So much has been written about Haskell Wexler over the years that I’m going to keep this intro brief.
Suffice it to say that Wexler is simply one of our greatest living cinematographers. He’s in a class by himself as much for his fearless sense of justice as for his groundbreaking technical innovations, but it’s his lifelong commitment to putting his lens where his mouth is that makes Wexler such a unique source of inspiration to so many moviemakers.
From his pre-teen days filming striking union workers in 1934 Chicago to shooting the 2011 documentary Bringing King to China, Wexler has always wielded his camera with the belief that it is every bit as capable of influencing hearts and minds as the written word. Though he has won two Academy Awards (for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966 and Bound for Glory in 1976), like so many iconic artists, Wexler’s greatest artistic achievement may be himself.
From his groundbreaking, self-financed anti-establishment feature, Medium Cool (1969) to the workers’ rights documentary Who Needs Sleep? (2006), Wexler’s social conscience has been his career-long guide. But he was perhaps never as fearless as when he made his second film as writer-director, 1985’s stunning Latino.
A direct product of his rage at the U.S. government’s attempted overthrow of Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime, Wexler filmed Latino in a war zone, capturing realistic footage at great personal risk in an attempt to increase American awareness of the political upheaval occurring in Nicaragua at the time. The strategy backfired when the film was suppressed by its distributor. But now, Cinema Libre Studio has done its part to correct that injustice by releasing a director’s cut of the film on DVD.
As Wexler approaches his 90th birthday, this lifelong vegetarian is still vital and brimming with energy, working on several new projects and writing a regular blog. In 2011, he even won a seat on the board of the International Cinematographers Guild.
I recently spent an afternoon with Wexler at his office in Santa Monica, where we discussed Latino’s initial reception (at home and abroad), socially-conscious moviemaking and the reason for the film’s re-release.
Tim Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When Latino first came out, it didn’t get the release that you wanted. Do you feel like the American public wasn’t ready for it?
Haskell Wexler (HW): Latino was made when there was a secret war in Nicaragua. We had great difficulty in being able to physically even get to Nicaragua, because the State Department put the word out that renting equipment was impossible. The rental companies wouldn’t rent us equipment because the insurance wouldn’t cover it, so I had to buy lighting equipment. I had to get a Chinese ship, because no U.S. ship would transport the equipment we needed, like uniforms, lights, cables and cameras.
When the film was completed, the first time it was shown was in Washington D.C. and the conventional media, including The Washington Post, weren’t sure how to deal with it. They didn’t present it as a dramatic film, but as a sort of attempt to do a documentary. Therefore, it was not worthy of attention. The Post had a pretty harsh review which, fortunately, they allowed me to reply to. The reviewer was challenging my patriotism, and I felt I had to say that I made Latino as a patriot. I said I didn’t think that conducting a surrogate war—paying mercenaries to destroy educators and co-op farms and an elected government in Nicaragua, and to do that with American equipment and American trained personnel—was what America was all about.
MM: What was the reaction to your reaction at that time? Did you get public support for your point of view?
HW: The way media deals with something like my film is to ignore it. Fortunately, George Lucas came [on as an executive producer] after I’d shot the film… and we got an invite to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was very well received and got an award called “a du regard.” The rest of the world knew a great deal about the Contras and the situation in Central America.
MM: The American public was largely unaware of the situation at the time, right?
HW: By the time the film came out, it was just being revealed. Ronald Reagan, as you’ll see in the director’s cut, was describing the Contras as the moral equivalent of our founding fathers. And [his statements] had a twist that I hadn’t seen in films or in State Department statements up to that time: That it’s okay to kill people, because they deserve to be killed.
I’m oversimplifying, but in narrative movies we have good guys and bad guys. Once we decide who the bad guys are, it’s okay to do anything to them. And the more technically advanced [the manner] we dispose of them is, the better it is. That it’s actually better for them because, in the long run, we’re making them more advanced, more civilized and more “democratic.”
MM: You said that the way the media dealt with a film like this was to ignore it. Do you feel as if the release of Latino suffered a kind of de facto sabotage? Or do you really believe the media just didn’t know how react to the film because it was fiction that almost played as documentary?
HW: The system never has enough space for little pictures. It’s not the kind of movie that will incite masses of people to fill theaters. It was made under extremely difficult situations; we were actually under fire many times. We were shooting in towns where, just four or five days before, what we were reenacting in the scene had actually happened. The wounded were just a week away from actually being in that situation with the Contras.
So even though the blood was put on by our makeup person, I didn’t have to give them direction as to what expressions they should have on their faces. It was very close to reality.
MM: The footage you shot is incredibly realistic.
HW: I had actual information about the way the Contras had tortured people from a man who had been tortured by Somoza’s government. He told me, ‘No, no. You put the electrodes over here, and the best way is metal bedding.’ The CIA had a manual for the Contras on torture techniques and ways to uncover suspects, usually potential leaders, including Catholic priests active with the Sandinistas.
MM: Did you envision all of this before you got there? Or was most of it conceived on the spot, similar to the way that Medium Cool was filmed? You were there for five months, right?
HW: Yes. I had asked Skylight Pictures—Pam Yeats and Tom Sigel— to go in with the Contras. So they made a little film with the Contras. And they’re both fluent in Spanish and they have scenes where the head of the Contras shows them all the big cases of ammunition and material that was given to them by the U.S.. And I was down there with Ginger Varney, who worked for LA Weekly at that time. I was in Honduras with American Green Berets. And that was where I got the idea, because some of the Green Beret guys were Latinos from L.A..
MM: Were some of them sympathetic to the cause of the Sandinistas?
HW: No. None of the Green Beret guys. They were soldiers, they were doing their job and they liked the excitement.
MM: You mentioned some of the difficulties you had getting equipment. What were some of the other challenges of this shoot? I imagine there were heat and insects. Talk about what you dealt with during those five months.
HW: The film was sabotaged by the CIA from word one. All the equipment had to go on this Chinese ship. I had a UCLA student who went down with the equipment and got it unloaded.Turns out he was a plant by the CIA and was screwing things up. Our trucks were sabotaged and parts were stolen. In addition, there was a guy on our crew named Marvin. He was hit as part of a Contra invasion. I have a photo of him right here. It says “Marvin, friend of Haskell, killed during filming of Latino.” He was really good worker on the film. But the Sandinistas had armed everybody—women, children—to try to defend themselves. And you see a scene in the film where the young girl shows the young boy how to handle an AK. I learned to do that, as well, but I was very careful never to carry a weapon because I didn’t think that was right… that’s not why I was there.
MM: How close were you to the actual fighting? What was your physical proximity during the majority of the shooting?
HW: The way the Contras worked is that they would make forays into Nicaragua. And then, as in the film, they would sometimes recruit people or get them to do their work for them. It’s not that the Sandinistas were angels or some great, super-progressive force. They weren’t, but the connection with the Church and with non-Soviet socialism was good. But Somoza had been there. And that whole system of business and keeping workers down and exploiting them didn’t just disappear because some mostly well-meaning people wanted to change things. And they were literally under attack. Making a feature film with that background is difficult. You have to concentrate on your characters and try to deal with the practical obstacles.
MM: Did you assemble your team here before you went down there? Or did you assemble most of your team there? I know your DP was already chosen, because he had worked down there before.
HW: The crew that I brought from the U.S. was Pam Yates, Tom Sigel, Scott Sakamoto and then, of course, the actors. All the rest of the crew were from Puerto Rico. But those were my key people. And the equipment was mostly my Éclair CM3, which is a French, portable 35mm camera.
MM: Four hundred-foot magazines?
MM: There must have been a lot of variables in filming down there. How did you estimate your budget?
HW: Part of the expense was buying equipment, which normally you would rent. No house would rent to us because the government had told the insurance companies not to cover us. So a lot of the expenses were logistical. The actors weren’t getting big money. (laughs) We were there a long time. I don’t really remember what the budget was, but my mother paid for it. (laughs)
MM: How did you convince your mother to fund your film?
HW: Mom wanted me to do good things.
MM: She believed in what you were doing.
HW: Yeah. And then I had friends, too. One friend was the distributor of the Éclair camera, Benjamin Berg. He was my producer. And we were able to get equipment by way of Panama. We had some film, almost a week’s worth, which we sent up to New York to be processed. And a week’s worth was stolen. The insurance company couldn’t find the film; it was in huge boxes, and they said it was the first time that had ever happened. They determined that it was some governmental agency that stole the film. So we had to re-shoot almost a week’s work because that. But the insurance company paid us, because they were obligated to see that the film was delivered.
MM: You had a extensive documentary career before this ever happened. Were you in some way disillusioned by the documentary form and what it could do to change public opinion? You could have made a pretty hard-hitting documentary about this subject matter; why did you choose to make Latino as a narrative feature?
HW: I did make a film with Saul Landau called Target Nicaragua. But the boundaries between feature and documentary… I always feel that they’re blurred. I do think that both formats have to have something that dramatically engages people, and how you do that is where the art is. Seeing Latino now, it doesn’t fit into big-ticket entertainment, but I do think it lives as a part of history.
Today, documentarians are realizing that their films have to have humanity, because if you just have people declaring what’s politically and socially correct, you’re not going to engage an audience. And yet you don’t want to present things dramatically that are amorphous. You don’t want so much information, so much complication that audiences won’t respond other than to say “Well, wasn’t that interesting,” without ever thinking about how it relates to humanity, how it relates to peace, how it relates to what all people want out of life, where we can find elements of agreement.
I was talking at the Hammer Museum recently about photography and the obligation cinematographers have to communicate. Because it’s not just like you and me talking now; there’s the possibility that what’s behind the lens can be somebody’s truth… If you’re making a dramatic film, you have to know how to deal with actors, you have to know how to work on scripts, you have to know how to frame. Those techniques have to be integral to the ideas and with the drama. It’s not just knowing how to use the most advanced technical tools, it means having something going on in your heart and in your head that you want other people to feel, and while you’re doing it to be able to be able to listen to those people. Particularly in documentaries. We all learn from the people on the other side of the camera. If you don’t, you’re not going to make a very good documentary.
MM: Is it fair to say that you were frustrated by the inability to say what you wanted when you were making Target Nicaragua? Is that why you had to expand some of those ideas with Latino? What motivated you after you had already made the documentary to go back and explore further and get deeper and turn it into a narrative film?
HW: Well, hardly anybody saw Target Nicaragua (laughs). And I thought that people might see what we call a dramatic film. I wanted to make a dramatic film that I thought was honest, but my honesty is limited by my viewpoint. Still, looking back at it, I think it’s a good film. And I know that all the people who were experiencing the film weren’t “political.” They didn’t come in saying, “Hey, the Sandinistas are God’s gift to democracy.” It was good to have actors like that. Because if everybody was as “dedicated” as I am, it wouldn’t have made the film any better.
MM: But the reason you made it was to get these ideas across on a wide basis for the American public, I would imagine.
HW: The main thing is that it was a dirty secret, and it was only exposed because a CIA guy’s plane was shot down over Nicaragua and he admitted that he had been sent by the CIA. That broke things open, because the U.S. had always denied that they had anything to do with what was just a civil war in Nicaragua.
But even as I’m telling you all this so many years later, who the hell cares? Who the hell cares about the Sandinistas, Nicaragua and the Contras? The reason I want the director’s cut to come out now is to say that the people in power still, in our country, will pay and arm bad people to go into another country and kill their women and children, and do it all for “a good cause,” because we pay them. We pay mercenaries. We’ve seen this in Iraq and the Middle East now, too. That is not what America’s all about.
Fortunately, the situation did get exposed, and Ollie North was arrested. Of course, now he’s got show on Fox News. (laughs) And Rumsfeld lied to us—he went out and killed a lot of Iraqis and a lot of good Americans who thought they were defending America—and he wrote a book that was on The New York Times Best Seller list. No one’s putting him in jail.
MM: So Latino helped get the word out, and now you’re hoping that Cinema Libre’s director’s cut release will give the film a second chance?
HW: I hope so. I hope people see that the characters speak of themselves as “Latinos.” People need to realize that we’re all on this planet together. When we are able to demonize people that we can’t see or don’t know, then we can kill them, take them over and lie to our own people because “They’re the bad guys.” And then when our bad guys are acting so bad that their people get upset, we will replace ’em with bad guys who don’t act as bad as those bad guys. So we’re talking about theater, we’re talking about drama, we’re talking about fiction. They don’t act for the camera, but they still own the TV stations, run the army and find nicer ways to torture people. That’s the way it is, so we have to go with the idea of the people having power and having to be able to follow through with it.
MM: The film still seems timely. It was made 25 years ago and we’re still talking about some of these same issues now. How did the idea for a director’s cut come about?
HW: I asked Cinema Libre to release this director’s cut because of the concentration of military activity that is stealing from our country; robbing our schools, parks, libraries and jobs; and settling things through aggressive militarism. This whole idea of buying cannon fodder and aggressive recruiting… Young Latinos without jobs are going into the military because of promises [being made to them] that are not being kept.
MM: Do you feel that the U.S. public’s appetite has changed at all to the receptiveness of this message? It seems to be even more discouraging today, the way that the public is anesthetized, more involved with their computer gaming and sports and all the other distractions. Are there any hopeful signs that this re-release is going to have an audience that actually listens to the message this time around?
HW: Oh, I don’t know whether this director’s cut is going to make a big difference. I’m just one guy and my mom put up the money for the film. (laughs) If it does make any difference for somebody, then two things will happen: It will make the world a little bit better and it’ll make me happy because it’ll make me a good boy for my mom.
I hope that other people feel this way; sometimes we call it a “conscience.” I’m just personalizing with my mom, but that is how change happens. It also happens because we have to be aware of each other. That’s what happened in Egypt, that’s what’s happening in the Middle East. When people are aware of each other, they realize they have power. And those who have a platform—and the Internet and cameras give you that ability—have the responsibility of not just complaining about the way things are, but pointing them out. What’s more important? Human beings and life, or killing? Winning? Winning no matter what? I guess the word is responsibility.
MM: Also optimism. You still seem like a pretty optimistic guy, even though a lot of these efforts that you’ve made are, excuse the worn-out analogy, a bit like Don Quixote jousting at windmills. But you and I are Facebook friends (laughs). You have a Facebook account. When I came in here today, you were talking about a flip camera. You’re also a blogger. It seems to me that you’re still very much involved, and you’re adapting to social change in yourself and with your moviemaking. How do you stay so optimistic and forward-thinking?
HW: Optimism. You know, I also hear the word “hope” a lot. And I hear the word “dream” a lot. Those are emotional responses. You see signs of negativism and signs of optimism, and what you have to do is search them out and say, ‘I’m going to run with this optimistically.’ Many friends of mine don’t have jobs or the things that they need in their lives. They just want to be able to pay for their houses or apartments. But they see all the government’s resources going into the military or to feeding the corporate system, and that’s their political education. They say, “Why is that? Why can’t I afford health care? Who’s representing me? Who’s telling me the truth? Who buys or rents these politicians?” And I say when those questions are raised and answered, we’ll have optimism.
And they are being raised in the universities. Just yesterday there was a demonstration at UCLA. The students are complaining that the tuition is going very high. And there’s the healthcare issue. All of these bread-and-butter issues are tied in with our societal priorities, which right now are askew because of the lies we’re fed through most media. So that’s the obligation of those of us who [are part of the media]: To try—through our music, documentaries, feature films and personal conversations—to break that barrier. That is what gives rise to true optimism.