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How Documentarian Bernardo Ruiz Went From Drug Wars to Wine Country

In the opening minutes of Harvest Season, the latest documentary from filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, glistening bunches of plump grapes await their fate in a hushed vineyard at night. In a sudden rush of activity, workers wearing headlamps scurry by, slicing the clusters from their vines with swift precision, tossing them into bins, emptying the bins into big tubs. Lyical shots follow of vintners, coopers, forklift operators and pickers, all moving with focused intensity or simply facing the camera, heads high.

The setting is Napa Valley, the most famed and highfalutin wine region in the United States, where some 3.85 million tourists spent more than $2 billion last year. The winemakers and laborers are all Mexican or Mexican-American. Over the course of the film, Ruiz follows four of them: Vanessa Robledo, a 41-year-old grower whose family has been working in wine since the 1940s, when they were recruited from Mexico as part of a program to address World War II labor shortages; Gustavo Brambila, a Mexican native who’s been producing wine in Napa Valley for 40 years; Rene Reyes, a picker who arrives from Mexico on an H2A visa for a 10-month stint; and Angel Calderon, a former farm worker who runs a housing camp for migrant laborers.

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The fraught dynamic between America and her neighbor to the south is at the heart of much of Ruiz’s work, including his Emmy-nominated 2016 documentary centered around the drug war, Kingdom of Shadows. But the tone — quiet, personal, humanistic — stands in sharp contrast to public discourse on the topic. (Case in point: Just two weeks after Harvest Season’s May debut on PBS, President Trump announced a new plan to levy tariffs on Mexico in an effort to force it to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into America, calling the longtime ally an “abuser of the United States” and claiming “They could solve the Border Crisis in one day if they so desired.”) Ruiz takes a much more resolutely measured approach.

“We don’t live in an age of subtlety right now, right?” the director says. “It’s an age of extremism. And in verite documentary, the impulse is the opposite. It’s just to allow things to unfold organically.”

To that end, Ruiz spent close to three years filming in Napa Valley, essentially embedding with his subjects; the only crew who sometimes accompanied him was his director of photography, Victor Tadashi-Suarez. The result is a film of striking intimacy and cinematic elegance that feels all too rare in a genre increasingly crowded with didactic, talking-head-driven storytelling. We look over Vanessa’s shoulder as she and her mother, Maria, stand side-by-side in the kitchen, preparing chile rellenos and chatting. We sit with a pensive Rene for parts of a 56-hour bus trip home to Michoacán, where he gives his two young daughters tablet computers purchased with his earnings. (“This is because of the work with the grapes,” he tells them as they open the boxes.) We listen in as Angel tells two boarders about his time as a farm worker, when he would sleep in an orchard and was once drenched by sprinklers in the middle of the night.

“The one thing that can’t be cheated or substituted is the rapport that comes out of time,” Ruiz says. “There’s a trust that has to be developed there, and I feel like my job is to listen, to be patient and just to show up as much as resources will allow.”

Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz. Photograph by Juan Luis Garcia/Quiet Pictures

As the subjects’ stories evolve, they naturally crash up against any number of sociopolitical issues. Vanessa started her own company after realizing that her father would never pass the family winery onto her — despite years being his right hand in business meetings — because she’s a woman. Angel matter-of-factly explains how the ongoing labor shortage in Napa is a direct result of U.S. border policies. Gustavo’s crop is devastated by the 2017 wildfires, which happened to strike while Ruiz was filming, bringing the effects of climate change into the picture.

It’s affecting without ever veering into advocacy. Ruiz’s goal, he says, was simply to make “a beautiful process film” about winemaking and the undersung role of immigrants within it. “Their presence is usually treated as a novelty, but in Napa-Sonoma, there’s no wine industry without Mexican and Central American workers,” he says. “[They make up] like 90 percent.”

But political bias is often in the eye of the beholder. Where a hot-button issue like immigration rears its head, controversy follows. One viewer at a screening told Ruiz she was offended by a montage that intercuts shots from Napa’s famed Wine Train — mostly white, presumably wealthy passengers (tickets are hundreds of dollars apiece) roll through the picturesque countryside, sipping top-shelf vintages — with scenes of mass in a church that serves the area’s Latino workforce. “She’s like, ‘The only reason those workers have jobs is because people like me go on the wine train, so why are you putting us down?’” recounts Ruiz. “But I’m not planting a flag in the ground saying ‘This is my perspective.’ My interest was in telling a story about the world.” A winemaker who provided some early funding for Harvest Season asked to have his name removed from the credits after learning how the film addressed migrant labor. “Which, again, just shows you what a moment we’re in,” Ruiz says. “There’s a terror there about being on the wrong side of an issue.”

He encountered similarly polarized feedback after Kingdom of Shadows, which followed, among others, a white Texas farmer who’d turned to pot smuggling in the Eighties to make ends meet and a tattooed, goateed Mexican-American Homeland Security investigator who’d grown up in a border town riddled with drug dealers. Some of Ruiz’s more progressive friends were put off that he’d chosen to profile a government agent responsible for deportations. But Ruiz was more interested in subverting expectations. “I was really drawn to the fact that someone like Don Henry Ford, you would assume is a classic American cowboy patriot, but he was actually a smuggler, and the brown man who some people assume might be the drug dealer or the criminal is in fact a high-ranking Homeland Security investigator,” Ruiz says. “Whenever possible I’m really interested in how — because this is how it’s played out in my life — some of the stereotypes that people have about the two countries are more complex.”

Ruiz’s life is singularly informed by the relationship he studies in his work. He was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, to a Mexican father and a white, American mother. His parents met in New York, after his father, an amateur musician who was also training in the Catholic church to become a monk, abandoned the religious life to travel to the United States. Though the couple later separated and Ruiz was raised largely in Brooklyn, he traveled often to Mexico as a teenager to visit his father’s side of the family.

Rene Reyes working in a Napa Valley vineyard.

Rene Reyes pruning vines. Photo credit: Roberto (Bear) Guerra/Quiet Pictures

He got sucked into filmmaking — or “joined the circus,” as he calls it — early, working during high school and college as a production assistant on various shoots in and around New York City (including Spike Lee’s Clockers, where he was thrilled to fetch Delroy Lindo a pair of socks). But his time in the trenches on large-scale projects led him down a different path. “There were a lot of music videos shot on film and with big budgets,” he says. “It was all expensive and glamorous but I thought, ‘This is kind of cheesy.’” By his late twenties, Ruiz knew that the intersection of journalism and cinema would be his sweet spot.

Next up for Ruiz (who also directed the Facebook Watch docuseries USA v. Chapo: The Drug War Goes on Trial, co-produced by Rolling Stone), is an ESPN 30 for 30 doc about an indigenous tribe of endurance runners in the Chihuahua desert who’ve been ensnared in the drug war by cartels who use them as mules. “It’s an amazing story, also a really visual story,” Ruiz says. “There’s an annual ultramarathon there, a 50-mile race in the Copper Canyon. We’ve been filming for a few months, and it’s grueling but also stunning.

“As much as I’m able to I want to find a visual way into a story and create some deeper meaning that wouldn’t be possible with a print piece or with a podcast,” he continues. “I think there is a trend unfortunately in documentary and nonfiction film to make podcasts and then just slap pictures on them. But if someone can turn on a documentary and wash dishes and do laundry while listening to it, you’re probably not doing your job as a filmmaker. My goal is to have somebody sit down and want to watch it. Otherwise what’s the point?”

Harvest Season is available to stream at pbs.org through June 12th.

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