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Filming a Documentary in Oaxaca, Mexico

Advice for the executive producer, by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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If traditional business seeks out consultants with a working knowledge of Mexico in attempting to carry out an enterprise in the country, why shouldn't documentary filmmakers do the same? Doing so could reduce their costs and potential liability, enhance the likelihood of producing an award-winning enterprise, and provide a necessary sense of respect for the people who ultimately will be lining their pockets. This doesn't mean retaining the high-priced so-called experts, but rather using common sense and following some simple guidelines. And the further south from the U.S. border filming is based, the more important it is for the production crew to be sensitive to the cultural differences between its members and their subjects.

Driver, Guide or Interpreter

Some have suggested using a driver and a guide, and others have done just fine with a guide who speaks both English and Spanish. Most film crews coming to Oaxaca with a team of 4 or 5 include someone who is bilingual. But using this individual as an interpreter removes him from the primary job he was hired to do. It is therefore desirable to hire an English speaking guide who has a good, working knowledge of Spanish, making a driver unnecessary and a waste of funds. The same holds true with a Mexican guide who is bilingual and has lived in the United States or Canada and thus understands the cultural differences between members of the crew and native Oaxacans (more about this later).

Aside from linguistic skill and the issue of cultural norms, an important aspect of hiring a bilingual guide is his ability to assist you with your groundwork prior to your arrival, which includes suggesting locations for daily shoots, providing advice as to how to fill your calendar so your crew is not too rushed yet is not left sitting around for valuable half days, and making sound recommendations regarding accommodations in terms of location, facilities and reliability. It's the same if you are planning to have a producer scope out Oaxaca before the filming, and more so if you intend to arrive in the city blind--of course aside from having done your research. Without a doubt this means having a great deal of trust in your expert on the ground. Have you been communicating with him frequently through email as your tentative schedule of working days becomes firmer? Have you spoken to him on the phone a couple of times? Do his suggestions regarding shooting locations, accommodations, etc., seem to be in sync with the reasonable expectations of your team? What is his educational, employment and broader experiential background? Based on the foregoing, do you trust that he will live up to or perhaps even exceed your initial expectations for him?
You might not feel comfortable placing such responsibility on the shoulders of a virtual stranger, and feel somewhat uneasy with having merely a local guide assume some of your tasks, but he has the ability to make your job much easier and stress-free and enhance your finished product … if chosen carefully. You'll always retain ultimate decision-making power, so just think of him as a valuable resource, a consultant at your disposal, an advisor.

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Your Man in Oaxaca may have been raised with the same standards of service, comfort and cleanliness, as you and your crew. If a Oaxacan, he has hopefully had some type of middle class American experience in his background. He should be able to provide valuable input into your quandary about which hotel to select. Have him confirm that WIFI is indeed up and running in each room (forget what the hotel website says), the pool has water in it, and the restaurant opens at 7 am if that's what's been represented. He knows the neighborhoods, distance to downtown and nearby restaurants of acceptable quality, accessibility to specific sites for your filming in and around the city, and much more.
While a suburban hotel perhaps provides more tranquility at the end of a hard working day, downtown establishments have advantages such as the crew being able to step outside and have a broad selection of eateries from which to choose, the ability to get a flavor of the city in terms of its residents, museums, churches, galleries, and so on. While the purpose of the visit is strictly work, your crew will appreciate any chance to unwind in its spare time, before calling it a night. Downtown Oaxaca provides an abundance of such opportunities.

The Releases

I've worked with entertainment companies out of both Florida and California, each with distinctly different approaches and attitudes towards the two fundamental releases traditionally required to be signed by both the subjects and the owners of locations being filmed.
The recommended practice, I would suggest, is for releases to be in Spanish, and signed by the individuals being filmed and owners of the locations being featured, before shooting begins. If prior to boarding the plane for Mexico, your consultant confirms that he has a package of signed releases, in Spanish, for each location, and of each individual tentatively scheduled to be filmed, you're golden, and the work of the producer or his associate is reduced. Once the team is in Oaxaca there is accordingly one less item of business about which to be concerned on a daily basis, if not more frequently.
The polar opposite is the associate producer scrambling to get releases in English signed after the filming of a particular segment has been completed. An English release signed by a monolingual Oaxacan affords virtually no legal protection, and perhaps is even a detriment. Consider a hypothetical case brought before an American court: The judge hears that a crew member put an English release in front of a rural Oaxacan of indigenous background, whose linguistic skills were restricted to a guttural knowledge of Spanish and his native tongue.

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If you're not concerned about liability, then why bother with releases? Of course you have a concern, and if not you, then certainly “the suits.” So why not protect yourself, at least to the extent reasonably necessary and prudent under the particular circumstances?
It's 7 pm, you've just finished spending the second half of the day filming the workshop of a Zapotec rug weaver in the nearby town of Teotitlán del Valle, your crew is packing up to leave, and your associate producer is still trying to convince the subjects to sign releases they don't understand. And filming hasn't gone all that smoothly because your commentator and producer have alienated the individuals as a result of not being sensitive to their accepted cultural standards for communication. The releases never get signed. You've wasted a half hour of valuable time that could otherwise have been spent by your crew in the hotel or having a leisurely dinner, and now it's up to the head honchos in Hollywood to decide whether or not to use the segment without the comfort of executed releases.
Contrast the foregoing scenario with your local advisor having approached the rug maker in advance of the shoot, Spanish releases in hand, and walked away with everything explained and signed. Second best is to get the releases signed just before filming begins, using your advisor to facilitate the process. If he's been used properly up until this point in the filming, he will already have a relationship with some if not all of your subjects and there will be no need to establish a level of trust from scratch.
If your practice is to use a large placard when filming in a marketplace or other open space where it is not practicable to have every subject appearing on camera execute a document, then have the release / notice board prepared before the day's shoot, in Spanish, in large, clear print.

The Cultural Milieu

Oaxacans are different than New Yorkers, New Zealanders, Trobriand Islanders and Germans. There is a cultural norm, a way of dealing with established friends, and with strangers. A different style of doing business prevails. Do your advance research, or rely on your advisor to give you a quick lesson immediately upon your arrival. Better yet, arrange for him to be the liaison between you and your style of interaction, and your subjects and theirs … at least for the first couple of days until you and your team have become somewhat acculturated. Have your consultant explain to the subjects how the shoot will proceed, and perhaps even have him apologize in advance for what they may deem, from their perspective, a gruff and inappropriate style of interacting. This refers not only to the interaction between director and subject, but the communication style between crew members. As you know, each crew has a different group dynamic, or personality if you will. Some do indeed interact just fine with their subjects and amongst themselves. Regarding the latter, either they've worked together before, have otherwise discussed their proposed interaction, and / or have been sensitized to working within a foreign culture, the southern Mexico milieu.

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Touching and grabbing a subject by the arm and placing her where you want her to be relative to the camera and props is often unacceptable even in Western society (perhaps aside from within the entertainment industry). Raising your voice in English is not the most effective way for you to get your point across, and doing so with your rudimentary Spanish may be even worse. Pointing, hand motions and the unconscious use of body language do not necessarily have the same meaning and significance to a Oaxacan as they do to Americans.

Roles and Relationships

In Oaxaca business gets done much more effectively within the context of pre-established relationships. Often the production team does not have the time or the inclination to develop even an initial relationship of cordiality with its subjects (which is often all that is required). If you are not in a position to take the time in the course of your busy shooting day to first sit down with and get to know your subjects, perhaps over a hot chocolate and sweet roll, then when selecting filming subjects use the contacts of your consultant whenever possible, because they are most likely based on pre-established relationships of friendship, kinship, compadrazgo (relationships based upon ties developed between families through the appointment of godparents) or business. However, it is crucial that you firstly, respect that your consultant must continue to live with his contacts, and secondly, understand and accept that he will be protective of them.

A case in point is a recent filming experience. The executive producer (perhaps in conjunction with an assistant and researcher) back home came up with a list of storylines, and a couple of names of individuals he thought would best advance those segments he wanted to film. During his pre-production visit to the city he met briefly with two prospective subjects from his list. A tentative agreement was reached to use them as central figures in the documentary. At the last moment one simply refused to participate; the other was only partially helpful in advancing the producer's goals. In both cases, at the eleventh hour I was required to call upon friends / business associates to help us out of the bind, and thankfully they came through. I had pre-established relationships based upon mutual trust and respect with each.
The producer also asked me for suggestions regarding subjects for other film segments. With regard to my proposed list of contacts for filming other storylines in the documentary, each individual and family fully cooperated with the production. I religiously called upon people with whom I had previously dealt.
The producer's incentives of free business promotion, a bit of money, and the thought of 15 minutes of fame were insufficient motivations for his chosen subjects to make their best efforts cooperate to their full extent, or at all. The reason was the lack of a pre-existing relationship. Of course matters do not always unfold as such, but in the case of this particular week of shooting, the contrast was striking.

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Using individuals selected by your advisor has its implications. Your subjects have to be directed, or managed might be the preferred term within the context of an American team working in Oaxaca. Is the director / producer prepared to have the advisor actually work with him? Probably not, because it would mean seemingly giving up direction and control. But if a shoot seems to be falling off the rails, or the struggle to get what you want appears to be unending and nerves are beginning to wear thin, injecting this new “assistant” into the process might be the most prudent approach, if only for special circumstances. Take your advisor aside, tell him what you're trying to achieve, and let him interact with a subject which seems to be resisting. Hopefully, using your consultant in this fashion will not be necessary. But sometimes it is. It all depends on the training of the members of your team, their sensitivity to the differences in cultural traditions, and patience.
We were just outside of Tlacolula de Matamoros, filming the processes employed in making mezcal, Oaxaca's state alcoholic beverage made from the maguey or agave plant. The stage had already been set for a disastrous segment, with the producer having alienated Fernando, one of the two brother mezcaleros (brewmasters, to use more familiar parlance). The crew arrived, the briefest of introductions were exchanged, and then the producer began directing which of Fernando's workers should be doing what, and when. I was an observer only, having already played my part in selecting the facility to be filmed, introducing the producer to one of the brothers a couple of weeks earlier, and bringing the new team with an unknown on-site producer to rural Oaxaca for a full day of filming all about agave.
The most gratifying moment when touring clients to mezcal operations is when by chance one comes across a facility which happens to be engaged in all facets of the process at virtually the same time. I had been assured earlier that the facility would be producing mezcal on this day, but I had no idea that virtually all phases of production would be occurring simultaneously. They rarely are. Nothing would have to be staged or contrived if the shooting were handled with sensitivity, aside from slowing down and repeating the steps employed.
Because of how the team's interaction with Fernando and his work crew had been unfolding, Fernando refused to instruct his workers to slow down to enable the cameraman, commentator and producer to shoot each stage. None was going to be repeated if not caught on camera at that particular time. There would be no staging, the producer came to learn. No angles, no two shots, no nothing … as long as the relationship between team and subjects remained in conflict.
I listened to the voices of the commentator and producer increase in pitch, and watched the cameraman turning every which way while crossing cable with the sound technician, all the while Fernando sitting back and watching his workers make mezcal at their usual pace, and ensuring that they continued to do so. My limited responsibility had previously been defined, rather clearly, by the producer. Nevertheless, I decided to step out of my role as guide, driver and occasional interpreter.

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I quietly walked over to Fernando. I explained to him that I knew how he felt, apologized for putting him in contact with the film crew in the first place, and asked if he would do me a huge favor (favorsote) and slow down the process and enable the crew to get the filming they wanted. I assured him that whatever he needed in terms of compensation for the trouble, aggravation and increased costs to him, would be looked after.
Had the crew been sensitized to accepted custom, all would have proceeded smoothly. Had the film producer and his team started off with an informal chat that had nothing to do with filming, a relationship, notwithstanding its seeming superficiality, would have set the stage for a productive and smooth afternoon of filming. Conflict does take its toll on a film crew, no matter its members' level of professionalism.
Of course each in the production team has a role, and in many cases one must not disturb the order of this universe. It is suggested, however, that some consideration be given to providing your advisor with an expanded role with some flexibility, subject of course to his capabilities and the personalities of your team members. While this may be stepping out of the box for documentary film makers, if the details and rationale are explained to the team, it makes for a much easier shoot and more harmonious relationships between crew members and their subjects. Egos may have to be shed, hopefully only to a limited extent.
It's important that you explain in the clearest of terms to your advisor what his tasks will entail and role will be, discuss any suggested deviation from the norm, and ensure that he knows the functions of each of your crew members, the chain of command, etc. This may be his first time being used in a capacity other than that of purely tour guide. But if that's all you want of him, then no such discussion ought to be necessary.
After You've Left Oaxaca

Your consultant's role and responsibilities should not be perceived as terminated simply because you've completed your filming and are back in the studio. He and his fellow Oaxacans are just as interested as you are in ensuring that their city and surrounding villages and sights are accurately depicted for the viewing public, and more generally that the production is a success. They have a strong sense of pride and an uncanny desire to be helpful.
In the course of shooting you will have been asked when the production will be aired. Many of your subjects have relatives in the U.S. who will want to view the program, and they may have access to the show via their own cable or satellite. Since you won't have that information at the time, feel free to impose upon your consultant to be the one to advise the subjects once you have particulars. This means letting him know as soon as you know, since he may have to travel to outlying villages to advise the others.
Your consultant may have a comprehensive mailing list of travelers from abroad with a special interest in Oaxaca. Oaxaca is one of those cities in the world which invoke such passion. After all, that's why you've chosen it. He should be pleased to email details of the airing of the production to his contacts, which will assist in improving your ratings. In my particular case, the list has upwards of 1,000 email addresses.

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You'll also be asked for copies of the DVD, and will be given particulars of to where to send it. As long as you provide your consultant with a couple of originals, he should be amenable to making copies and distributing them.
Documentaries do not always get the facts straight, no matter how competent the research that has gone into the production and the care with which editing has been done. The greater the accuracy or perception of factual correctness, the better your production will be received. Consider having your consultant vet your finished product prior to airing, and provide you with a list of any inaccuracies and their corrections. You will then be in a position to decide whether or not they are sufficiently serious as to warrant yet a further and final edit.


A carefully selected Oaxacan guide can and should be as important and critical a crew member as any other in the production team. His job should begin long before shooting begins. He ought to significantly impact the finished product because of his particular knowledge of the city, its environs and the unique cultural mores of its people; his personnel contacts; and his ability to guide the production in his capacity as an advisor to the producer. His role can be flexible, and adapted to circumstances. It can broad, relative to the quality of your advance research, your trust in his expertise, and your willingness to give up just a small fraction of your directorial control and responsibility. On the other hand it can be extremely limited. But if so, ensure that you've otherwise appropriately covered off matters of language, understanding of the culture within which you'll be working, and knowledge of the city and surrounding towns, villages and sights you're planning to film. He can shave time off of your workday, and more importantly reduce the inherent stressors which inevitably plague the making of a documentary in a foreign land.

Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, tours couples and families to the craft villages, market towns, ruins and other sights in the state's central valleys, and is special Oaxaca consultant to documentary film production companies.

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