'Reportero' Premieres January 7th on PBS - Q&A with Director Bernardo Ruiz

Reportero follows a veteran reporter and his colleagues at Zeta, a Tijuana-based muckraking weekly, as they stubbornly ply their trade in what has become one of the deadliest places in the world to be a journalist. In Mexico, more than 40 journalists have been murdered or have gone missing since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa came to power and launched a government offensive against the country’s powerful drug cartels and organized crime groups.

Director/producer Bernardo Ruiz talks to LPB about making his enthralling documentary that will bring the stories of these brave journalists to national television. Reportero premieres January 7, 2013 on PBS through POV. Don’t miss the film the New York Magazine called “a powerful reminder of how journalism often requires immense amounts of physical and psychological bravery.” For more information about the film, visit www.reporteroproject.com.

‘Reportero’ follows the journalists of Semanario Zeta, a bold newsweekly that has been covering organized crime and political corruption in northern Mexico for more than three decades. What inspired you to produce this film?

The project actually started as another film. Beginning in 2007, I was researching a story about a shelter for deported minors—the Albergue Juvenil del Desierto— in the border city of Mexicali, the state capital of Baja Norte.  As the ‘drug-war’ in northern Mexico intensified it was obvious that the growing violence was affecting all aspects of life in the region—including the lives of the children at the shelter. I felt I needed the perspective of a local journalist and the shelter’s founder offered to introduce me to a veteran reporter—Sergio Haro of the newsweekly ‘Zeta’ (no relation to the cartel). On the appointed day, I met Sergio at a Starbucks on the Mexican side. What was supposed to be a 30-minute meeting turned in to a three hour conversation. By the time I walked out of the meeting I knew that Sergio’s story – and by extension the story of his paper, ‘Zeta’ – was more urgent than what I had originally conceived. In the end, I was able to incorporate the story of the shelter into ‘Reportero’, but I understood then that all of the narrative threads I had been chasing—immigration, corruption and the rise of narco power in Mexico—converged in Sergio’s story.

In the film, you provide historical context for the current wave of violence against journalists in Mexico which dates back [at least] to the 80’s. Back then, journalists’ were worried about censorship and repression coming from political figures. Why did you feel it was important to highlight this history?

In order to understand Sergio’s story and the story of ‘Zeta’ we had to delve into backstory – which in this case meant looking at the early 1980s In Mexico. For me, this meant working with archival material. Funnily enough, some of the most interesting archival footage came not from Mexico, as I expected, but from another LPB-funded documentary maker, Paul Espinosa. Paul had produced a piece called “La Nueva Tijuana” for KPBS in the early 1990s which features an extraordinary interview with ‘Zeta’ founder Jesús Blancornelas. Paul and KPBS generously allowed us to include this material in the film.

In an archival interview in the film Jesús Blancornelas, founder of Zeta, says “When you’re holding on to a delicate story, you’re fearful. But the fear vanishes once the story is published.” In ‘Reportero’ you tread on very risky ground. Were you at all fearful during the production of the film? Do you feel differently now that the film has screened and will broadcast on national television?

By covering the very cities they live in, the reporters, photographers and editors of ‘Zeta’ face serious risks on an ongoing basis. During and after production of our documentary, ‘Zeta’ editor Adela Navarro Bello received death threats. And as we show in the film, three ‘Zeta’ staffers have been murdered, and the paper’s founder attacked in broad daylight. Yet in response, Adela will say, “we’re not martyrs.” She and her staff, including Sergio, continue to tell the story of their slice of the U.S. Mexico border every week. In Mexico, ‘Reportero’ has screened in 13 cities through one of the most exciting documentary festivals anywhere, Ambulante. A U.S. broadcast through P.O.V. gives us the opportunity to bring this story to a U.S. audience, largely unfamiliar with ‘Zeta’ and its reporters. I think its safe to say that one of the reasons Sergio, Adela and others agreed to participate in the film is the belief that greater international attention affords them a kind of, albeit inadequate, protection.

Since you began filming in 2007 have you witnessed any changes in the region and on the coverage on the drug war in Mexico?

During the presidential debates, neither candidate discussed Mexico and the U.S. news media didn’t push the issue.  Arguably, a neighboring country with a conflict that has claimed nearly 100,000 lives should be a foreign policy priority. But discussing Mexico would have meant discussing gun control and drug policy in the U.S.—two issues neither candidate was willing to address head on.  Do we need a better and more sustained dialogue on Mexico and Central America in the U.S.? I think so.

Sergio Haro mentions wanting to address social issues in his work, however he recognized that sensationalist stories attract more readers. Do you feel that the Mexican citizens have somewhat become desensitized to the violence?

Good, responsible journalists like Sergio and his colleagues at ‘Zeta’ are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Are you fueling the violence by covering it? Do you pretend the drug war isn’t happening and avoid covering the story? In the end one of reasons I chose to anchor the film in Sergio’s voice is that Sergio’s interest lies in human stories. He is someone who—through his nearly three decades of dispatches—humanizes the statistics, which have become mind-numbing to many in the U.S. and Mexico.

The dangers the journalists of Zeta and their families face is evident. Many newspapers in Mexico have decided not to publish stories on cartels for fear of repercussions. In your opinion, what motivates the Zeta team to continue publishing these stories?

This question gets at the very heart of the film. Why does one keep doing this work despite the loss of friends and colleagues, despite threats? I don’t think the film provides a simple or easy answer to this question—but it does take you through a reporter’s process. Do I run with this story or do I pretend I never received it? Who will be harmed by the publication of this story? Who will benefit? Even, is this a story worth dying for?

The access you gained with Sergio Haro is evident in the film. What advice would you give to young documentary filmmakers on gaining access to a subject, especially when there are many risks involved?

I think that in ‘risky’ situations it is critical to be up front with your collaborators (both on and off screen) about what your intentions are. Being consistent, being true to your word is all that you have. People will trust you if you are willing to be honest—and not pretend to have all of the answers.

Can you tell us about the next project you are working on?

I am Executive Producing a new bilingual series called ‘The Graduates/Los Graduados. I am working with a very talented group of collaborators that includes producer Pamela Aguilar, co-producer Katia Maguire, editor Carla Gutierrez and cinematographer Antonio Cisneros, among others. The project is a part of the American Graduate initiative and will air on Independent Lens in the fall of 2013. The series is a look at the Latino/a faces that make up our country’s future. It is an exciting project, and I hope part of public media’s growing commitment to telling more Latino stories.

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Latino Public Broadcasting is the leader of the development, production, acquisition and distribution of non-commercial educational and cultural media that is representative of Latino people, or addresses issues of particular interest to Latino Americans. These programs are produced for dissemination to the public broadcasting stations and other public telecommunication entities. LPB provides a voice to the diverse Latino community on public media throughout the United States. Latino Public Broadcasting is a registered 501(c)(3), EIN: 95-4776447.
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