For every Nick Broomfield or Ross McElwee, there are 50 documentary makers who break out in hives at the thought of being in front of the camera. Rick Tejada-Flores was one of those guys. But when he decided to explore his family’s checkered Bolivian past, he accepted that he had to be a character. "I don’t think American audiences are really too interested in what happens in the rest of the world unless there’s a connection to our society," Tejada-Flores observes. "By my telling the story, and also by relating it to my experience of defining myself as a Latino in this country, it gives people a point of reference. I’m struggling to find my way through what happened in Bolivia, and so are they."
In addition, after more than three decades of making traditional docs such as The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle (co-directed with Ray Telles) and Orozco: Man of Fire (co-directed with Laurie Coyle), Tejada-Flores was looking to stretch. "I’m sort of bored with the other kind of story," he confides. "It doesn’t present a lot of storytelling or aesthetic challenges. So I wanted to try something new."
The Road to Chulumani takes Tejada-Flores on a tangled, twisty journey from La Paz into Bolivia’s mountains and back roads, where his powerful family once owned chunks of land and ran a feudal set-up. His grandfather, José Luis Tejada Sorzano, was installed as Bolivia’s president in the mid-1930s following a military coup; the notorious Nazi Klaus Barbie (the subject of Marcel Ophuls’ incredible doc, Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie) landed his first postwar job in Bolivia with the Tejada family. (The former Gestapo officer’s subsequent "contributions" to his adopted country included advising the Army Rangers who captured and killed Ché Guevara.)
"It’s a pretty dark piece," Teajada-Flores says with a dry chuckle. "I’m looking for light moments, I really am." That’s just one of the dilemmas he’s dealing with. "It’s a little dangerous because I make films to hide behind the camera," he admits. "And now I’m in front of the camera. So it’s tricky stuff for me."
Tejada-Flores’ father left Bolivia for the last time in 1941 and was essentially silent about the murkier details of the family history. "I knew part of the story all along, but it was presented to me as myth," the filmmaker relates. "My father never went back to Bolivia. And my father wasn’t very communicative. As I got older, I got more curious about what it was really like."
So Tejada-Flores made his first visit to Bolivia about 10 years ago. More recently, he took two extensive shooting trips with a final expedition on the horizon in 2010, fundraising permitting. Given his ancestors’ record of oppression and exploitation, it wasn’t a big shock that he was viewed suspiciously by many of the villagers. He gradually allayed their concerns, in part by proposing to work on a project to improve their access to clean water.
"I tended to get my mind made up before I went down there that my family was totally screwed up," Tejada-Flores says. "That’s the interesting thing about documentary films: If you have your mind made up, what’s the point of doing it? Sometimes the real story is very different from what you thought. I love doing the research, but when you sit down and talk with people you find some interesting stuff, and you have a different film than what you imagine."
Tejada-Flores envisions The Road to Chulumani as a one-hour film that glides back and forth between the present and past. He’s cutting it himself—he’s an editor by trade—while Quique Cruz, the Bay Area-based Chilean musician who co-produced and co-directed Archaeology of Memory with Marilyn Mulford, is composing a score that draws on the influences of native Indian and African roots in Bolivia.
"It’s very easy to get too close to your subject matter," Tejada-Flores says. "I don’t want a film about myself; I want it to be a film about how I relate to the story. It’s dangerous territory. It can either be great or it can be a train wreck. The bottom line is it amuses me. I’m having fun."
To view the promo, go here.
Notes from the Underground
Academy Award-wining documentary makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are in postproduction on their narrative debut, Howl, starring James Franco as a young Allen Ginsberg….Steve Okazaki’s Oscar-nominated short documentary The Conscience of Nhem En premieres July 8 on HBO. Meet the director at a free show at the "JCC East Bay": http://prod.jcceastbay.org/….With apologies to Scott McKenzie, if you’re going to Chicago, be sure to wear a fedora on your head. Noir City maven Eddie Muller screens a handful of black-and-white gems July 31-Aug. 6 at the Music Box. It’s only a one-week series, but this Chicago native questions the timing. Midwesterners don’t spend the peak of their short summer indoors—unless it’s an air-conditioned bar.
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