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Film and the Arts

Actor Turned Director Diego Luna Celebrates "Cesar Chavez"

Photo by B. Balfour

Born on December 29, 1979 in Mexico City, Diego Luna Alexander lost his mother in a car accident when he was only two. So Luna became immersed in his father's passion for entertainment as Mexico’s most acclaimed living theatre, cinema and opera set designer. From an early age Luna began acting in television, movies and theater. Once he achieved international recognition, he expanded his resume to include writing, producing and directing as well.

This producer-actor-director’s full bio includes such highlights as big budget sci-fi thriller Elysium (2013),  the Oscar-nominated Milk (2008), Tom Hanks starrer The Terminal (2004), and provocative Y Tu Mamá También (2001). But his most recent directorial effort Cesar Chavez not outlines a slice of the famed civil rights leader and labor organizer’s life (powerfully played by Michael Pena) but also chronicles the birth of a modern American labor movement. The film also tells the story of a man torn between family duties as a husband and father and his commitment to the fight for a living wage for farm workers. 

Passionate but soft-spoken, Chavez embraced non-violence as he battled greed and prejudice in this struggle to bring dignity to his community and disenfranchised people in general. Chavez inspired millions of Americans who hadn’t worked on a farm or been to California to fight for social justice. His journey is a remarkable testament to the power of one person’s ability to change the world.

Buttressed by two incredibly strong women — wife Helen (America Ferrara) and Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) — Chavez presciently foresaw the impact the Latino American community would have on this country as he drew attention to this long disenfranchised sector.

chavez posterQ: Once you got this idea, how long did it take you to do this film? 

DL: At the beginning I didn’t know I had to do it; I would’ve quit had I been told this was going take four years and a half of my life. When I started I thought, “Wow, it’s amazing that there’s no film about Cesar Chavez. But this is so powerful and comes in time for many reasons, and  since this community’s growing, everyone’s going to want to do this film.” 

I went out and started shopping as is done with films. You go to studios and sit down with executives and everyone gave us a chance to sit down which sounded like, “Okay it’s happening,” then they said, “Wow, this is great, we love that you’re doing this, we’re not going to join but once you have a film, come and show it to us and probably we’ll be part of it,” and we’re like, “No! We need the money to do it!” 

It’s not like I’m just going out and doing it. I heard things like, “Can you make it more sexy?” and I was like, “How can I make it more sexy? If it was sexier, farm workers would probably be living a different reality today.” 

They said, “What about A-List actors? Can you have Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem in it?” And I’m thinking, the man existed, there are pictures, there’s murals! You cannot just say, “Well now it’s just going to look like something else…” This is about a Mexican-American, a guy who was born in Arizona. Anyway, we found no support in this country. But by that point, I promised the family that I was going to deliver a film.

I promised that it was happening and then invested a year of my life into it at that point. We were working on the script with Keir Pearson, so I said to my partner Pablo Cruz, “Let’s go to Mexico and finance it the way we do in film.” 

We went to Mexico and in a week and a half we found the money. At least 70% that allows the comeback for the other 30%. Then we came back and found the perfect partners, Participant Media and Pantelion Films, two different kind of film [studios], but they’re both doing films that would be perfect for this market — one that we’re trying to prove exists. That’s how everything started in terms of putting it together. 

We wanted to come to the States and open a company and office here, so we said that we have to do a film that mattered on both sides of the border. It would allow us to work here but still do stories that connect us with where we come from and the community we belong to, to the point that my son who was born here, in the States, so he’s knows he’s a Mexican-American. In fact, he had an American passport before the Mexican one.

In a way, this was an attempt to tell a story that he would be able to use to find out where he comes from and what needed to happen for him to be where he is at the moment. That’s how everything started.

Q: Do you hope this film will change society’s perception of Latinos and the issues that concerns this community?

DL: There’s something that’s happened here before which is that all us Latinos, we have to learn from these guys that if we organize, if we’re united, we have the strength to change the world. That’s definitely a reality, because I don’t think we’ve been so well organized since then. Yes, there’s a lot of complaints that we have to this country, as a community, but I would start looking at ourselves in the mirror and [ask] why we haven’t done [anything]? 

We have a chance to send that message on the opening week, March 28th, which is, “We want these films to be out. We want our stories to be represented. We want our heroes to celebrated in film.” 

There’s two things that matter here. As Cesar said and showed us, one is that our strength is in our numbers, and they’re growing. So I don’t know why we, as a community, haven’t experienced that feeling of power [that] we actually have in hand. The other is that the film confronts you, not just us Latinos, but everyone in this country, with a reality that’s very uncomfortable, that today in the fields, the conditions still aren’t great. 

The struggle continues and consumers have also not been aware of what they’re part of when they buy a product since then. The amazing thing they did as a community, is that they connected with consumers, the rest of America, a community they didn’t think they had a connection with. They found a way to say, “Our story matters to you.” 

When you buy a grape, you’re supporting child labor. Moms listened to that, when a mother was in a store in Chicago, she found a farm worker saying, “When you’re buying that product, you have to remember that behind that product is the work of my six year-old. ” 

Mothers stopped buying grapes. So it’s about connecting, finding out what connects us, not what separates us. I think that’s a beautiful message about the film, and that applies not just for America, but for the world. It’s a nonviolent movement that said it’s about the responsibility of knowing we’re not here alone. The work of many has to happen so we can experience the life we have. It’s just being aware of that — that’s what matters. 

Q: Was it tough for actor Michael Peña to have this on his shoulders?

DL: I was walking coming with Rosario from having lunch, and she told me, ”It’s unbelievable how much Michael changed for this role. He’s just nothing close to what he portrayed here.” 

I always told him, “Michael, we have to be aware. We cannot do the Hollywood way, you know? We cannot say suddenly that Cesar was a great speaker, and the Martin Luther King kind of leader.” 

But he wasn’t. He was very humble and timid. As a result of the amount of urge he had for change to happen, he had to become the leader. If he would’ve had a chance to stand back and stay behind, he would have done it. He was a great listener. 

That’s why he could organize these people, because he came and took the time to listen to everyone’s story. This is a community that has been ignored for so long, that suddenly someone arrived that cared about their story and said, “Your story matters.” 

In fact, Mark Grossman, who traveled a lot through rallies and was Cesar’s PR person — he wrote the speeches for him — was very close to him and we worked a lot with him. He told me [that] the rallies were painful because he would stay until nine, 10 pm, and people left, and he was still talking to a woman in the back. He had time, he nothing else to do but this, and everyone realized he was giving his life. We have to remember, this is a man that got out of living in the city. He changed his life, he was wearing a suit, he had a job. But he said, “No, we have to go back to the fields, we have to change things from the inside. It’s not going to come from the outside.” 

He went back and sacrificed not just his reality but the reality of his family. I love when Fernando asks, “Who plays in Delano? You’re not taking me to a place that doesn’t have a major league baseball team, right?” And [Cesar] goes, “Yeah, we’re all going to sacrifice here, and we’re all going to go back to where we come from.” 

Q: You showed how he sacrificed his relationship with his older son. You spent more than four years working on this movie. How much did it affect your relationship with your own children?

DL: It does, it does. I’ve never had to go so far as he did. I was in Chicago on Friday, took the red eye, spent Saturday and Sunday with my kids, and I’m here on Monday. I would never give away the weekend, and stay for another interview. I think that’s what makes him heroic. I don’t know if I would be able to go that far. 

Q: How old are your kids now?

DL: Five and three. I don’t know if I would be able to go that far. These guys left for months. Besides everything we’ve talked about, the film is about a father and a son. To me, the reflection I’m making here is [that] there’s a sacrifice we fathers do. I did not understand until I had a baby. It changed the way I looked to my father. When I had a baby, I went back and said, “Damn, dad. You’ve done all of this?” 

My mother died when I was two, so my father had to play both roles and work and it’s that very unfair part of life where you know you have to do it. I do film because of my kids, I think about them every moment of my life. Every decision I make, they’re involved. Probably, they won’t know this until they have their own. 

That’s the gap that sometimes... Hopefully in life you have the time to bring it back together, but not many times it happens. For these characters, it took a long a long time. They had eight kids. Dolores Huerta had 11 kids. Imagine that and they managed to do all this as well. 

Q: Was it a conscious choice that you avoided his childhood? 

DL: The first script I got, [went] from the day he was born until the day he died. You can do that in a fictional film, it doesn’t matter, but with the life of someone I think that’s very unfair. It’s impossible in an hour and 45 minutes to tell of someone’s 64-year journey. I thought, “I’m going to concentrate in one achievement.” 

That’s the boycott was to me. I said, “If I can explain how the boycott happened, and why the boycott happened, and what [it brought] to the community, I’ll be sending the right message.” 

I didn’t want to do a film just about this community. I wanted to do a film about how this community managed to connect with the rest of the country. Because to me, the powerful message here is that if change ever comes, it’s because we get involved and we people connect with others. 

We find those who are out there and what connects us with them. So to me, that was the thing I wanted to focus on -- the personal struggle of a father. It’s the first film done about Cesar and the movement, so it’s unfair to ask one film to fill the gap of so many years where there was no film talking about it. Because if I was here, and there were another three films, I could focus in on a specific thing that none of the other films [did], but you cannot ask a film to tell everything that hasn’t been told. Hopefully this will [stimulate] curiosity and awareness so that people will go and investigate a little more about who they are and what’s behind them. 

Q: Why was the movie shot in Mexico instead of where the events happened? Did that have to do with where you found the money? Being a movie about a syndicated movement, with the actors’ unions very strong here, don’t know how it is in Mexico, but how much of the actors and the crew were unionized?

DL: We shot in Mexico because of two reasons. One, the film was financed in Mexico, so a lot of the financing came as support. We first went to California, but even if we would have shot in the States, we would not have shot in California, because the actual places have changed dramatically since the ’60s. So you cannot shoot there, you’d have to recreate the [conditions]. 

We found in Sonora that the fields there have that immensity. Sonora is the state that produces 80% of the table grape of Mexico. Mexico is a huge country, so the feeling when you’re there, it’s the same feeling you have in the valley in California. You really are a dot in the middle of nowhere. There’s this immensity, the feeling that those fields are feeding a world, 

In terms of the union, there’s no way to do a film this big non-union in Mexico. Every actor was paid through SAG; we also have a union in Mexico of actors and technicians. It would be very stupid to do a film about a union without the support of unions [laughs]. But you know what happened…? There was a whole debate on the extras. 

The extras are farm workers. That doesn’t mean they didn’t get paid. The point is, I wanted to work with real farm workers. You know those faces? There’s no way to put makeup on a face and make it look like they’ve been under the sun for so many years, under that condition of dust and wind. Those faces tell you the story. Just by looking at the face, you get many things that can’t be said in dialogue. 

Q: Were these farm workers from the area where you shot?

DL: Many farm workers joined. By the third day they realized that film isn’t glamorous and that the experience was as miserable as working in the fields [laughs]. Because we were in the fields, we put every penny we had in front of the camera, so the conditions we were shooting under were rough compared to the cliché of how Hollywood filmmaking is. 

Q: Did the workers themselves teach you anything, something that you never knew?

DL: The only thing is that they reminded me every day of why the film needed to be done. It just still makes no sense to me that those who are feeding this country can barely feed their families. And by listening to their stories, I got the necessary energy to keep going. No matter what our issues were, they don’t matter. I am lucky to be able to choose where I work, who I’m around, what I do, what stories I tell, I can’t complain. It was a great reminder on why this needs to be out. 

Q: The film deals with social issues. Is that also part of the marketing?

DL: Definitely, and we’re focusing a lot in kids. Before the proper promotion started, we did two weeks of going to high schools and universities. We went to Harvard, Berkeley, Irvine, UCLA, then we did a screening in the RFK High School. It was like a system. We did a screening where they taped it and then that’s going to be shown to kids around California. 

We’re pushing to do tons of little videos in social media and everything to raise awareness about Cesar Chavez and what the movement [stood] for. That’s where Participant comes in. They have an amazing reach in terms of a call-to-action. 

As part of our film, we are also making a petition to President Obama about making a Cesar Chavez National Day of Service. As the campaign goes, if you guys participate, it’d be great. There’s a page called and you can sign. If you sign the petition, we need a hundred thousand signatures to go to Obama. 

Film should be the beginning of something bigger. This film should trigger, hopefully, the curiosity of people to find out exactly what this movement was about. It’s difficult to inform in an hour and 45 minutes about everything they did and still entertain but it is pertinent to talk about this because the issues today in the field are even more complicated [than ever]. 

We thought also about a day of celebration... A few states today celebrate Cesar Chavez day, but we thought that a national day of service would be the way he would like to be remembered, a day where you work and give something back to your community, which is what they did from beginning to end. 

There [are] so many things happening at the same time, and there are so many things happening in Latin America. Because if few people know here the story of Cesar Chavez, you’ll go to Latin America and everyone thinks he’s a boxer. No one knows, and it’s something that hopefully the film, and everything happening around the film, might be able to change. Also, the foundation is working really close. 

Dolores Huerta has been promoting the film with us, and every time she grabs the microphone, she talks about it and the 10 other things that matter to her. If film can work for that to happen, if film can bring attention to the work of those that are still in the struggle, still out there, I’ll be very proud. But it’s definitely about kids.

You know an amazing thing that has been happening is that today there’s many Latinos in key positions and many have the chance to actually choose what they want to do in life. They have businesses and so many of these people are buying out theaters and giving them away to schools. 

For the first weekend, someone said, “I would like to share this film with every high school kid of the community I come from” which is an amazing thing. The distribution company Pantelion is getting these calls and managing to actually make it happen, where you basically buy out a theater and fill it with kids that normally wouldn’t go watch it, or will probably watch it two years later on their phone while doing another 20 things, which is how kids now watch films... so that’s also happening. People like Henry Moreno — he was the first one. 

Q: Is he one of the producers?

DL: No, no, no! He’s just a guy that cares about this. I was at an event in Washington, and Moreno talked about this, he was doing a show and he told me, “I’m buying out theaters to share with the kids, and this is happening, people are starting to react.” 

That’s fantastic. I did this film because I think I have some distance to the story. Generationally, I wasn’t around when this happened, so also that gives me some objectivity, I guess. But the angle which I’m telling this, it’s the perfect angle for people who don’t know the story, to listen [to] it for the first time.

Q: What did it teach you about yourself as a father, as a director, as an actor? 

DL: You know, I found a connection. It was through telling personal stories that they managed to bring the attention to something bigger. It was about a mother going out, as I said, a mother going out of a grocery store and telling another mother, “Behind that grape, there’s the work of my kid. Are you sure you want to be part of that?” 

Then that mother got hit so badly and so profoundly, that she’s gonna turn into an advocate for the movement. But it’s by telling personal stories that you can trigger that, and I think film has that power. Today, if I was sitting in a board meeting of this movement, I would say, “Let’s do short documentaries about each other’s experiences and get them out, because that’s the way to get people’s attention.” 

We do the same thing, in a way. At least film is capable of doing what these guys did. That was a connection that I found on the way. When I was out and everyone was like, “Oh, you’re doing the film about Cesar Chavez! I gotta tell you something. My grandfather, one day, he grew up and blah blah blah…” 

If I do a documentary where I tell you, “More than a 100,000 have been killed in the last eight years in my country because of the war on drugs that our president started, our former president started…” You’re going to go, “Oh, that’s a big number.” 

But if I tell you the story of a kid who lost his father and now has to work and had to get out of school to support his mother, and how the life these four people changed dramatically, not just his but his brother and his sister... The next day you’re going to care about the war we’re living there. So by telling personal stories you can trigger that attention and that’s something they were doing that was way ahead of us. 


"The Girls in the Band" Honors Music's Unsung Heroines

How many female jazz musicians can you name? Judy Chaikin's new documentary The Girls in the Band can help. By the time the credits roll, you will have met three generations of distaff players, composers, arrangers and GreatDayinHarlemconductors reaching back to the 1920s. Names like saxophonists Roz Cron and Peggy Gilbert, trumpeters Clora Bryant and Billie Rogers and drummer Viola Smith will roll off the tongue as readily as those of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

Read more: "The Girls in the Band" Honors...

Off-Broadway Play Review—“Russian Troll Farm” with Christine Lahti

Russian Troll Farm
Written by Sarah Gancher; directed by Darko Tresnjak
Performances through March 1, 2024
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, New York, NY
Christine Lahti and Haskell King in Russian Troll Farm (photo: Carol Rosegg)
Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm began life online during the COVID-19 lockdown, showing workers at the (real) Internet Research Agency during the 2016 presidential elections, posting disinformation while posing as Americans interacting on Facebook and Twitter.
Four years later, its themes of election interference and fake news are unfortunately still with us, but the play itself seems to be in limbo. Gancher writes fast-paced dialogue and director Darko Tresnjak has dressed up his slick staging with visuals that feature lots of video overlays to complement Alexander Dodge’s amusingly antiseptic set, but the commentary on social media is less insightful than perfunctory.
The main problem is that the characters are stereotypes. There’s nerdy whiz kid Egor; annoying reactionary Steve; dullard Nikolai; disillusioned journalist Masha; and their strict supervisor Ljuba, who at least gets a solid backstory—she worked for the KGB as well as Putin—but is just another chessboard piece for the author to manipulate. 
Tresnjak allows his actors to play into those stereotypes, especially Haskell King (Egor) and Renata Friedman (Masha), who are unable to find any subtlety in characters already flattened on the page. John Lavelle (Steve), conversely, yells his way through many of his lines, playing to the audience as a combination of Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis at their most obnoxious. It’s sometimes funny, but often not. 
That leaves Christine Lahti, who provides the play’s high point in a stunning 15-minute monologue describing Ljuba’s hellish life in the Soviet Union and then the new Russia. As written, it’s melodramatically bathetic—yet Lahti, through a combination of her winning stage presence and forceful acting, squeezes the soliloquy for whatever juice of humanity she can, throwing into relief the metaphorical trolling of the rest of the play.

February '24 Digital Week II

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
Kiss the Future 
(Fifth Season)
The Bosnian War waged in the mid ’90s in the former Yugoslavia not only destroyed lives and neighborhoods but also shook ordinary citizens’ souls to their core. Nenad Cicin-Sain’s riveting documentary looks at that fraught time through the lens of music—first through the ordinary people who used it as a mechanism to have some sort of normalcy during the war but also through the Irish band U2, whose ZOO-TV tour captured the zeitgeist of the 24-hour news cycle, which was exploited by American aid worker Bill S. Carter (on whose memoir this film is based).
He managed to interview Bono, get comments from Sarajevo residents played on stadiums’ video screens via satellite during U2’s European tour to raise awareness and finally get the band to come to the beleaguered city for the a concert that would bring together thousands of jubilant fans. New, emotional interviews with many of the those involved—Bono, the Edge, Carter, news correspondent Christine Amanpour, and several Bosnian journalists and citizens—are contrasted with vividly horrific archival footage of the murderous siege of Sarajevo to paint an unforgettable picture of how music helps heal the worst wounds.
Io Capitano 
(Cohen Media Group)
In Italian director Matteo Garrone’s intensely dramatic—if slightly manipulative—new feature, Senegalese teens Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) take what little funds they have and try to get to Europe, little realizing the horrors that await them. They are captured, separated and tortured in Libya, abandoned but reunited in North Africa, and finally go via the Mediterranean to southern Italy—but only if 16-year-old novice Seydou can pilot the boat filled with dozens of migrants. Garrone captures the humanity of these people desperate for a new start alongside the inhumanity of many others.
If manipulation and contrivance didn’t intrude, Io Capitano would be a masterpiece, not simply a superior melodrama. But there’s that staggeringly moving final shot of Seydou, the face of non-actor Sarr going through so many conflicting emotions that he should be in the running for every award there is.  
Veselka—The Rainbow on the Corner at the Center of the World 
(Fiore Media Group)
The famed Ukrainian restaurant on Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village is the subject of Michael Fiore’s engaging but often enraging documentary narrated by David Duchovny that shows how the current owner Jason and his father Tom, the previous owner, allow their place to double as a safe haven for locals after the COVID-19 lockdown and for fellow Ukrainians after Putin’s forces invaded their home country in February 2022. Fiore perceptively follows Tom, Jason and several of their employees as they first navigate COVID and its aftermath, then find themselves worrying constantly about family members still in Ukraine when the invasion starts.
Some are able to leave and arrive in New York, where they must acclimate to a new country and culture, even though the familial feel of Veselka itself and their loved ones who are already working there helps. 
Blu-ray Releases of the Week
Hungarian director György Fehér, an associate of Béla Tarr—whose use of slow tracking shots and stark B&W camerawork became ubiquitous in his films—made his debut in 1990 with this strikingly composed procedural. Although he only made one more film (Passion, a fiery if convoluted 1998 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice) before his death in 2003 at age 63, the accomplished Fehér has made a resonant exploration of a detective who investigates horrific child murders.
Instead of Tarr’s existential dread, Fehér zeroes in on society’s alienation; there are several extraordinary sequences—shot by master cinematographer Miklós Gurbán, who also did the grading of this brand-new, beautifully restored hi-def transfer—including very unsettling close-up “interviews” with two young girls. Extras include interviews with Gurbán and film editor Mária Czielik, along with two early Fehér shorts: 1969’s Öregek and 1970’s Tomikám.
Tchaikovsky—None But the Lonely Heart 
The music of Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky is inherently theatrical—witness his operas and ballets that are centerpieces of the modern stage repertoire—but his songs are less well-known; but even resourceful director Christof Roy comes to grief trying to stitch together several of the master’s songs and a few chamber pieces into a workable narrative.
In this 2021 staging in Frankfurt, Germany, the music is lovely, the singing (especially by soprano Olesya Golovneva and mezzo Kelsey Lauritano) is gorgeous, but it comes off as a stylized recital, the performers moving robotically onstage while two pianists alternate in their accompaniment. It’s certainly nice to hear, but not so much to see. There’s first-rate hi-def video and audio.
Wagner—Das Rheingold 
The first opera of Richard Wagner’s epic Ring cycle is also by far the shortest: he himself refers to it as a “prelude,” a 2-1/2-hour set-up of the story to come in the next three mammoth-length music dramas. In this 2021 Berlin Opera staging by director Stefan Herheim, the setting is modernly nondescript, which to my eyes loses some of the grandeur of a timeless conflict among gods and humans.
But the music making by the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin conducted by Donald Runnicles is first-rate and the singing by a hugely capable cast is led by Derek Welton’s Wotan, the supreme god, and Markus Brück as the dwarf Alberich, whose curse fatally haunts the rest of the tetralogy. There’s excellent hi-def video and audio.
4K/UHD Release of the Week 
(Warner Bros)
Steven Soderbergh’s nail-biting 2011 suspense drama, which realistically paints a horrifying glimpse at the outbreak of an unknown disease that engulfs much of the planet, has only grown in stature since the COVID-19 pandemic. In a series of plausibly shot, edited and acted sequences, the movie scarily shows how our globally connected 21st-century world looks like when it’s affected in such a monstrous way.
A superb ensemble cast, from Matt Damon and Kate Winslet to Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle, make this a most entertaining but truly frightening film as well as an uncanny predictor in its final scenes. On UHD, Soderbergh’s stark, documentary-like style has brilliantly preserved; the extras comprise archival featurettes about the film and the science behind it, including interviews with cast, crew and experts.
CD Release of the Week
Neave Trio—A Room of Her Own 
This superlative disc comprises piano trios by four important women composers of the late 19th and early 20th century—Ethel Smyth from England and three Frenchwomen, Lili Boulanger, Cécile Chaminade and Germaine Tailleferre—and although all were written when they were in their 20s, the moods are vastly different, from the strikingly dramatic Deux pièces of Boulanger (she would die within a year of completing the work) to the attractively lyrical Chaminade trio.
But for my money, it’s the Smyth trio (clocking in at 31 minutes) that’s the most substantial work, both in its length and artistry. All four works have been given lovely and restrained performances by the always compelling Neave Trio.February

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