figure getting weaker and weaker as the days past and the fast progressed. At one point the footage shows Cesar’s family attempting to talk him into ending the fast. But he wasn’t ready. A few days later Cesar’s doctor accompanied by two other physicians try talking him into breaking his fast. Clearly weaker than when his family pleaded with him to end his fast; Cesar still refused. It wasn’t until the 34th day, when Cesar himself felt he couldn’t go on any more, did he concede to the pleas of Jesse Jackson and Cesar’s other confidants that he set a day for breaking his fast. Finally on the 36th day, during a mass attended by 7,000 people including his 96 year-old mother and Ethel Kennedy did Cesar break his fast. During that mass, Cesar was so weak his sons had to carry him into the makeshift church. Then, at a specific moment during the ceremony a priest brought a small loaf of bread to Ethel Kennedy. She carefully broke off a piece and fed Cesar his first bite of food in over a month.
Lorena Parlee had been holding on to this footage and footage she shot of the Chavez family’s private funeral preparations and rosary. She wanted to use it for a documentary she had been working on when she contacted me in 2005. By then she had been working on the film for about 10 years and she had collected 85 hours of Chavez-related footage. At that point she had been struggling to work on the film because she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. When she contacted me, she asked if I would help her finish the film. After she told me she was being treated for breast cancer I was eager to help but I wasn’t available because I had just started a job and I wouldn’t be available for another 6 months. Dismayed, she told me she would contact me if she hadn’t found another collaborator by then. Six months past and I hadn’t heard from Lorena. I assumed she found someone else to work on the film with her. Then in September of 2006 I received a phone call from a man who identified himself as Lorena’s stepfather. He informed me that Lorena had died of breast cancer the previous month and that she had left my name and contact information for him and her mother to contact me to see if I would finish the film she had started.
I read that you struggled to find funding for your film. Do you think a film about a Latino historical figure is more difficult to raise money for versus any other ethnicity?
In general funding for documentary films is difficult to secure. On top of that, Latino documentary filmmakers have a particularly difficult time getting their projects funded whether the projects are historical or contemporary. Traditionally Latino documentarians have relied on funding from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) or Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). I like to refer to those sources of funding as “public assistance” because it’s a slow and bureaucratic process that often requires filmmakers to apply several times. For example, for five years I sought funding from CPB and various PBS sources. Ultimately they only provided 8% of the film’s budget. The reality is that we rely on public funding because historically we have not had relationships with wealthy foundations that support media makers. Nor have we had access to wealthy individuals who support documentary films and we do not have our own philanthropic institutions that can provide major funding for our documentary films. Fortunately the work of a new generation of Latino documentary filmmakers is getting attention at some of the larger, wealthier foundations, so I’m hopeful that we may be less reliant on public assistance.
What do you hope to achieve with your film? What sort of impact do you think it will have?
I’d like to introduce Cesar Chavez’s story and work to a new generation of Americans and low-wage immigrant workers who arrived to the U.S. after Cesar’s death. Both of these populations don’t know specifically what Cesar did, how against seemingly impossible odds he organized and led a movement of our country’s poorest, least educated workers and successfully fought for their humane treatment and just wages. By extension, I hope this film inspires today’s young leaders and empowers communities by providing an example of a social justice movement that successfully challenged powerful business interests. I also want to call attention to the reality that there’s a new generation of farm workers whose living and working conditions are not much better than they were when Cesar started organizing agricultural workers in 1962.