The Longoria Affair (El caso Longoria) — which aired this past November on Independent Lens — has been nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Historical Programming Long Form category. The film examines the refusal of a Texas funeral home to care for the body of WWII Mexican American soldier. Filmmaker John Valadez spoke with Independent Lens about the film and its impact through a series of community screenings.
When you set out to tell this story through film, was there a particular audience you wanted to reach, and if so, did you succeed?
I remember when I first started college, I came across a really stunning and disheartening statistic: the high school drop out rate for Xicanos hovers was around 50 percent and it has been that way for at least half a century. That fact has always troubled me. For Mexican American kids who do get into college they find a world largely devoid of educational materials about how Xicanos have helped shape the destiny of this country. The same absence in history that is so devastating to Mexican Americans is something that ultimately hurts non-Xicano students as well. You can look to the ethnic studies wars taking place in Arizona to see just how determined many policy makers are to maintain this absence of self-knowledge.
So I have had this crazy idea for a long time that students need to be presented again and again, in different mediums, with the idea that they are part of a heritage, and a legacy that has contributed mightily to making this country a better place — a proposition which is, in fact true. I believe if Mexican American kids understand that their parents and grand parents fought for civil rights and equality then some of them (perhaps many of them) will get the idea that they can actually contribute as well. So I wanted to reach those kids, because quite frankly there is very little out there that chronicles the determination of our community to make this country true to its highest ideals and aspirations
Outside of your PBS broadcast on Independent Lens, campus and community screenings were an important part of your distribution effort. How many of these screenings have you had so far?
I have attended about 70 screenings so far in New York, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Washington State, Colorado, Michigan, Wyoming, and Washington D.C. We have about 25 more screenings currently scheduled for the fall of 2012. All of these were/are in Xicano communities. The estimated attendance at these live events is about 20,000 or so at this point. I think this kind of effort is critical because most of these folks are not going to see this film on TV. They are not going to go to a film festival. Many have not even heard of PBS. So, public television has a real problem because these folks are the opinion leaders of the fastest growing demographic in the country. If PBS is to stay relevant we need to push harder to reach brown kids.
I was at a screening in Laredo, Texas and the organizer at a local college there told me the students, the faculty, and the administration were all very excited because they had never had a filmmaker screen a film at their college. I was stunned. You have an educational institution with some 20,000 students that is entirely Mexican American and the school is so broke, isolated, off the grid, and in every way marginalized that they have never had an event like this? Something is wrong here.
Did you invite guest speakers to your screenings? If so, who?
Every screening has been different. Sometimes it’s just me. Other times professors will give additional context and background. I always learn a lot. Often I have had folks who were in the film join me on stage and share their reflections. This can be a very moving experience. I remember we had a screening in Corpus Christi for about five hundred high school students and Sara Posas (the sister-in-law of Felix Longoria) spoke. She is about eighty years old and is stunningly beautiful, dignified and just exudes courage and strength. This was a woman who, as a student about 18 years old, had the audacity to make a stand against segregation when the funeral home in Three Rivers refused to allow Felix’s family to use the funeral chapel because he was “Mexican.” She is a remarkable woman and a true civil rights hero. The kids were blown away. They gave her a standing ovation. It was so very moving. A lot of light bulbs went off in students’ heads that day.
How did you encourage audience members to continue the conversation online?
This is tough and I think I am still trying to figure this out. I felt we needed to ask the audience to stop being passive consumers of media and challenge them to become active agents in the national conversation. I told them that if they wanted to see more documentaries about Mexican Americans then they had to take responsibility and make it happen. One way they can do that is to let PBS know what they think. So I asked them to use the PBS message board to do this. It took me a while to figure out how to do this. We have over 500 comments on our film page and more are being added as we do additional screenings. The average number of comments for an Independent Lens film is about 40. The trick is to know the community and knowing how to actualize that deep-seated desire for civic engagement.
We also got about 1,500 votes for our film for the Independent Lens Audience Award. Again, I think I could have gotten 10,000 votes if I had been armed with the knowledge I now have. So, in some ways I feel I have blundered. We did a great job but we could have totally blown everyone away. The key point is that now I have ideas about engaging the audience and when I began I didn’t have a clue.
Were you surprised by the responses? How did you deal with the film’s most outspoken critics in online forums (as well as offline in actual debates)?
I was surprised by the reaction of many whites, especially in Texas who viewed the film. Many times white folks told me flat out that I was a liar. I was told that there was no discrimination in Three Rivers, Texas; that the whole film is based on bigotry and exclusion that never existed; and that I am a total fraud. It’s a small minority of discrimination deniers but they are vocal. This happened at more than one event. A website was built to criticize me. One lady wrote to the PBS Ombudsman to complain saying the film is “propaganda.” She even claimed that the film was designed to influence Hispanic voters. Some other folks took out a full-page ad in the Corpus Caller Times calling the film, “a vortex of duplicity.” I got plenty of nasty emails.
I was both shocked and not surprised at the same time, if that is possible. It was disturbing that people would say these things right to my face. But then Mexican Americans in the audience would get angry and defend the film so there were many pretty tense, rather high-octane discussions following the film.
There was, however, almost always a peculiar unanimity that would develop out of this. I would ask the person criticizing me why there was such a dramatic and stark difference in perception between white folks and Mexican Americans? How could there be such a huge chasm of understanding when both side lived through the same events?
White folks would basically say, “They’re exaggerating, making stuff up to make us look bad for their own political gain. That’s what Hector Garcia did, that’s what this film does, and that’s what people who claim there was discrimination are doing.”
Then, I would ask some Mexican Americans in the audience the same question and they would pretty much echo what the white folks had just articulated by saying, “Some Anglos just think we’re all liars. Mostly they’re racist against Mexicanos, but sometimes they’re just stuck in their own reality and can’t see our point of view.” Either way its kinda the same.
What was your team’s explicit strategy for leveraging Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any other social media platforms to get out the word about the film?
We did make a Facebook page, hold two Tweetups, and clips were posted on YouTube, but I think if you want people to be “social” you need to have two things going. One, is you need real world events to happen so people can have something to talk and be social about. The second is you can’t just talk and be social you need to have something for them to do. They need a mission. They need to be asked to commit to something and accomplish it. I think this second point works best if there is some kind of reward for completing the action. I know this sounds abstract but this is the architecture you must design.
In our case we used the Independent Lens Audience Award voting tally as a way to work towards a community goal (the same with the comments page). I have some other ideas about audience engagement goals and rewards for increased participation, but I want to hold on to these for now, until I try them out.
Did you budget in the beginning for both a community screening circuit and big online engagement push?
Yes. You need both. If you do one without the other it’s like walking with one leg. You won’t get very far. This means if PBS and other funding partners are serous about audience engagement they are going to have to put more money towards these things. A lot of credit has to go to CPB. They were behind this engagement campaign and they believed and supported us. They pushed us to do more and do it better.
How did your team approach partnerships with community organizations and schools?
I was on the phone constantly. I think if you are going to reach a given community you need someone from that community to do it. The best person is the filmmaker. Not only am I from the community we were trying to reach, but also, I am the person who made the film so people felt the call was important. All of this is very time consuming but I just don’t think there are that many short cuts. I felt if we were to be successful we really needed to make this hands on, really commit time and energy to it, and I had to do it myself. I think that primary relationship is very important. I did not sleep.
Celebrating the power of citizen activism is a central theme in your film. Do you think engendering the kind of activist movement that Dr. Garcia did is easier or more challenging today?
It is much easier today. The problem is, that Dr. Garcia was a brilliant man who was genuinely committed and had a genius for organizing; while technology creates new and inventive tools, being brilliant hasn’t gotten any easier. It never will.
What advice do you have for filmmakers tackling subjects of race and racial discrimination in documentary film?
I am not really comfortable giving advice — I don’t feel particularly qualified. All I can say is that in making a film that explores a highly charged topic you need to nurture the same qualities you must have in order to be a decent human. I try to be open and fair, avoid judging others and try hard to see all points of view. The job, as I see it, is to give the audience the tools they need to make well-informed thoughtful decisions, and especially, to create opportunities for underrepresented, but well considered, perspectives to participate. I don’t want to be an advocate for any particular point of view or ideology. I just want to advocate for equality and for the truth. Oh yeah, and the one thing I absolutely always do is have fun — to really take joy in the process.