The Graduates: Interview with Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz

October 24, 2013 by Craig Phillips in Uncategorized

Graduates crew, from left to right: sound recordist José Araujo, co-cinematographer Antonio Cisneros, student Chastity Salas, Chastity’s mentor/advisor Emily Task, filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, producer Katia Maguire.

The Graduates (Los Graduados) premieres on PBS in two parts, “Girls,” and “Boys,” on Monday, October 28 and Monday, November 4 at 10 PM (check local listings). This documentary series is a continuation of the work filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has done through his Quiet Pictures production company since 2007. Their past projects have focused on stories of racial discrimination, immigration, and freedom of the press, with a common thread of representing struggles to achieve dignity and justice.  We spoke with Ruiz before the premiere to learn more about the making of the film.

IL: What lead you to make this project?

Bernardo Ruiz:  This was a unique series, because it wasn’t strictly an independent film — it was commissioned as part of the American Graduate project [a public initiative to investigate and address the dropout crisis in the United States]. For this series, I teamed up with producers Pamela Aguilar, Katia Maguire and my long-standing collaborator, editor Carla Gutierrez (who also edited my last film, Reportero). All of us grew up in bilingual households and three out of the four of us were born in outside of the U.S. (Pamela in El Salvador, Carla in Peru and myself in Mexico.) It mattered to me that the members of the producing and editorial team have personal insight into the lives of the Latino/a students we sought to profile. I would argue that as filmmakers we were able to start the conversation with students at a deeper place than if we didn’t have that experience as coming to the U.S. as children.

Similarly, Katia has been working on projects that explore the lives of women activists around the world (in the five-part PBS series, Women, War & Peace, in Quest for Honor, and in her upcoming documentary, Jessica Gonzales vs. the USA.) She brings a unique sensibility to the stories of the young women in our series.

As a team, we were very interested in creating a series about Latina/o youth that placed student voices at the center of the storytelling. In all six student-narratives we feature in The Graduates, the students themselves are the drivers of their own stories.

And what impact do you hope The Graduates will have? 

Bernardo Ruiz, The Graduates Series Writer & Executive Producer
Bernardo Ruiz, The Graduates Series Writer & Executive Producer

We are all so saturated by short bits of media — headlines and hashtags — most of us (myself included) skim the surface of media, digesting fragments. We hope a broadcast documentary series like The Graduates can bring people into a more reflective space. Through the students’ stories we look at issues of race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, and inequality in this country. Schools are spaces in American life — like hospitals— where we can view all of these issues more clearly. Of course I doubt that we can solve the persistent problem of racial inequality, xenophobia, and class inequality through a television series, but what a project like ours can do is generate much-needed attention and spark conversation. Civil conversation.

In each hour of The Graduates, we weave together three student stories. Through each individual story, we glimpse a larger structural issue — say poverty — or specific issues such as zero-tolerance policies in urban high schools and the banning of undocumented students from state universities— that impacts the education of Latino/a students. Rather than having an outside narrator tell us what to think about the students and their experiences, the students themselves are the drivers of their own stories. When we do hear from outside voices (writers, activists, elected officials) — the “notables” in the series — they are providing context or talking about their own experiences. But the students are really at the heart of the storytelling.

We also hear from parents, oftentimes speaking to us in Spanish. The parents are a key part of the narrative constellation of these stories—and if there is a recurring theme with the parent stories, it is one of sacrifice for their children. Similarly, we hear from guidance counselors and program directors who are committed to working with the students in a way that often means going above and beyond their job descriptions.

Finally, one key theme running through all of the stories is the importance of civic engagement — of students becoming involved in their schools and communities and—crucially — having a say in their own futures. If a project like ours can have impact, then I would hope that it show possible pathways for students who want to take a more active role in their educational futures, with the support of their families and communities.

Gustavo Madrigal, in The Graduates.
Gustavo Madrigal, in The Graduates.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

Filming in six different districts was logistically challenging. Also, many schools are understandably reticent about having camera crews in their hallways or classrooms. The biggest challenge was really time — time in explaining to teachers, administrators, and community leaders exactly what we were up to. Once we had support (and permission) the filmmaking itself was just about listening. Our primary job was to listen.

I’m sure people would be curious to know how you decided on the six adolescents you ended up focusing on for this film. What was the process of tracking them down and narrowing down like?

Although there was no set formula for how we identified students for the series, we did keep in mind certain criteria — namely that we wanted to showcase the racial/ethnic diversity of the Latino/Hispanic community, as well as tell stories in both urban and rural settings. (As a note, we use the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” interchangeably in the way that Pew Hispanic does.) The students in the series are Mexican American, Dominican-American, Puerto Rican, and Salvadoran-American. The students also come from a mix of regional and geographical backgrounds — urban, rural, the South, the West Coast, and the Northeast. We couldn’t cover everything of course, but again our goal was to create a kaleidoscopic portrait of Latina/o youth and to have the students themselves drive the narratives.

graduatesposterDespite being a very diverse group, they all shared a willingness to be open about their lives with our crew. That isn’t an easy thing for anyone to do, so part of the process was finding youth who were at a place where they could process their life and educational experiences with a camera crew hovering around. So much of documentary filmmaking is about timing. Sometimes people are ready to talk. I don’t mean to keep harping on this, but if we do our jobs well, we are also ready to listen.

How did you ultimately gain their trust?

There is no secret to gaining trust. It is just time and consistency. Pamela Aguilar and Katia Maguire in particular spent days and weeks in the field, building rapport. We also worked hard to make the students the drivers of their stories, and I think that was a key way to gain trust. Obviously the students were not the filmmakers and we made final editorial decisions, but we did work closely with them in the shaping of their narratives. It was certainly a collaborative process, and one which I really enjoyed.

Was it tough to resist temptation to help these students out if it felt like they needed assistance, to be a passive observer?

First, a story: When I was 17 years old, I moved to a rural county in Washington State from Brooklyn, where I’d grown up. It was the third high school I’d attended in three years. Academically, I was what would you would call an “uneven” student. But at the end of my junior year I heard about the “Urban Journalism Workshop” — a project for aspiring high-school journalists run by the Seattle Times and the University of Washington. I applied and was mercifully accepted. That brief introduction to the world of journalism — learning how to question an elected official, writing on deadline, learning the building blocks of a good nonfiction story — got me started on a path towards documentary, got me engaged in a way that I hadn’t been engaged before.

For this series, my team and I were looking to highlight those projects, programs, groups, teachers or mentors that were similarly nudging students towards a passion, towards future possibility. In that sense, it was always about listening to students and having them tell us what had allowed them to thrive.  

Chastity Salas in writing class, in The Graduates.
Chastity Salas in writing class, in The Graduates.

After doing this film, do you feel more optimistic about the “graduation crisis” going forward? Do you see it continuing or improving?

The Latino/Hispanic high school dropout rate is actually falling and college enrollments for Latino/Hispanic students are up. However, Latino students are less likely than other groups to enroll in a four-year university or attend a selective college. Latinos also lag behind other groups when it comes to earning a bachelor’s degree. Most Latino graduates are the first generation in their families to receive higher education, a reality we see in The Graduates. What is powerful to me about these stories is the possibility of this first generation entering leadership positions and changing the political, economic, and cultural landscape of this country.

Why did you choose to present The Graduates on public television?

I think that public media is at its best when it addresses issues in the public interest, not simply creating entertainment for entertainment’s sake. I have no problem with entertainment — I enjoy commercial entertainment like any other kid who grew up in the ’80s — but what makes public media “public” is that it is willing to address, interrogate, or highlight social issues. That is why I produce for public media and that is why The Graduates comes from public media.

Was there anything in your background you learned that lead you here, and/or prepared you for making a film like this?

Before working as a filmmaker, I taught for only 1 year in New York City public schools through the Learning Through and Expanded Arts Program (L.E.A.P.) My mother, on the other hand, has been teaching high school Spanish and Latin for nearly 40 years. Through my very brief foray in the world of teaching, and by watching my mother I learned that teaching is much harder than filmmaking. No matter what any filmmaker tells you, teaching is a much tougher job.

What didn’t you get done when you were making the film?

My laundry.

What are your three favorite films?

I could never answer that question. It is a Sophie’s Choice. (Please don’t publish that my favorite film is Sophie’s Choice.)

OK, how about this then: What films and/or filmmakers were a particular influence on you in making this film?

Ok, so not tied to this project in particular, but I am inspired by  filmmakers like Patricio Guzmán (Nostalgia for the Light), Laura Poitras (The Oath) and my contemporary Mai Iskander (Garbage Dreams) who actually shot significant parts of The Graduates.  In general, I draw inspiration from the work of my contemporaries shown on Independent Lens and POV. The most exciting work on PBS, for my money, comes from independent filmmakers and producers who show on these two series.

For this project specifically, I and my team drew inspiration from projects like the New York Public Radio initiative, Radio Rookies, that trains and curates youth voices. I also built on lessons from one of public media’s first forays into new media storytelling, POV’s Borders (2002). I was lucky enough to work with three teens from the Texas-Mexico border for that project, producing a “webumentary” series at a time when online video was really in its infancy.

Bernardo Ruiz talks to student Eduardo Corona
Bernardo Ruiz talks to student Eduardo Corona

What projects are you working on next? Are you planning on another piece on education, or something different?

My team and I have begun a new film that revisits, but deepens similar material and themes we explored in Reportero (POV, 2013). It is an altogether different challenge, but one we are ready to delve into now that The Graduates is out in the world!

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers out there?

Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Unless it’s a sprint. In which case, make the best of that sprint. I learned everything I know by working for stubborn, dedicated filmmakers and journalists.

Lastly, what do you find is the most inspirational food for making independent film? 

Coffee. It’s a legal stimulant.

The trailer for The Graduates:

Los Graduados, en español:

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.