Q+A: "Weaving the Past" Director Walter Dominguez

11 years and many memories went into creating Walter Dominguez’s charming, surprising and passionately researched documentary, Weaving the Past: Journey of Discovery. The film, which explores the life lived by his Methodist reverend grandfather, Emilio N. Hernandez, will debut at a May 18 benefit for the Los Angeles United Methodist Museum of Social Justice.

Why did your film take over a decade? What did you do to get funding so your film would get made?

Documentaries very often take time, a lot of time to complete. It certainly was true in my case. It took six years from the time I began the quest until I was able to locate my grandfather’s relatives, which is one important part of the story. Partly it was due to the fact that I wanted to interview scores of people who knew my grandfather, and who were still alive and able to tell me more things about him that I didn’t know. Time is always a factor and many were very elderly, and I knew that if I didn’t seek them out and talk to them right away, they would soon be gone. But another big factor was that I wanted to look after my father who became very ill and in fact was dying. I wanted to fulfill the pledge I made to myself to be there for him when he died. So I didn’t want to be wandering in another country or state, I wanted to stay near him. Then finally he died, and it was devastating to lose him. I needed time to recover, get back on my feet emotionally and resume the search.

After resuming my quest, and locating family at last through amazing circumstances, I had to spend considerable time researching and learning more about the Mexican revolutionaries that my grandfather became a part of and was influenced by in terms of his social justice outlook and the organizing skills he learned from them. This required a lot of reading and speaking to historians in the U.S. and Mexico, some of who appear in the film. I also needed time to do extensive searches through several large Los Angeles area archives that had collections of vintage photos. I had heard they might have photos of my grandfather in them. It turned out he was in scores of wonderful photos. It was a treasure trove of photos. Many of these I eventually used in the film and they bring a tremendous authenticity and sense of another time and place.

Then time was needed to plan and shoot the extensive re-enactments. If you have a big Hollywood movie budget, you can hire people who are professionals to assist you and do all the footwork and find all that is needed. But being an independent filmmaker and needing to be resourceful and get a convincing look for the scenes on a tiny budget, I had to don many hats and do pretty much all the research and finding things myself. I scoured through Hollywood prop houses and costume collections to find authentic items for the scenes and to clothe the people re-enacting the people my grandfather knew. I had to find authentic period-looking locations. I asked people I knew in the professional community to teach me how to do make up and hairstyles of the period, attach mustaches etc. Bullet wound effects, all kinds of things I had to learn to do myself. I had to learn about the kinds of armaments they used back then, and talk to firearms experts, and get a special California state license to be able to rent actual period rifles, carbines and pistols. Casting the characters was crucial, this took time to find them and coordinate around their work schedules. Finding the cameraman, getting the equipment needed. It took time to carefully plan the shooting of the sequences, to get the most shots done in a day or night of shooting scenes … All this took time to do it on a tight budget and still get the results I wanted. By the way, people who see the film comment on the re-enactments, how authentic and compelling they are. So it all paid off. But it was a huge investment in my time and energy.

Following the re-enactments, came the editing of the hundreds of hours of footage shot over the previous years. This was in many ways the hardest part. There was so much really good footage – wonderful interviews, beautiful re-enactment scenes, B roll footage. My first rough cut took a year and a half, and the film still ran over four hours! It took more time to hone the film down in stages, letting go of great stuff that just took too long on screen to unfold… it was painful to let go of so much that was so compelling.

Add many months of time to record the narration, add in other voices of actors, find the right music for each sequence and to do a really complex and multi-layered soundtrack and all the technical processes that go with that, including a 5.1 surround mix that is beautiful… all this takes so much time. Mind you, all this has to be done with the help of friends and family giving generously of their time and talents. The community of filmmakers is a very generous group. People in it were taken by this story and they gave me a lot of help. Still it cost a small fortune over time to complete the film. And to answer the second part of your question, my wife and I simply made do with much less and made many small and large sacrifices in order to be able to make the film as I envisioned it, and to let it evolve at its own pace, rather than take shortcuts and hurry things too fast just to repay someone else the money they invested. I am lucky to have a partner who is not materialistic and does not demand a lot of stuff, and who was really with me on this over the long haul. It wasn’t always easy for her, of course.

When I finished college at the University of Texas at Austin, I met a few people who pretended they did not speak Spanish or were not of Mexican-American heritage. When you made this film, what about your history makes you proud of your ancestry?

While my last answer was very long, this one is short: In getting to know much more about my Mexican ancestors through the process of making this film, and seeing what truly remarkable, strong, kind, generous and resilient people they were in facing things far harder than I have faced, I came to see that I come from amazing people. And that not only can I love them, but I have every right to be proud of them as people who did many beautiful and worthy things on earth in the time they had.

Why don’t American textbooks teach us much if anything about Mexican history or the histories of other countries?

Quite honestly, American textbooks fail to even teach American history. If they did teach American history as it should be taught, American students would know for example that the U.S. Southwest and California, even part of Wyoming – a gigantic portion of this nation’s territory – was part of the territory of New Spain for centuries, and for decades after that a part of the independent nation of Mexico. And that the U.S. government launched a bloody war on Mexico in order to take the land for expansion to the west coast. And that Spanish-speaking people were living on what is now the American side of the border, and they were living here long before Americans arrived on the scene. And that Americans were the invaders, not the Spanish-speaking people whom were and are ignorantly regarded as the intruders.

You’re very lucky to have gotten information from your step grandmother and father before they passed away. If they had not told you anything interesting, what might you have assumed?

I don’t really know because from the moment I could understand language, my elders were always full of wonderful stories, jokes, songs and all kinds of wisdom. In fact, I have seldom met older folks of any ethnicity who don’t have something really interesting or intriguing to say, and who aren’t ready to tell you things. It’s just that as kids and youths, and even as younger adults, we are not always interested in what they are telling us! We are too busy with friends, schooling, work and social activities and we fail to take time to really listen to the elders in our families. This is especially true in regard to our parents. With grandparents, we don’t mind them telling us things quite as much. Hopefully some of what they told us we remember!

When your grandfather was involved in speaking against the dictatorship, sometimes through more aggressive means, do you think any of his beliefs would resonate in today’s world, with anything going on in our country with the Obama administration?

Would my grandfather’s open opposition to the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz resonate today in the U.S. and with the Obama administration? Well, I really cannot see much of a correlation between the incredible and systematic abuses wreaked upon the people of Mexico one hundred years ago, and where we are today in the U.S. Of course, there is always the potential for governments, even here in the U.S., to become tyrannical on that scale. But I don’t see any true oppression here that is anywhere near what Mexicans, Russians, Chinese and many other peoples have suffered from their governments. But what I do see is a growing disregard for the needs of the poor and the middle classes, simply for the benefit of preserving or growing the power and wealth of the rich folks of this country. The trend has been going on for a long time, and it is a bad trend, a very serious one. It causes needless suffering and it erodes our society into a shambles. And if enough people are impoverished, disregarded and treated as if they are the problem for everything, while the elite class builds its wealth and power on the backs of everyone else and blames the poorer and powerless for their condition, then you have the conditions that lead to revolts and revolutions. So in that sense, yes, the beliefs my grandfather had for a time, to oppose the oppression by violent means if necessary could become the beliefs of some, perhaps many Americans. I do have to say that revolutions are truly bloody and don’t happen without horrors and disasters. The Mexican revolution was the bloodiest of all – one out five Mexicans died. Americans in love with their guns or who think that owning a lot of them will somehow calm their anxieties and change the country to how they would like it to be are really fooling themselves out of ignorance of the reality of a country falling apart in chaos. It is still not too late to make changes in this country by organizing at grassroots levels and continually pushing government representatives to institute changes you want.

What modern person could you compare him to?

He was a one of a kind person in many ways, very unique and special. But I know that I come across really loving and generous people often, and there are many such people in this world, many right where each of us lives. They are there. Caring, compassionate and full of helpfulness.

Would you have gone out sometimes to help your grandfather then if you lived in his time, or would you have been afraid?

Would I have helped my grandfather or been afraid? Good question! When he was involved with revolutionaries, I probably would have been afraid of the violent portions of their activities, which in reality was a small part of their lives. They were mainly newspaper journalists and organizers of workers – a non-violent activity in itself. The use of arms only began as a last resort, when they became so bad that they became desperate to stop the horrors of the Porfirio regime. I would be the type to be a writer/journalist and could help in the organizing of workers to obtain or defend their rights. But not to do violence, even if for good causes. My grandfather came to see this for himself and he dedicated the rest of his life for peaceful causes. But who knows for sure, if I had been alive with him then, and suffering under those conditions, and young and idealistic, maybe I would have joined up with the revolutionaries. I certainly understand and sympathize with why they took up arms.

What else did you learn from connecting with distant family about not only your grandfather but yourself?

I learned most that I could follow my heart and my instincts and just trust that the things are that are really important in life will somehow happen, with some effort, but mostly with faith. I also learned that I come from a big family full of storytellers, musicians and singers. My grandfather was a great storyteller and loved to sing; my mother is a trained opera singer; all my uncles were musicians. The family people I came to know in Mexico are also singers, storytellers and outgoing. I realized that I am a storyteller, too. I just tell stories through this medium of filmmaking.

How did small events in his life preceding his other life as part of the revolution influence your grandfather’s life? Did you see any correlations to events you experienced in your own life that changed you later on?

Small events in my grandfather’s life before he became a revolutionary that influenced him. His mother telling him stories and singing to him – she was a great performer I learned, who used to entertain villagers with her tales and her singing. Tending sheep out in the hills of the hacienda, put him closer to nature and to a feeling of the sacred in everything. He had many more visions out in nature than I could share in the film.

Documentary filmmaking is, in my book, the hardest. If you aren’t careful, you can make your casual audience members lose interest – surely, that issue doesn’t happen with romantic comedies – or risk losing the intellectuals by not providing enough heart, facts and storyline. What is your advice for someone hoping to put together a documentary?

Tell a good story – the kind you would want to hear or read or see, the kind that excites your imagination or that you passionately feel you must tell to the world. Tell a story that you really care about so much that you are willing to make many sacrifices for and dedicate yourself to for possibly a decade. Then tell it in the best way you possibly can, using the rich medium of images and sound to tell the story in a creative way that makes the story come to life, makes viewers care and get involved, and that satisfies you.

This article originally appeared en español on my ELLE Spain blog.

ELLE Spain discontinued their freelance blog journalism program in 2016. I have republished it on NicoleRussinMcFarland.com once again so my journalism may live on. I am grateful for the experiences I had from 2011-2016 writing for my personal Spanish language blog, revista ELLE for providing the blog, and the time from all of my interviewees.