The Guestworker is the product of three years of labor among Mexican field hands working in North Carolina under the auspices of the H-2A guest worker program. The film is the work of veteran documentarian Cynthia Hill and ethnographer and farmer Charles Thompson, and it focuses on one particular laborer, a genial and apparently indefatigable 65-year-old man named Candelario Gonzalez Moreno. Hill and Thompson spent a season with this man, known to his intimates as Don Cande, in their examination of the reality of contemporary agriculture and the people who work in this industry.
For Cynthia Hill, The Guestworker is a continuation of a steadily expanding résumé of films about social and economic issues in North Carolina, and this is the third consecutive year that she's had a film in Full Frame. Two years ago there was February One, which she co-produced with principal producers Rebecca Cerese and Steve Channing, and last year there was Tobacco Money Feeds My Family, a deeply personal project in which she revisited her roots in Pink Hill and profiled three farmers struggling to survive in the state's dying tobacco economy.
Thompson served as an advisor to Hill on Tobacco Money, and when he saw the scene in which a Mexican tobacco laborer wonders who did the work before the Mexicans arrived, a light went on.
"I said, 'Wow, that question needs to be expanded,'" Thompson says.
Since 1986, H-2A has allowed farmers to legally hire Mexican nationals to work on seasonal contracts. Farmers pay about $500 a worker, according to Hill, money that covers visa costs and recruiter fees. The laborers must pay for their own transportation to North Carolina, though they are reimbursed midway through the season.
The program is particularly popular in North Carolina: 25 percent of such H-2A workers nationally are in this state, totaling about 10,000 a year. The North Carolina Growers Association (NCGA) has been adept in promoting the program among its members, according to Hill, but the guest worker program has attracted the ire of farm labor advocates, including Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and legal advocates, who charge that the system is little more than legalized exploitation or indentured servitude.
The issue is particularly acute for Thompson. Now an adjunct professor of cultural anthropology and religion at Duke and the director of curriculum and education at Durham's Center for Documentary Studies, Thompson was born into farming culture. He spent a year during college working on his grandfather's Virginia tobacco farm, and he spent years operating the Carrboro Farmers' Market while raising berries, apples and vegetables.
In his more recent academic career, Thompson has worked on oral histories and photographic projects concerning Mexican farmworkers (and picked up a sturdy command of Spanish along the way). His collaboration with Hill on The Guestworker is his first foray into documentary filmmaking.
Hill and Thompson hope that the film will dispel complacent stereotypes of Mexican laborers, agricultural or otherwise. The film closes with the principal character, Don Cande, returning to his home in a remote region of Durango. Home at last, this man, so humble and anonymous picking crops in North Carolina fields, reigns as the beloved patriarch in his comfortable and spacious home. "Going and spending time with families [in Mexico] helps dispel the perceptions people have," Hill says. "People say they have it better here than in Mexico, but there was not a single one that I visited where I could say that was the case."
Hill and Thompson encountered some skepticism from the NCGA when they began hunting for a farm on which to shoot. The H-2A program had come under withering criticism in this newspaper and the Charlotte Observer, says Thompson, but NCGA president Stan Eury was persuaded to lend a hand after seeing Hill's Tobacco Money Feeds My Family. Thompson also consulted legal advocates for suggestions. Both organizations--"mortal enemies," according to Thompson--provided the name of Len Wester, a Louisburg farmer who had hired several dozen workers annually through H-2A for years.
Wester gets a fair hearing in The Guestworker, and this has led to complaints from some quarters that the film is too friendly to the boss. "I don't want this film to be perceived as not hard-hitting enough," says Hill. "I'm not an activist filmmaker, but I'm not making film for farmers either. That's a commissioned piece of work. No one's paying me to make this film!"
If Hill and Thompson prefer an understated and humanist approach that allows everyone space to discuss their place in the great agricultural pecking order, the filmmakers are not above some sly hints about what may lurk beneath the surface of Don Cande's placid demeanor. The film closes with Don Cande and his wife making a pilgrimage to a nearby memorial to Durango's most celebrated native son, Pancho Villa.
"He's a Mexican hero who didn't know how to read," says Candelario, who seems to be illiterate also "But he died defending our land and its poor people. Thanks to him, we have a little bit of freedom."
If Cynthia Hill is an old hand at the Full Frame shindig, another local woman is getting her first taste of festival exposure. Twenty-nine-year-old Stephanie Johnes will be showing off Bouncing Bulldogs, a vibrantly entertaining work-in-progress about the Carrboro-based competitive jump-roping team. The 13-minute short, which is culled from an ongoing feature project, will screen before a feature doc about young gymnasts, called Gymnast. (In an unfortunate programming conflict, Bouncing Bulldogs will screen Thursday morning in Fletcher Hall while The Guestworker is in progress over at the Durham Armory.)
In a telephone interview last week, Johnes, a Carrboro resident, reported that the film began as a project at UNC's journalism school for a class taught by Hap Kindem. After earning her master's degree last year, the New York native decided she wasn't finished with the Bulldogs.
The short version that Johnes is screening next week is an upbeat portrait of Ray Frederick, gym teacher at Carrboro's MacDougle Middle School and, for the last 18 years, coach of the Bouncing Bulldogs. In and around interviews with Frederick and several team members, Johnes includes some wonderful footage of the celebrity jump-ropers at play. Bouncing Bulldogs is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Frederick, who is African American, emerges as a beloved and committed mentor to a group of predominantly white kids. Frederick trains approximately 100 children and about 25 to 30 of them travel and compete, according to Johnes. Over the years, Frederick has forged a powerful squad that has enjoyed national success, recently winning a national title. "It seems like they're on a plane every weekend," Johnes says.
The physical exuberance and extraordinary athleticism on display won't surprise those who've seen the Bouncing Bulldogs in person, but someone with an eye for the next high-concept Hollywood feature might find himself wondering if next year's Kirsten Dunst can be trained in the higher arts of advanced jump-roping.
For details on this year's Full Frame festival, go to www.fullframefest.org.