Fruits of Labor follows Ashley, a high school student in an agricultural town on the central coast of California, who faces the burden of being the family breadwinner, as well as the threat of separation from her undocumented mother as ICE raids increase. Fruits of Labor is having its international premiere at Hot Docs this year, the project pitched at Hot Docs Deal Maker in 2020.
Hot Docs spoke with director Emily Cohen Ibañez about what it was like to write and collaborate with her protagonist, the history of making films about farm labour in the US, and the importance of working with a predominantly WOC film crew on this project.
Hot Docs: How did you meet your protagonist Ashley and what compelled you to want to make a film about her and her family?
Emily Cohen Ibañez: Ashley is very special young woman. I met her when she was 15 and she was doing an arts development project. I was teaching visual sociology with college students and wanted to collaborate with local youth who were from farm-working families to make a video collective. It was a great success and we had eight college students, and a group of 12 youth, make a really beautiful short film about their community garden. Ashley was one of these ten people and she really stood out. She was quiet and shy but was really coming into her own, an extremely intelligent and engaged young woman. I just connected with her and developed a relationship with her and her family over two years before I even started making the film with them. Then I noticed, post-2016, an uptick in ICE raids had resulted in all the young people from the community that were part of this video collective now working in the agricultural fields and replacing undocumented adults. While children have always worked in the fields in this particular town, I saw a marked increase.
I realized we were not hearing stories, in the mainstream media, about this major labor gap and who was filling that gap. Agricultural labor in the US has long been excluded from normal worker protections: you can be as young as 12 years old and working a 40-hour work week in the fields in the US. It's a vestige of slavery that black and brown people have generally done, both domestic labor and agricultural field work. FDR’s New Deal in the 30s, in order to please southern democrats, wanted originally to exclude people by race from worker protection. But they couldn’t to do that so, as a compromise, FDR excluded agricultural labor and domestic labor from worker protection, and that’s still the case today.
I approached Ashley about making a piece and she was into it. At first, we made a short film and did a Seed&Spark crowdfunding campaign and the short was on The Guardian. But there were so many layers to this young woman and we just don't get coming of age stories about young working women and women of color. There were moments where I wanted to give up on it just because it was a struggle to find funding, but then the funding started to come in. We participated in Hot Docs Deal Maker as well and are super exciting the film will be at Hot Docs. But, long story short, Ashley and I have a really deep relationship that developed very organically.
HD: You credit Ashley as a co-writer in the film. Can you talk about that collaboration and why it was important for you to bring your protagonist onto the creative team?
ECI: I know every film is different, but for this film it really made sense to bring Ashley in. There is a long verité tradition, if you look at the films of Jean Rouch in the 1960s, of collaboration with people who are in front of the lens with those who are behind the lens. So, for me, the verité tradition is one of collaboration and acknowledgment, different from direct cinema or observational film. For me, it was important that I get Ashley’s perspective, and I needed to work very closely with her on developing that. And as a young person coming into her own, these experiences can be really traumatic: having to basically be the breadwinner of the family, all the things that come with the form of labor she's doing, the discrimination and so forth. So, I think that writing can be very helpful in processing trauma and also gave her some agency over the story being told.
It was a really wonderful process, not only for the political reasons and the more we talk about the importance of authorship and representation, but also as a fascinating experiment in filmmaking. We did what I would call artistic retreats, week-long sessions of going over scenes, I might provide prompts and she would go away, write and come back. We would write poetic prose that would go with the film and follow the story arc.
We worked with an actor, Cristel Gonzalez, from Theatre Campensino, who did some voice training with us to help also in the narration. Theatre Campesino was a theater group that started in the 1960s during the Delano grape strike. So, the United Farm Workers is a group, which included César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, that were fighting for the rights of farmworkers. Theatre Campesino went along with these protests and strikes and would do theatre on the streets and did this sketch called “Patron, Patroncito” or “Big boss, little boss.” A lot of the foremen in the agricultural fields were oftentimes farm workers themselves. The growers on the top were generally white and making enormous profits from this industry. So, the sketch made these men think: do you aim to be a “little boss” with no real power or do you aim to align yourself with worker's rights? The theater has evolved and they’ve produced big plays and Hollywood films. Writing and narration was just one explicit acknowledgment that we knew we were collaborating to make a story together.
HD: You had an all POC film team, and a crew that predominantly identifies it as Latinx or Latin American. Why was this representation important to you and what role do you think it plays in the final film?
ECI: From the very beginning I knew I wanted a primarily women of color team. I think it’s newer now that people want to have diverse film crews, but they think the talent somehow isn’t there, and I know that’s impossible. I met my collaborators for my first film, Gabriella Garcia-Pardo and Kristina Motwani, through a Brown Girls Doc Mafia event at True/False. Along with Aurora Guerrero who I brought on as an EP because I've known her for quite some time. But I wanted to work with other women of color and it was totally possible to do, and showcase the craft and talent that we have, rather than always being excluded or tokenized in roles that don’t allow for much creative control.
It was also part of my own healing. I've done a lot of work both as an anthropologist and as a filmmaker on issues of war and in really male dominant environments. It was a choice for me to shift to working with women. It was a very healing process for me with this film because I think it contributed to the great success of the project. Life happens during the making of films and thank god that when it was I was talking to other women. I think our perspectives are highly collaborative and I feel like this project facilitated that. I think you’ll see in the film that all aspects of the craft are really solid. Everybody that's on the team are all people to watch out for.
HD: The animated vignettes in the film of the fruit and the insects interspersed are also really beautiful. Can you talk about the role they play in the storytelling?
ECI: Absolutely. I felt like Ashley and her mom’s worldview was just apt for this kind of lyricism and metaphor. There are actually wonderful, fantastic films about farm labor coming out of California and the US, and around the political activism of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. But I hadn't seen a film that was both a coming of age film and allowed for the poetics and worldview of someone who is a farm worker. I wanted to go into more interior spaces and I think that metaphor and poetry allow for that.
The food system in the US and globally has largely become very mechanical, seeing the food as commodities and the workers themselves is replaceable. But there's another way of understanding food and I wanted to capture Ashley's wonderment in nature and I wanted to invite the viewer into another type of relationships to food and land. So, these visual images parallel Ashley's coming of age, but also invite a kind of wonderment in the natural world.
HD: Can you talk a little bit about how you financed the film?
ECI: Our initial funding came from Seed&Spark crowdfunding, and local Latino owned businesses and taquerias were the first people to really put money in. I felt that if anyone could really see the value of this film it was the community , and that's certainly what happened. Then the film got a lot of great support and has all been funded by foundation grants and fellowships. Now it's been acquired by POV – American Documentary, and we were able to close the gap through that acquisition, because we were not fully financed when we finished the film. I'd love to make a fully funded feature one day, because it's an emotional ride.
HD: Was the production affected by COVID?
ECI: Various members of the post-production team happened to contract COVID separately at different points. Then Ashley got it, which was challenging for the voiceover. The Bay Area Video Coalition had donated studio time to us but COVID shut them down, so we had to make Ashley's car into a little recording studio. We sent her a really nice microphone and she did it through her cell phone. Later in the pandemic, we could do some recording in the studio. The edit, and especially doing colour, was hard because I would have liked it to be in person and everything was remote, but there were many ways of working around that. But we were lucky in that, except for a few pick up shoots, we had pretty much completed all production before the pandemic.
Interview conducted by Hot Docs industry programmer Madelaine Russo.