Hart Perry discusses his influences, the challenges of making “Valley of Tears” and the 20-years he spent filming the conflict.
What was your biggest challenge in making this documentary?
The biggest challenge in making the documentary was to tell both sides of the story. The onion strike had polarized the town of Raymondville. The Mexican American community gave me access to film their side of the story. The Anglo community was reluctant to give me access since I had spent so much time filming union activity. I met with leaders of the Anglo community and made a presentation to the Chamber of Commerce where I asked for their help in telling both sides of the story. I explained that if the documentary was to depict the community in a meaningful way I needed to talk with them. We talked and filmed. Over the years of filming I was able to continue this dialogue.
In 1979 did you know you would be documenting this civil rights struggle for over 20 years?
No, I did not think I would spend 20 years filming this documentary. It started out as a very easy documentary to make. I had just filmed a successful documentary, “Harlan County: U.S. A.” with Barbara Kopple that was on a similar subject, a labor conflict. “Valley” was quickly funded. I filmed for over a year everything I needed to make the film. Trouble began in the editing. Funding ran out and the film was put into a hiatus. David Sandoval and I continued filming and following the Raymondville story at our own expense. The focus of the film shifted from a labor story to the story about the town and the divided community. We received some funding for this story but not enough to finish it. We also did not have an ending since there was no resolution to the conflict. The time that it took to film became part of the story. I appropriated this idea from Michael Apted’s 7 and Up series where he revisited characters every seven years. Fortunately we received support from LPB to finish the film and the unhappy story of Raymondville resolved.
Taking into consideration the amount of footage you must have filmed over that period of time, how difficult was the editing of this documentary?
The editing of the completed film was not difficult because I worked with a great editor, Richard Lowe. Before that it was very difficult. The first editor did not work out. Then I became the editor by default. I could not afford to hire an experienced editor. I worked with the writer, Juan Gonzalez, in shaping the material because I was overwhelmed with the different stories I could tell. I tried to put all the great stories and the best material into the film. The logic was “Best material, best stories, best film”. The result was a confusing mess. With Richard’s help, we threw out some of the best material because it was irrelevant to telling the story. In a matter of months we had the shape of the film. Then the torture began. We went back to the original film that had been in storage for years. We searched for the material we needed from the 16mm film, transferred it to video and then had to eye match it to our edit.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently during the making of this film?
If I could do things differently in making this film, I would have hired the editor and co-producer who finished the film instead of the original editor. Of course this would be impossible because the editor and co-producer was around 8 years old when we started editing.
The independent film world is a difficult one, what keeps you motivated?
Is the independent film world difficult? The people are great. You get to make the film you want to make. There is the problem of not being paid to do this and having no audience for your work but hey, there is a price to be paid for artistic freedom.
What advice would you give an emerging documentary filmmaker?
My advice to an emerging documentary filmmaker is to be independently wealthy. If that cannot be arranged, then it helps to have technical skills – like shooting, editing, or line producing.
What impact do you hope to have with this program?
I hope that this program will impact on the debate about bilingual education, labor and civil rights issues.
Why did you choose to present your film in public television?
I choose to present this film on public television because it has educational outreach to the communities like the one depicted in my film.
What filmmakers have influenced you the most in your career?
The filmmakers who most influenced me are Albert Maysles and Don Penneybaker. They showed me how to be a cinema verité cameraman/filmmaker. This is an occasion to give a shout out to the filmmakers who made “Valley”. Pamela Yates took sound, produced and translated. She is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. I have mentioned David Sandoval, Richard Lowe, and Juan Gonzalez. I have not mentioned Jonathan Aurthur and Peter Belsito who started “Valley”, Audrey Costadina who produced it, Hector Galan, the acclaimed producer/director who gave so much encouragement, not to mention all our friends who are in the film.
Who is most influential in your life?
My wife, Dana Heinz Perry and my three sons.
What is your motto?
Never say die.