Documentary Filmmaking in Oaxaca: Before We Begin

The essential part of creating an extraordinary learning experience is to have everything confirmed in advance.  We still had some loose ends which we discovered on Saturday, the morning after our arrival.  The language and cultural differences created a challenge that even I, a seasoned Teotitlan traveler, discovered.  Mikel had been trying to reach Uriel to confirm his participation in the workshop, though I had secured Uriel’s agreement several weeks ago — or so I thought.  Cell phone service is intermittent here and we can only get a signal standing on the roof of Las Granadas, which means that calls coming in to us don’t always connect since we are downstairs on the garden level.  Then, there is the reliability of Internet usage and whether people check their email as frequently here as we do back in the States.  So, our students were arriving and gathering that evening and we needed to connect with Uriel to know he was confirmed with time for the location scout and the filming the next day.

We climbed into the old blue camioneta (pick up truck), me driving, Erica riding shotgun, Mikel standing on the flatbed, and drove down Ave. Benito Juarez to the home of Porfirio, Uriel’s uncle, where we are to meet Uriel.  It is an extended family compound where sons, daughters, their husbands, wives, and children work.  Uriel is a 23 year old weaver who is part of the family system of production.  His uncle is president of the church committee this year and a very distinguished member of the community.  He is also Eric’s uncle, brother of Eric’s mother, Dolores.  The family systems are closely connected and complex.

We all pull up chairs in the rug room and settle in to the connecting conversations that in Zapotec family life can go on for hours.  How are you?  How is your husband?  Are you well?  It is a back and forth between all who sit, a ritual that we don’t take time for in the U.S.  We are in a hurry.  The students are arriving in an hour and a half, but we cannot rush this.  We are guests in the village and must learn to adapt to the cultural norms of our hosts.  The conversation is in Spanish and I do not claim to be fluent.  I grasp concepts and words and miss a lot and translate some.  But, I do hear that Uriel has not gotten permission from the group leader for the Dance of the Feather to allow him to be in our documentary film and this catches me by surprise.  I assumed that when I confirmed with him in December, we were all set to go — that was two months ago.  We spend the next 40 minutes talking about what has to be done to get the permission, and learn more about Zapotec life in Teotitlan in the process.

The decision making of the group is essential to village cohesion and tranquility.  This is place where no single individual decides for others.  There is group consensus with a lot of discussion around the pros and cons of doing something, and this process for permission would be no different.  There are nine men who are members of the Dance of the Feather group.  Together, they will discuss whether is is okay for their cultural history and traditional dance can be filmed, even as a student learning experience.  So, our next step is to climb back into the truck and go visit the Moctezuma, the lead dancer who originaly assembled the group three years ago, going to the Temple to ask the Committee for the honor and priviledge of being named the official dancers to represent the village.  As tribute, similar to the ancient pre-Columbian practices, they brought mezcal, beer, and ceremonial bread, as an offering of their sincerity.

There are hand-hewn wooden benches under the palapa of the Moctezuma’s adobe house.  We take a seat and begin the explanation of the project again, and ask permission.  I am trying very hard to explain the scope of the week ahead of us:  six people learning how to make a documentary film, teams of two, three subject areas, one of them the Dance of the Feather.  You must write us a proposal and come to our meeting tonight at 6 pm to present it to the committee chair of the group, then the group will talk about it and let you know in a day or two.  I explain that it is important that we know in the evening because if we don’t get permission, we’ll have to shift and do something else.  He says, it can’t be done any other way, but it is important that we show up at 6 p.m. So, that is what we do.

Mikel and I pick Uriel up at 6 and go three houses down from Porfirio’s to the home of Uncle Pedro, who it turns out is the group leader and I have met him before.  He is part of the family!  We stumble along in our Spanish to explain and present the letter I have written in English and presented.  They take notes.  We are careful to be as clear as possible.  I can do pretty well in the present tense, but my anxiety in the moment creates a hilarious jumble of words that is very entertaining to the people across the table!  We hear that the Dance of the Feather is sacred.  It is only danced at official town celebrations.  To create a rehearsal in full dress costume would be a special request.  We make a promise to use the video for educational purposes only and not for any commercial use.  There is a lot of sensitivity in this village about gringos making money from the labor, traditions, and culture of this people.  Exploitation takes many forms.

I invite the entire group to the celebratory final screening of the video on Thursday night in anticipation of YES.  Will there be mezcal, the group leader asks.  Of course, I say.  The best from Chichicapan!  We all laugh.  Later, we get the call that four dancers will participate.  We are ecstatic, relieved and good to go!

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