THE STORM THAT SWEPT MEXICO is a compelling, ambitious documentary about the Mexican Revolution, the first major political and social revolution of the 20th century and its profound impact on the rest of the world. Award-winning producer/director Ray Telles talks to LPB about the making of the two hour documentary premiering May 15, 2011 on PBS (please check local listings). For more information, please visit the website HERE.
My grandfather and great grandfather (both named Delfino Ochoa-my mother’s side) rose up against Porfirio Diaz. They were involved in the anti-reelectionist clubs in Chihuahua. They later took up arms. In 1929 my mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents were sent into exile to El Paso, Texas by President Calles for nearly 4 years as a result of my family’s continued involvement in post revolution politics. My grandfather told me these stories and gave me books to read about the revolution when I was a child.
My grandmother on my dad’s side, Antonia Loya Telles, fled Mexico to El Paso, Texas in the midst of the revolution-1914. She and her sister had been orphaned by the war. This was family history to me. I also believe it is an important story to bring to a PBS audience because it sheds light on an important piece of U.S. history and it helps us understand the complicated relationship between Mexico and the United States.
THE STORM THAT SWEPT MEXICO has taken ten years to complete. Can you tell us about what it took to get this off the ground and into production?
This is a very long story. To be brief – it took a lot to get this project off the ground. It started in 2000 with a grant from PBS to develop the project. I teamed up at first with KCET (then KERA) and received some initial funding which helped us begin to develop the film as well as money to shoot interviews with 4 of Zapata’s soldiers. We received funding from the NEH (a consultation grant and a planning grant) to further research and develop the project. We later received scripting and production grants from the NEH. KERA dropped out of the project and at that point ITVS came in with production funding. LPB has supported the film from the beginning – starting with R&D funding through production, post and now with its support in getting publicity for the film.
The film is filled with beautiful, almost hypnotic aerial shots of haciendas and Mexican lands. Did you face any challenges in filming these shots either with the technology or the permits, etc.?
The aerials were shot on a Varicam with a Tyler mount on a Jet Ranger helicopter. Normally this wouldn’t be a challenge but we had a very fussy, complicated remote deck so that we could change tape inside the chopper. Getting it to work properly put us through hell. Halfway through our filming in Chihuahua, the battery fell off the camera and we had to land the helicopter and replace it.
We had to drop the wonderful story of Felipe Angeles, a young brilliant general under Porfirio Diaz. He went on to serve under Madero. When Madero was assassinated he left his post in the Federal army, switched sides and joined Francisco Villa. He went on to become Villa’s intellectual mentor, chief strategist and head artillery.
Music was very important to this project, could you talk about your experience in working with the composer as well as using traditional Mexican music? Also, could you explain the process of deciding what music to use in each sequence?
I had worked previously with Pete Sears on “The Fight in the Fields.” He had collaborated with Agustin Lira on the Cesar Chavez film and I knew how he worked. Pete wrote many of the cuts and collaborated with Pancho Rodriguez on producing the traditional music. They brought in a number of wonderful musicians for the San Francisco bay area who, beyond being wonderful musicians, were experts in the regional music of Mexico. They also brought in Los Lobos to play 6 cuts in the film which include: “Pistola y Corazon,” “La Feria de Las Flores,” “Carabina 30-30,” “Vallentina” and others.
Whenever it was appropriate we tried to link the music to the region – “corridos” from the north, “sones” from the south etc. We also tried to link the music to the period in time in which the events occurred.
I believe that their interviews provide the film with a sense of reality. These are men who witnessed history and their voices give veracity to the tales they are telling. We were fortunate that we had these interviews in the can because they all passed away within two years of our filming of the interviews.
In the documentary, the experts talk about how the legend of Pancho Villa came to be, particularly the idea that he was the Robin Hood of northern Mexico before the revolution is a myth. He was actually just an ordinary outlaw in the early period of his life. Were there any other “myths” you were shocked to uncover were false or not?
There are many legends about Pancho Villa. Some are true and others are not. You could make a dozen films on Villa. I was not shocked to uncover anything. I was intrigued by the complexity of characters like Villa, Madero, Angeles and Cardenas. I was thrilled at discovering the story of Nellie Campobello in the early days of research then bringing her story to the screen with the help of storytellers Elena Poniatowska and Jesus Vargas.
You have also created an enhanced website to compliment the two hour special. Can you tell us a little about what will be featured the website and why you decided to add this component?
On the site, you will be able to research and discover even more information about the characters depicted in the film and their place in the history of Mexico and the U.S. PBS requires websites for its broadcasts and ITVS supported an enhanced website which has allowed us to provide an interactive experience for anyone visiting the site. I believe the web site will have a life far beyond the broadcast and we will continue to enhance the site.
I hope that this film attracts a broad audience. I hope that Latinos see this film. Based on screenings we’ve had on college campuses in the last 6 months, the Latino audiences in particular have had a strong emotional connection to the film- it reflects their experiences and stories. I hope that people enjoy a good story-which this is.
Most of all, I hope that our PBS audience and those visiting our website will learn about an importantly crucial period in history, how the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico was shaped during that era and how those events continue to play out even today.
THE STORM THAT SWEPT MEXICO is premiering on PBS on May 15, 2011
(please check local listings)
THE STORM THAT SWEPT MEXICO is co-production of Paradigm Productions, Inc., and ITVS in association with LPB. Major funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, with additional funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and The San Francisco Foundation.
For more information about the film, please visit the brand new official PBS website HERE.
*All images courtesy of Paradigm Productions