Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre on Border Life

Susan Gerhard September 18, 2006

From the ’60s to the ’90s, the city of Tijuana quadrupled its size, but those were, apparently, the slow years. Says Vicky Funari, co-director of “Maquilapolis“ (opening this Thursday at the Grand Lake Theatre during the MadCat Women’s International Film Festival), when the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, in 1994, the border city’s growth moved at a whole new pace. “By 2000,” she wrote to SF360, “there were 4,000 maquiladoras in Mexico employing 1.3 million people.” The result? The city’s infrastructure had no ability to provide the basic services required by so many who’d moved to the area to work for low wages, in horrific conditions within an environment being quickly degraded by the factories’ unmitigated toxic wastes.

In spite of the situation, the film Funari and Sergio De La Torre made on the disaster doesn’t strike hopeless notes. It grew out of a collaboration with Grupo Factor X, an organization helping factory workers and women organize. The filmmakers supplied cameras and expertise and had the subjects themselves create many of the film’s images. Combined with studio shots and poetic set pieces, these self-made images of “Maquilapolis” introduce a powerful idea to viewers: that even multinationals can be made to pay. SF360 heard from De La Torre and Funari about the processes and politics of their border filmmaking.

SF360: How did you two decide to work together, and how/when did you choose this particular topic?

Sergio De La Torre: I first met Vicky in 1995. At the time she was working on her first feature film, ‘Paulina.’ She invited me to see some of the footage and give her some feedback. I was thrilled she asked. I really liked what I saw. It was something between performance art, cinema verityé and documentary practices. I asked if she had any other projects and she let me watch ‘skin*es*the*si*a.’ ‘skin*es*the*si*a.’ was more experimental. I was studying art at California College for the Arts in Oakland and ‘skin*es*the*si*a.’ was more or less what I was looking for in my own work. I kept a copy of the film and shared it with some of the women from Grupo Factor X, Ana and Carmen (they came to Berkeley in 1996 to participate in a conference on labor issues. They did a presentation on their labor in Tijuana. They helped factory workers and women organize around labor conditions, human rights, and environmental concerns). I also showed Ana and Carmen some of my projects. I had done a series of photographs and performances on labor and immigration. We started talking — Vicky, Factor X and I — about a possible collaboration. It took four years after that meeting to start working on ‘Maquilapolis.’

SF360: This film was created with a really unique process — teaching the subjects of the film, workers at maquiladoras, how to film themselves. Can you offer some background on where this idea came from, and some of the challenges of actually following through with it?

Vicky Funari: The idea of training a group of factory workers to use cameras arose out of our early discussions with the women of Grupo Factor X about what kind of film we all were interested in making. Process was as important to Sergio and me as product: we wanted to engage in a process that would be fulfilling to the women involved and would offer them a way to represent themselves rather than just to be represented by filmmakers. The factory workers who got involved in the project were already taking workshops at Factor X in labor rights, women’s rights, reproductive health, etc., so doing a video workshop was a way for us to fit into the ongoing work of Factor X and to frame the entire project as a collaborative, group process.

The challenges of following through were both organizational and monetary: If you commit to a long-term group process, you have to be sure that at every stage you keep everyone informed, check in with everyone to see how they are feeling about the process, keep your promises to each participant, etc. This meant that Sergio and I had to function more like a staffed non-profit than like two artist-filmmakers, which is very hard to do without money, staff, and infrastructure. We were fortunate to have a dynamite team of co-producers who believed in what we were doing and were willing to be part of a process that was frequently more about managing group dynamics than about creating images and story.

SF360: As I understand it, you’ve left a few cameras with the community. Are there any further collaborative plans?

Funari: We are still in collaboration with the women in the film, because we are in the process of putting together a binational outreach campaign. Some of the women in the film are on the planning team for the campaign, and some are travelling with the film as speakers at screenings. We anticipate working with them throughout 2006-2007.

As for the cameras, we can look at what has happened with the cameras as a case study in the strengths and weaknesses of a project like ours: Our original commitment was to raise the money for two camera packages that would stay with the women after the film was done, for them to use as they chose. In the first three years of the project, they used the cameras a lot, documenting events both for the film and for their own archives. But starting in 2004, a challenge arose which we are still trying to solve: Our original plan was that Factor X would own and administer the cameras. Unfortunately, Factor X closed its doors in 2004, and the participating factory workers are now involved in a variety of other groups, so we are faced with the question of how to insure that all the participants in our project have access to the equipment and a chance to keep shooting if they want to. One of the cameras was stolen before we finished shooting, so how can we divide one camera between numerous groups? How can factory workers living in poverty maintain camera gear? Now that Sergio and I aren’t going to Tijuana every few months, who will take the camera across the border to the repair facility? Who will pay for repairs? Who will supply the videotapes? We’re working on a solution to these problems, but without a well-funded Tijuana NGO involved, it will be difficult.

SF360: The most striking aspect of this film to me is just how rapidly unmonitored industrialization can ruin an environment. Can you offer a small timeline of the rise of maquiladoras and repeat some of the worst offenses documented in the film?

Funari: Maquiladoras are the multinationally owned assembly plants which dominate the economy of the U.S.-Mexico border. In the 1960s, U.S. companies began opening assembly plants in Mexico’s border region, drawn by cheap labor, lucrative tax incentives and weak enforcement of environmental and labor laws. With the advent of the factories, Tijuana became one of the first ‘maquilized’ cities in the Americas. It grew at an astounding rate, more than quadrupling in size in 30 years. When NAFTA took effect in 1994, the growth accelerated: By 2000 there were 4000 maquiladoras in Mexico employing 1.3 million people. Tijuana’s infrastructure could not keep pace with this growth, leaving vast areas of the city without basic services.

Globalization promised jobs, and working class Mexicans uprooted their lives in other parts of the country to migrate to those jobs, despite the costs: low wages, poor labor conditions, lack of housing, human rights violations and environmental degradation. Then, in 2001, factories suddenly started leaving. The boom gave way to a bust: With the global economic crisis of 2001 and with the increasing availability of much cheaper Asian labor, layoffs and unemployment in Tijuana have become endemic. Displaced workers now must face the reality of Tijuana’s dependence on a global economic system which offers them no long-term security. For better or for worse, the evolving maquiladora industry is an integral part of the Mexican, U.S., and Asian economies; and it is with us to stay. Today, Tijuana is a sprawling, chaotic city that provides for the rest of the world before it provides for its own people. With plans in the works for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the Puebla-Panama Corridor, Tijuana is also an example soon to be followed by cities throughout Central and South America.

The film traces the stories of two women confronting some of the many problems facing Tijuana’s factory workers and citizens: labor violations and environmental degradation. Carmen takes a major television manufacturer to task for violating her labor rights. Carmen worked at a Sanyo factory for 6 years, but lost her job when Sanyo moved the production line to Indonesia and closed the factory. Under Mexican labor law, a business must pay workers a severance package when it changes location or closes. The law spells out clearly the amounts laid-off workers should be paid, according to seniority, but the law is rarely followed or enforced. Sanyo tried to leave without paying the required severance, so Carmen and her co-workers filed a labor claim. After a long struggle with the labor board and company lawyers, Carmen and her co-workers won an unprecedented amount of severance pay: $2,000-$2,500 each, far above the US$300-$400 companies usually pay.

Lourdes became an environmental activist when she found out that the chronic skin rashes and respiratory problems she and her neighbors suffer might be the result of toxic wastes left behind by an abandoned battery-recycling factory on the mesa above her neighborhood. The factory, Metales y Derivados, was ordered closed in 1994 after a series of environmental violations. The U.S. owner escaped a Mexican arrest warrant for environmental crimes by crossing the border to San Diego, where he was untouchable under international laws. He left behind a skeleton of a building surrounded by 23,000 metric tons of toxic waste, including lead, arsenic, cadmium and antimony, all exposed to the elements. The wastes from Metales y Derivados, along with those of currently operating factories on Otay Mesa, flow directly downhill into Lourdes’ neighborhood. Lourdes and other organizers spent years pressuring the US and Mexican governments to force the company to clean up the Metales site or to clean it up themselves. In 2004, they succeeded: The US and Mexico signed a clean-up agreement, committed funds, and the clean-up is currently in progress.

SF360: Now that many of the factories have moved elsewhere — say, Indonesia — is there a net decline in employment in the region, and what else are people doing?

De La Torre: According to the Comite Fronterizo de Obreros in June 2001, México reached a historical record in its number of assembly plants: 3,735. Nevertheless, eight months before, in October of 2000, many assembly plants started leaving Mexico. This was in direct response to the US economic crisis. In October of 2000 the number of factory workers also reached a historical record: 1,347,803. In July, 2003, 302,205 jobs were lost (22 percent), leaving the number of employees at 1,045,598. In the following 21 months, starting July, 2003, the industry has recovered 118,452 jobs.
According to Carlos Salas, self-employment, also known as informal economies, now accounts for nearly 25 percent of all the ‘jobs’ held by members of Mexico’s non-agricultural workforce. Self-employment can mean many things, some of them quite creative and even lucrative, but in Mexico it has become a last refuge for those with nowhere else to go — except, perhaps, north. And of the jobs that come with a regular wage, the same precariousness applies. Salas reports that of all the jobs created between mid-2000 and mid-2004, 65 percent came with no benefits whatsoever, and frequently without a written contract. Even if workers have a job working for a factory, they usually have a second job in the informal sector. Some of the workers in ‘Maquilapolis’ have more than just one job. Eva, for example, sells food in the morning and works at a factory in the evening.

SF360: The mix of set-pieces, studio work, and hand/held cinematography is interesting. What was most difficult about actually putting together the plot of this piece?

De La Torre: It was very hard to leave some of the video diaries out. We have these amazing testimonies that we couldn’t include in the final piece. When we first met the 14 factory workers, we had no idea whose story we were telling. We held the video workshop and this, without us knowing, gave the film its two main characters, Carmen and Lourdes. They were both going through a very important process in their role as activists that we had to pay closer attention to their footage. We have more than 150 hours of video diaries. There are scenes by other factory workers we couldn’t use. There is one scene by Tere that looks like early 1970s video art. It is a domestic scene. The camera does not move. You see Tere’s husband on the kitchen table, silent, waiting for Tere to feed him. Tere moves in and out of camera. She is talking. She is also feeding her husband. It remindeded me of Chantal Ackerman’s ‘News from Home.’

There is another video diary from Francis. She is alone in her bedroom singing. The camera seems to be floating. The camera moves slowly close to her face. It is a closeup and she does not stop singing. She sings a love song. The camera moves in circles. I remember seeing a video like this by Pipilotti Rist at the MOMA in New York City in the late 1990s. I can go on and on describing more scenes by Vianey, Eva, Diana, Lety, but I’ll stop here.

SF360: I notice the film is 60 minutes in a 90-minute feature film world. What’s your theatrical plan for the film?

Funari: None. We always saw this film as a piece for television and for a major community outreach campaign, but not for theatrical release. We made two versions, a shorter (52-minute) version for PBS and a longer (68-minute) version for festivals and for our outreach campaign. The PBS version will have its national broadcast as part of the PBS series POV, on Tuesday October 10 at 10 p.m. (check your local listings.) The festival version is having a great run right now (about 35 festivals confirmed so far), and the outreach campaign is getting going as well.