In 2006–2007, Camilo Salazar Prince traveled to Mexico to capture footage for his film Esta Noche, which explores immigration issues. He focused in particular on sea divers near the border town of Tijuana. Below Camilo reflects on some of the lessons he learned about immigration and filmmaking today. His letters from the road follow.
Making Esta Noche
Working on a low-budget, feature-length film in Tijuana, Mexico is by far one of the most rewarding and strange experiences I have ever encountered. This film changed every preconception I had about filmmaking and taught me a number of things about life itself along the way. It also convinced me that filmmaking is my ultimate calling. Making the film was not easy, however, and at every stage there were as many high points as low points. During the Tijuana shoot we encountered trouble at every turn: two members were briefly kidnapped, we were bullied by the police several times, sleep became a strange friend, we had serious issues with a small pig, an alcoholic actor forgot to show up at times, we walked in mud up to our knees, and we drove across scorching deserts. Somehow in my memory these all seem to be the high points though. It was such a wonderful adventure. I would do it all over again.
For more than 30 years just south of Tijuana and off the shore of a shantytown called Popotla, sea urchin divers have been risking their lives both beneath and above the waters of the Pacific Ocean. As often as three times per week, small groups of frogmen—equipped with a mixture of professional and non-professional deep-sea diving gear—submerge themselves into a majestic seascape populated by sea lions, coral reefs, and an exuberant wildlife, as they seek to scrape large, red, spiny sea urchins off the surfaces of sharp and menacing rocks. The divers do not use conventional air tanks. An air-compressing, fuel-powered system similar to ones used in early diving history pumps air into their lungs via a long yellow hose that trails them wherever they go. The divers fill up to five large sacks with sea urchins on average, at times spending up to five hours beneath the water. They then take the sea urchins to shore where they are packaged and exported directly to Japan to be sold as “uni” in high-end sushi restaurants.
Compared to the average income of manual laborers in Baja California, the divers make a high wage, earning up to $100 per diem. Appearing excessive to some, this wage represents the profound health and safety hazards their job entails. The air suctioned through the compressors produces a highly contaminated gas that causes the divers life-long respiratory problems. The strong underwater currents and fluctuating water pressures make them prone to “the bends,” a condition that wreaks havoc on the circulatory system when they submerge or surface too rapidly. Each year at least one diver loses his life to this malady and several others become either mentally or physically disabled.
Despite the high Japanese demand for sea urchins, the divers can only work a few days per week due to these safety risks and the constantly changing weather conditions. As a result, they seek additional sources of income. When day turns to night in Popotla, the lively fishing community becomes the epicenter of an array of illegal activities. Divers by day and drug-smuggling coyotes by night, the men of this town lend their navigation skills to local mafia bosses, aiding them in smuggling illegal immigrants and drugs into the San Diego ports. A fifteen-minute ride to San Diego with a yacht full of Mexicans earns the divers up to $3,000 per trip. Many divers take one or two trips per year while others, now retired, recall the years they spent in the California prison system as they longed for their life at sea.
Camilo’s Letters Home
The Sea Urchin Divers of Rosarito
It was just past 6:30 in the morning when the divers started to arrive and began to unveil the dormant boats that populated the beach. There were about 40 boats on the shore, all dressed in colors worn out by time. I walked over to a large red boat where a man was tinkering with a motor. I asked him if he was a diver and he shook his head in denial. “I take tourists out for sport fishing,” he replied. A man with a tattoo across his chest that read “Sonora Jimenez” and dressed in rolled-up army pants was cutting a hole into a plastic container with a large knife. I pointed him out and asked if he was a diver. The man in the red boat smiled and said, “No, he’s just a beach bum.” That man turned out to be “El Tigre,” whom I had to talk to when I first planned to spend a day out at sea with the urchin divers.
“El Tigre” was an elderly man with a dazed look. He never seemed to look you straight in the eye when he spoke, and his hands were always busy with something. He seemed somewhat reluctant to take me along in his boat for the day. He told me to wait for the diver on his boat, Chayo, who would be the one to make the final decision. Shortly afterward, Chayo arrived in an old blue Ford Bronco that skidded across the beach. The motor’s Jaguaresque roar preyed on a flock of birds that instantly fled into the sky. The Bronco reached a halt by El Tigre’s boat.
After talking with El Tigre, Chayo approached me with a stern look and asked me where I was from and why the heck I wanted to go watch them work. “I’m from Colombia,” I said. “I’m making a small film about immigrants.” “Colombian,” Chayo said with a grin on his face. “Of course, you can come with us.”
The humdrum buzz of the motor ceaselessly wrestled with the sound of crashing waves as we cut across a blinding white fog. We were in five: Chayo, the diver; El Tigre, the boat motorist; Hector, the air compressor technician; Willy, a 12-year-old apprentice; and me, the guy with the video camera. The boat prowled through the dark blue waters in search for a place to dive for about 30 minutes. The motor was silenced half a mile off the coast.
Chayo sat naked on the prow with his eyes anchored on the waters. “You’re not making a porn, are you?” Chayo asked, chuckling while looking straight into the camera. I pointed in Willy’s direction who smiled for the camera. Chayo began to complain about the upper part of his wetsuit. I asked him what was wrong with it. He told me that he was trying on a new wetsuit that someone recently had passed on to him, and that it was too big for him. I didn’t understand what he meant by “passed on.” He explained that the wetsuit previously belonged to a guy who had died just 15 days ago while diving. “Doesn’t that scare you?” I asked, as he poured a bottle of soapy water over his entire body. He stood silent and rubbed the soapy liquid against his jet-black wetsuit until it formed a thin layer of white foam. He then turned his face towards the camera, saying “Maybe I’ll run into him down there.” He blessed himself, put the mouthpiece on and plunged into the water. The air compressor’s hum swallowed his splash.
We stood silently on board as Chayo’s body vanished into the dark blue waters. I asked El Tigre how the man whose wetsuit Chayo was wearing had died. “He got the bends,” El Tigre replied without taking his eyes off the yellow hose that trailed Chayo fading body. He told me that in the past few years more than 20 divers had died from the bends, a condition that wreaks havoc on the circulatory system when a diver submerges or surfaces too rapidly. According to El Tigre: “If the bends don’t kill you, you either go dumb or get to stay in bed for the rest of your life.”
As we waited for Chayo to surface, Hector asked me all sorts of questions, ranging from what were my political inclinations to my current civil state. My answers did not seem to impress him in any way, but when I offered that that I lived in California, both Hector and El Tigre’s eyes lit up. I asked them if they had been there. El Tigre laughed and said, “In a way.”
Hector and El Tigre had each lived in a California-state prison for over a year. They had both been convicted for illegally crossing immigrants over the border. El Tigre crossed them over by sea on a speedboat, picking them up in Rosarito—the fishing town we had departed from—and dropping them off in San Diego fifteen minutes away. Hector crossed them over by land by taking immigrants across the treacherous mountain range that expands across the north of Baja California. “What was prison like?” I asked. “I almost got killed once,” Hector answered. “They’ll kill you for anything in there.” The fog was clearing and a monumental statue of Jesus overlooking a luxurious hotel on the coast emerged into view.
Hector, Chayo, El Tigre, and Willy were all part of the Ochoa Family—three generations of sea urchin divers. The Ochoa family had been diving in Rosarito for more than four decades in a tradition that was to be passed on to Willy in the upcoming years. However, El Tigre wasn’t convinced that Willy would ever become a diver. He believed the trade was slowly dying out. Excessive diving was rapidly diminishing the local sea urchin population. Hector and El Tigre had reverted to other forms of income in the past in fear that their life-long trade would one day cease to exist.
Chayo emerged a third time from the water with a full sac of purple urchins. The boat was already half full. Hector picked out a sea urchin from one of the sacs. He popped it open with his hands and squirted lemon over the orange mush inside. He reached it out to me. By Chayo’s fifth surfacing we were ready to head back. Five hours had gone by. I had become seasick twice and everyone on board was getting a kick out of it. Willy pointed the camera at me as I leaned overboard once again.
The motor roared at full speed. The hustle and bustle of the fishing town came into sight: pick-up trucks packed with sea urchins, cages full of lobsters, beach bums roaming about, a prostitute from Ensenada, Chinese tourists taking pictures, frogmen in black wetsuits, an old woman selling ceviche. I told Chayo that I would return in a month to learn to dive for sea urchins, and to film him underwater while he worked.
The experience at Rosarito gave my script a new shape. During my first trip to Baja California, I managed to hire a casting director and production manager and found part of my cast: Chayo, El Tigre, Willy, and Hector. I will return to Baja on October 23 to do scout location, cast the movie and learn to dive for sea urchins.
We’re racing across Tijuana on a dimly lit highway that retraces the contours of an open sewage system. A week and a half have gone by and we are tired as we head to Rosarito for one last night of rest in Mexico. The red and white lights of the speeding cars fill the air with an electric vibe that resonates across my body. The past few days flash before my eyes: we are standing in front of the carcass of a burnt car in the middle of a desert that expands for more than 40 miles in every direction. This must be the fifth abandoned car we have come across in this desert and we take picture. Later on El Tigre stops his car while we drive through the back streets of a shantytown. He points to a rock. “A man was burnt there last week,” he says but there are no signs of the body. Only the sandstone seems to remember what really happened. Next, we drive by the U.S.-Mexico border. The fence runs for miles and fiery red, aluminum sheets are dressed in a thin film of migrating dust. At one point the fence turns into an art gallery. The word on the street, as the cliché goes, is that they are trying to improve Tijuana’s image by promoting it as a cultural epicenter. This effort is lost when the commissioned murals dissolve into a never-ending series of white crosses that are said to represent the number of deaths along the border. A number on the fence swooshes by: 3600. The back roads to Tecate are dusty. We find ourselves on a one-lane road with cars and trucks racing both ways. My hands get sweaty as we look for a cattle farm whose stench begins to invade the air. Along the road dozens and dozens of small altars sprout up from the arid ground with mostly small, white crosses decorated with plastic, artificial flowers. Sometimes there are pictures, too, or a small miniature of a saint perhaps.
This is the second time that I have gone to Baja this year. On the first trip my production partner, Richard, and I were blown away by the exuberance, liveliness, and hidden beauty of the places we visited. We met with numerous people and established very meaningful relationships that would help to ensure the success of the project. We left Mexico with a feeling of elation and wonder. On this occasion, however, we got a very different glimpse of Baja. We were thrown into a world that eventually wrote itself into my script. During long hours scouting private homes, deserts, abandoned buildings, warehouses, beaches, junkyards, cattle farms, mountains, and the insides of water trucks, we not only managed to secure all except one location for the film project but also got the chance to get a closer look at the bizarre and harsh reality of life surrounding the border.
For example, we have met an old lady who lives alone in a small, pink house by the sea. She is disabled and gets around her house on a wheelchair. A man to whom she is not related is the only person who visits her. She would not give us permission to film in her house by explaining: “I’ve been tricked far too many times by people with a good smile and a black heart.”
Nearby a family of six live inside of a large, metal container along the roadside. There is no running water, no electricity. In front of their home, condos being sold for $200,000 each obstruct the ocean view. We are given permission to film in their home.
Elsewhere we meet a man who owns a large cattle ranch. One of his eyes is covered with a piece of white gauze and a scar cuts across his lower lip. He is polite but straight away we are not given permission to film at his ranch. He has been threatened with kidnap recently and can’t expose himself to any more risk at the moment.
Another man is taking a car apart piece by piece in his front yard. By the next day the car will be a big pile of scrap metal. His wife lives inside their small house and does not like to be seen by anyone. The man does this for money, he says, though his true calling is “lucha libre.” He hopes to become a professional wrestler someday.
Chayo and Luis talk about women over coffee one morning. They both have been married several times. Chayo is currently a sea urchin diver, as is Luis, who is also a private detective, bodyguard, and self-proclaimed inventor of an electromagnetic motor that will resolve the world’s energy crisis. Luis describes how he had to brutally beat his wife on one occasion and shoot at her with a gun. “You were only trying to scare her off with the gun, right?” Chayo asks. “No, I was shooting to kill,” he replies and they laugh. Both of them are going to be in the film.
We spot a deranged woman drifting around Popotle Beach among the sea urchin divers. Every time she goes by she shows us her lower teeth and hisses like a cat. Learning that they call her “Robocop,” I ask Chayo how she got her nickname. He tells us that she was once a flight attendant. Her plane crashed on the beach and she was left stranded there, or so the myth goes. He still hasn’t answered my question. “Robocop?” I ask again. “Oh, if you talk to her, at first she seems normal,” he explains. “Then she starts moving like a robot and reminiscing about her accident, her mother, her country.”
Later as we race through Tijuana, I realize that when I set out to rewrite my script I never intended it to be a reflection on death and immigration nor an anthropology of bizarre, border-town characters. That just happened. The script wrote itself. A desert wrote it. A missing woman in Ciudad Juarez wrote it. The infinite altar of Baja wrote it. A deceased sea urchin diver wrote it. A man without a voice amidst an unknown land wrote it. I did nothing.
Tijuana feels like an infinite altar lost amidst the desert. The lights of the cars crash onto a dirt-ridden windshield. Red comet tails, electric red eels, red rum red rum splashes—it feels like we’ve been looking into the sun for too long. Everyone is escaping into darkness. At this hour of the night I am so tired that if I turn around I am certain there will be a cloud of black ravens following us. Or the man that plays chess with Max Von Sydow in The Seventh Seal will be driving a blue corvette. Or there will be just nothing at all painted black.
The Big Shoot
We are leaving for Mexico in three days. I have spent the last month arranging the final details for a 22-day shoot in northern Baja. I must confess that this last month has not been easy. My coproducer, Richard Parkin, and I have worked long hours coordinating more than 40 people from at least five countries to spend 22 days in make-believe world.
We found that not everyone returns your calls on time. Some people decide not to show up at appointments at the last minute, and sometimes things just do not work out at all. Our job this month has been to go against the pull of gravity and make things happen. If they don’t call you back, you call them 500 times. If they don’t show up, you get someone else. If a scene is too expensive, you cut it. Against all odds my Colombian friend, Carlos Vasquez, who is the director of photography for the movie, managed to get a visa for Mexico at the last minute after convincing the Mexican Consul in Berlin that he was not a drug dealer. Colombians need visas to go everywhere and anywhere. He flies in from Berlin on the 1st. Pablo Gonzales, my assistant director, had to convince the head of the film department at the Sorbonne to give him a special two-week permission off school in order to take part in the project. After being denied twice, he was finally granted permission. He flies in on the 7th.
After some minor disputes with our casting director, we agreed to finish the casting process in TJ on the 2nd. The shoot will begin on the 8th of December and will go on throughout December. We will spend 22 days filming sand dunes, islands, abandoned ranches, cattle farms, and underwater caves. I am both overwhelmed and excited by the shooting schedule. The only thing that assures me that we will manage to complete this part of the project in time is the extraordinary crew who has agreed to take part. Richard Parkin has been my right arm so far and will continue to be so throughout the rest of the project. Carlos and Pablo, who are both responsible for making my first short, will be exceptional to work with. My younger brother, who is an aspiring photographer, will be flown in from Bogotá courtesy of my mother to be a set photographer and production assistant. Judy Phu, another Berkeley alumnus, is flying in from Berkeley on the 16th to do hair and make-up. Back to work.
This is our fourth day in Rosarito, Mexico. We drove from Berkeley to Riverside in a small, over-packed car. Once in Riverside we picked up a van, filled it up, and then crossed the border. So far things have been working very smoothly in Mexico. We have come to realize that 80 percent of making a film involves careful and detailed planning. Our shooting schedule has been set and we are eager to commence. We have spent the last few days trying to figure out: 1) how to mount an $8,000 camera on a car and not break it; 2) whether the underwater gear we purchased for the camera will keep the camera dry; and 3) if we will be able to finish the production in time. The answer to question 1 is “very carefully.” The answer to questions 2 and 3 is “most likely.”
The second part of the casting took place on the 2nd of December. Richard, Carlos and I sat in a small room for five hours watching some people embellish my script with their performance, and watching others completely destroy my script with whatever they were trying to do. Overall the casting went well. We felt that we secured many parts in the movie and we planned a second recall on Monday. I have to say that the most interesting aspect of the casting was discovering a broad range of people with such diverse talents and backgrounds. There were professional actors, storytellers, theatre performers, non-actors, and most of all “home video” actors. This last category refers to actors who are used in a type of low-budget movie that is mostly about drug cartels. These actors have a very distinctive look. They usually walk into the room dressed as both half cowboy and half gangster. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly meets Good Fellas.
They usually have an alias like “the Scorpion” or “Campero.” When the Scorpion auditioned, he walked into the room, pulled out a gun, cocked it, aimed it at me with a smile, and said, “I have guns if you need them. Just let me know.” He got the part.
We have already begun shooting. Last Tuesday we spent all day with several sea urchin divers off the coast of an island called Coronado. The underwater gear did, in fact, end up working and the shots we got were breathtaking. The island was inhabited by sea lions and surrounded by coral reefs and sea urchins. Carlos has been able to capture how Chayo, one of the actors who is a real sea urchin diver, earns his keep. The working conditions are extreme. The diver spent hours underwater, swimming amidst the sea lions and scraping sea urchins off large rocks under very dangerous conditions.
Although this shoot went well, we have encountered many problems. We spent an entire day trying to get a permit to shoot in a desert called Laguna Salada. Last Friday there was some sort of a festivity and offices were closed. So we set up an appointment for Monday with the film commissioner of Tijuana from whom we had been told we could get the permits. We showed up at our appointment on time at noon. It took him 30 minutes to come out of his office and meet with us. He was on his way out to a very important meeting and said he did not remember setting up an appointment with us. He barely knew who we were and on top of that said that he was not authorized to grant those permits. We were directed to a second office that was closed that day due to some other festivity. In the end we managed to get the permits and plan to shoot in Laguna Salada very soon.
The rest of my crew arrives today. Let’s hope the rest of the shoot goes as well as the day we spent at Coronado Island.
Day 1: “O Larga y Negra Partida”
We set out for Coronado Island at 7 a.m. with six bottles of water, five sea urchin divers, four wetsuits, a three-man film crew, and a camera. Two speeding boats cut across the Pacific Ocean, marlins take brief peeks at the outside world, and a swarm of seagulls circle a large tuna fish trap. The islands are ahead: there is no sand, just rocks, sharp, edgy, almost menacing sheets of sandstone sprouting from beneath the surface. There is much life as white, silver, and black sea lions play and slumber by the coast, birds crowd the high peaks of the islands, and a thin, white sheet runs wild beneath them. A man yells once. Then he yells harder as if trying to outrun the noisy motor: “There were goats once as well, but … you know,” he aims and shoots with his invisible gun. The goat collapses immediately then begins a panic trot, its hooves slipping on the slippery rock and comes falling down, falling down. Its crimson necklace flies into the air. There is a splash and the cry of a white gull. The man smiles, assuring us: “They’re not bad, you know, roasted.”
The camera has been placed inside a waterproof bag that is guaranteed to be secure for 30 feet, though no one is going down that far. The bag looks like a $500 sandwich bag for an $8,000 sandwich. There is nervous laughter and brief, three-way eye contact. If the bag is damaged—for example, if it is pierced by a sea urchin or destroyed by a sea lion—then the project is over. Chayo, our Klaus Kinsky of Popotla, is ready. His co-star, El Borrego, is ready. Over on the right, Carlos the cameraman is still trying to put on a one-size too small wetsuit.
I look at them all while standing inside the boat wearing an impoverished version of a wetsuit and thinking to myself, “Why didn’t Luis show up?” A month earlier Luis Quichi, a former sea urchin diver and private detective, radio broadcaster, and self-proclaimed inventor (among many other occupations) had promised to bring along some diving equipment, wetsuits, air tanks, compressors, and masks for our underwater shoot. But there is no sign of him this day; his promises were just a lot of hot air.
Instead, I see Carlos wrap a yellow hose around his body as he sucks on the mouthpiece, causing the air to burst out. “It’s like sucking air from an exhaust pipe,” Luis had said two months ago when he tried to convince us that we should only use clean air tanks when diving. Then Chayo begins to laugh, telling us: “The doctor looked at my X-ray and asked me how many packs of cigarettes I smoked a day.” I told him, “I don’t smoke. You know that.” “Black,” the doctor said. “Your lungs are completely black.” Carlos sucks even harder on the mouthpiece for a third time. The compressor’s Jaguaresque roar is muffled, silenced, and lost in a sea of calmness. Water is visible in every direction. Light plays a different game under the surface.
Carlos has been under for about 20 minutes, and the boat rocks back and forth. “El Brujo” stands at the edge of the prow smoking a cigarette. I start biting at my hand, while Richard sits expressionless, staring at the spinning belt on the compressor. Suddenly, a hand grabs hold of the boat, the camera surfaces, and we both jump toward it, exclaiming “What happened?” Struggling to get in the boat, Carlos breathes heavily. “I can’t see anything down there,” he responds, taking his facemask off. Meanwhile we get the camera out of the bag and tinker with it until the viewing menu pops up. We press play and a sea lion dances before us. We spot underwater supernovas and Chayo maneuvering in and out of the caves. “We did it!,” Richard says with a smile on his face. “We put the camera in the water like you wanted.” I stop biting my hand and a deadpan expression moves over my face. “Good. Twenty more days to go,” I say.
Four hours later Carlos jumps in the water one last time. I follow his lead and we swim quickly to a small beach on a nearby island. Chayo struggles to pull Borrego’s limp body out of the water. He shouts Borrego’s name over and over, but Borrego is dying. Suddenly Borrego loses consciousness as the bends take hold of his body. He looks towards infinity—an infinite, blue point anchors his gaze. “O Larga y Negra Partida,” he repeats one more time. “O Larga y Negra Partida.” Let’s do it without looking at the camera this time. Chayo stands straight up and looks into the horizon as a white seal looks right at the camera. Cut.
Day 2: “The Klaus Kinsky of Popotla”
“Okay, let’s do it one last time,” Pablo says, moving a light that suddenly bursts. The cows disappear and Carlos runs towards the van to get a replacement bulb. Chayo, now dressed like a cattle worker, pulls me to one side and says emphatically: “I am not doing this anymore. I quit.”
It has been a long day for Chayo who spent most of it walking among cow dung. He was almost gored by a bull and got tired of the repeated takes. He felt like a fish out of water. The fact that he was drunk all day hasn’t helped matters either. Earlier Chayo got hold of some beer we had brought for the workers who wanted a six pack in exchange for giving us the use of their farm. We thought this was a good deal, though reality was teaching us otherwise. I had never seen Chayo so upset. This was his first time acting outside of water, and the nine-hour workday seemed awfully long to him. “Fishing for sharks out at sea for three days is easier than this,” he tells us. Meanwhile Carlos casts the light on the cows again. “One last take, I promise,” I tell Chayo. “You have to help me out. We still have four more days of shooting with you.” I look him straight in the eye and he laughs. “Let’s finish this take, but then I quit,” he replies. “Get someone else.” I begin to walk aimlessly around while pretending to be busy, then two little kids run up to me with a dead calf in their arms. “Where do you want it?” they ask. I point to a spot between Chayo and Amador Granados (a well-known “home video” actor). Carlos looks at me and agrees: “We’re ready.”
Ten shots later, we pack up and get inside the car to drive back to Rosarito. Forty minutes from Rosarito, Chayo says that he wants to get out of the car. “Drop me off at the next intersection,” he insists. “And I need money for a cab.” “How much does that cost?” I ask. “One dollar,” he answers. I hand him a dollar and he responds with laughter: “This is not going to get me anywhere. Where do you think you are?” We get out of the car and he starts to walk towards a poorly lit highway. It’s drizzling. His white rubber boots pace rapidly through the dirt while I try to keep up with him. “We can drop you off at home,” I promise. “It’s raining. Let’s go back to the car.” I continue to try to convince him for a few more minutes. “You can’t leave the project,” I plead, but his mouth says “I won’t.” Yet his face says the contrary, and no taxis stop. Then he insists that I leave. “I’ll come by the beach tomorrow so we can talk, Chayo,” I bargain. “Let’s finish this thing. Come on!” Despite my efforts, he walks off into the black rain.
When I come back to the beach the next day, I find Chayo smiling and telling everyone about his near-death experience at the cattle ranch. He looks over at us and asks: “What are we doing today?” He’s a star now. Later on someone tells me what happened after we dropped him off. No taxis stopped so he decided to walk home. On the way the cops picked him up and put him in jail. He had to pay them $30 dollars to get out. He mentioned feeling silly for not having stayed in the car with us.
Morning of Day 3: “Bad Boys, Bad Boys”
My brother is buying ten large sheets of black construction paper in a store. I wait nervously for him in a car parked by the main road in Rosarito. The hustle and bustle of this small, touristy town creeps in through my window. Christmas carols can be heard all around, traffic honks by, and the circus screams that it’s in town for another week. Cops swing back and forth on the main road collecting their Christmas bonuses. I look in every direction and feel that I’ve done something wrong, for surely the cops are looking over my shoulder now. I am certain they have noticed my license plate. I am sure they are ready to take “another bite.” Then a cop stops across the street and looks over at me. I try to avoid his piecing look by hiding behind the twofold reflection of my face on his obsidian, aviator glasses, but his gaze jumps over his mariachi mustache, crawls across the street, leaps up, crashes through my window, and clings to my neck like a vampire. The dance begins, and he turns on his swirling car lights. I turn on my car. He has to make a u-turn to catch us. We lose ourselves in traffic before he makes the u-turn. My brother shuts the door and we speed off into the monotony of a traffic jam. Let me backtrack.
Two days earlier we decided to grab a bite to eat after dropping Chayo off in the middle of nowhere. After the meal, we got into the van while Richard drove. We were all so tired we could barely keep our eyes open. A taxi honked at us, then a car flashed its lights on and off. Two seconds later a cop turned on his lights and pulled us over. “Your lights are not on,” he said, sticking his flashlight into the van, then asked for Richard’s driver’s license and proof of insurance. He grabbed the documents from Richard’s hand. “You guys on drugs?” he questioned us as we stared at him in silence. “You’ve made a very big mistake and you are going to have to follow me to the police station,” he ordered. We four Colombians knew exactly what was going to happen next. It’s almost as if the scene was scripted: the cop was an experienced actor, while the Colombians were amateur actors just learning our parts.
“Is there any other way we can …” we tried to say.
“Sixty dollars,” he responded.
“We have ten,” we said.
“Follow me to the police station,” he told us, “Come on.”
“Twenty,” we offered.
“Fifty,” he countered.
“Thirty and hand them over,” he insisted. Our money came out of the movie budget and became his Christmas bonus.
“Now drive safely,” he told us.
This event was bound to happen and it wasn’t the first time for most of us. We Colombians had had to bribe a police officer south of the border. Nothing new under the sun there. Now it was Christmas though. We would soon find out just how creative cops can get in Mexico, and by “creative,” I mean corrupt.
We decided to take a day off in order to get organized. We needed to figure out our shooting schedule and get Pablo, our newly arrived production coordinator, up to speed with the project. The crew spilt into two groups that day: one group stayed home working out the details of the next day’s shoot, while the other half went to TJ to pick up some props we would need over the next few days, including a switch blade, 100 coconuts, and some fake blood. Our group got the phone call from the other group in between their picking up the coconuts and the switchblade. Carlos answered the call. I didn’t hear the conversation but this is more or less what Pablo must have told Carlos:
“So we were walking around looking for the coconut place. We were in a really bad part of downtown, you know, by 4th Street and Constitution more or less. The place was infested with prostitutes, pimps, mariachis, and street bums so we stuck out like a sore thumb, right. We couldn’t find the address and we walked around for a bit. As we were crossing the street, some cops drove by. We were not even in the car, right, and the cops gave us the look. Their car stopped, and they jumped out and asked us for our IDs. I didn’t have mine; I left it in my other pants. So they frisked us. They grabbed Richard’s backpack and went through it as if he had who knows what in there. Then we were asked to get into their car, right? We asked why and they said, ‘We know what you’re up to, you freaking pimps, get in the car.’ According to them, we traffic with underage Mexican prostitutes in Japan. Richard did not understand a word they were saying. I told them that we were just tourists, which beat saying that we were making a movie and looking for 100 coconuts.
But they assumed we were Argentineans or something and started asking all sorts of questions about our human trafficking scheme. This whole time we were circling around the slummiest areas of downtown followed by what appeared to be a van with six or seven police officers dressed like Navy Seals with assault rifles, like a swat team, you know. I started to explain that I was not going to give them shit and they had picked up the wrong Colombian. They let me talk for a bit, then the bastards started laughing and drove by the local prisons where underage prostitutes were screaming at police guards, men on their knees were handcuffed behind their backs, and one man’s head was bleeding. You go in there and I can guarantee that your deepest traumas become your fondest memories.”
At this point, apparently, Pablo’s acting had improved since his rehearsal of the script with me on the previous day.
“Okay, I have ten dollars,” he swore to the cops. “We only have ten.”
The police officers laughed and a prostitute got thrown face down on the ground. “Your friend there seems to have a bit more than that, doesn’t he?” they said, pointing toward Richard, whose face went pale.
There was an envelope with $500 in Richard’s backpack marked with the word “Props.” All those stories his mom told him about TJ began to cross his mind, like the one where guys don’t give the cops money and get the living hell kicked out of them, or where the cops tell the guys in the car that they were free to go if—and only if—the cops get to kiss their pretty, pretty girlfriends. Hence the negotiation begins. God knows how but Pablo managed to get them down to $60.
Richard got home later that night and revised the movie budget. He created a new slot in the XL sheet: Bribes = $90.
Life at 24 Frames a Second
It’s January 1st, 2007 at 4:45 a.m. A white van parked outside the San Diego Amtrak Station slumbers motionlessly. I have to think quickly. “Where do I position the camera,” I wonder. “In what angle? How can I tell this part of the story well and remain within the bounds of our shooting schedule? A dolly shot will take too long to set up. There is no way we are using the crane. A handheld shot might be the way to go.” I am in a daze, my brother is snoring, and the train is about to take off. “Let’s go, Richard,” Pablo says, waking up. “Okay, let’s do this,” Richard replies. “Do you have the shot list ready, Camilo? Is everyone ready? Are the lights okay? Carlos, let’s hurry up, we don’t have all day.” Richard turns the key, the lights on the dashboard blink, and the humdrum cough of an unwilling motor sickens the air. This is the 4th time the latter has happened.
At this point we are all expert car-battery technicians: we have mastered that art of jump-starting cars on second gear, of driving cars without car batteries, of recharging car batteries, of removing car batteries, of carrying, installing, disassembling. It’s 5 a.m. The plane of the others leaves in two hours and we are 30 minutes away from the airport. We have an hour and a half to solve the problem: we ignite the motor with an uncharged battery on the first day of the seventh year of the 21st century. No one shows the slightest sign of being the least bit worried. At this point we have gotten through worse situations. We walked in mud for hours in the dark, we shot for days straight without sleep, we outsmarted the Baja police several times, and we ate tacos for a month. We calmly assess the current problem and propose some solutions. At this point I realize that we aren’t shooting anymore. We are done. Last month when the light became a two-edged sword and sleep a fond memory really has sunk into my bones. Everyday was a twelve-hour obstacle course that we raced through with our hearts beating at 24 frames a second.
There were two solutions to the car problem, though one had already fallen through. As Judy hung up on the phone, Richard turned the key, igniting the motor. Then I stood at the train station, giving a hug, a kiss, goodbye. I stood later at the airport: another hug, a kiss, goodbye. Carlos and Pablo were off to Europe. Judy and Naira were off to Berkeley. Richard, my brother and I were off to TJ to finish packing. A fourteen-hour car ride home awaited us. Back in Berkeley my life has oscillated between 30 and 60 frames a second. If you’re lucky sometimes you might find yourself eating strawberries or swimming in an empty lake or just sitting at your desk at 29 frames a second, but then you wake up and it’s back to 40. I have spent the past few weeks backing up all the footage we shot; this seems like an endless but necessary evil. As soon as I finish this job I can start editing. We have only shot 70 percent of the film. We will shoot what remains in the Bay Area this summer. Soon I will have to start location scouting, casting, re-writing, and doing it all over again one more time for the last ride. Starting is slow, usually 60 frames a second, between looking over the script and outlining the budget. The ideas start to flow and on a good day you might get to 30 frames a second. Then you make the phone calls, buy the airline tickets, find the most suitable locations, make deals here and there, and talk to people who have no interest in seeing your face ever again. You’re at 50 frames again, then you look over the script one more time, some days it’s 30 frames a second, other days it’s 60, 70, or 80 frames. You have to rewrite. Then as things start to slowly settle in, the planes start landing, someone makes a funny remark, the lights go on, the script is rehearsed, the shooting schedule falls into place, there are 73 coconuts on the set, we don’t need a pig this time, you hold your breath, ink turns to flesh, paper to bone, and the camera is rodando, sonido, rodando. You start getting closer and closer to life at 24 frames a second. Then you’re there and you know that that’s exactly where you want to be.
During the next month I plan to finish a preliminary rough cut of the Mexico shoot, then I will begin making any necessary changes to the script, introducing news ideas I have come up with since then, and reworking parts that are no longer necessary. I have already cast half of the actors and am looking forward to the editing process. I must say that while looking over the footage, I became immensely satisfied with the work we did in Baja and am very thankful to have had the chance to share such a valuable experience with such an extraordinary and talented cast and crew. I am truly grateful to all those who made this shoot possible. I am looking forward to showing all of you the work done in Baja soon.
For the past month I have spent most of my time editing and re-writing some parts of the script. Looking over the footage each day reminds me of the difficulties we overcame, of how arduous filmmaking is, but most importantly of the harsh realities we encountered while shooting in Baja. I have applied to several grants to fund what remains to be done on the film and possibly also a new short documentary project on the sea urchin divers of Popotla. In my previous letters, I mentioned my fascination with this small fishing community. Having spent over a month in that area made me even more intrigued about the community’s way of life. The small port of Popotla is a unique, colorful, and dynamic microcosm that harbors the problems and political issues that the average Mexican residing along the border must face. Taking a close look at the lives of the men and women who reside there would be to embark on a journey into the socio- economic drama of immigration.
For more than 30 years just south of Tijuana and off the shore of a shantytown called Popotla, sea urchin divers have been risking their lives both beneath and above the waters of the Pacific Ocean. As often as three times per week, small groups of frogmen—equipped with a mixture of professional and non-professional deep-sea diving gear—submerge themselves into a majestic seascape that is populated with sea lions, coral reefs, and an exuberant wildlife, seeking to scrape large, red, spiny sea urchins off the surfaces of sharp and menacing rocks. The divers do not use conventional air tanks. An air compressing fuel-powered system similar to ones used in early diving history pumps air into their lungs via a long yellow hose that trails them wherever they go. The divers fill up to five large sacks with sea urchins on average, at times spending up to five hours beneath the water. They take the sea urchins to shore where they are packaged and exported directly to Japan to be sold as “uni” in high-end sushi restaurants.
Compared to the average income of manual laborers in Baja California, the divers make a high wage, earning up to $100 per diem. Appearing excessive to some, this wage represents the profound health and safety hazards their job entails. The air suctioned through the compressors produces a highly contaminated gas that causes the divers life-long respiratory problems. The strong underwater currents and fluctuating water pressures also make them prone to “the bends,” a condition that wreaks havoc on the circulatory system when they submerge or surface too rapidly. Each year at least one diver loses his life to this malady and several others become either mentally or physically disabled. Regardless of the high Japanese demand for sea urchins, the divers can only work a few days per week due to these safety risks and the constantly changing weather conditions. As a result, the divers seek additional sources of income.
When day turns to night in Popotla, the lively fishing community becomes the epicenter of an array of illegal activities. Divers by day and drug-smuggling coyotes by night, the men of this town lend their navigation skills to local mafia bosses, aiding them in smuggling illegal immigrants and drugs into the San Diego ports. A fifteen-minute ride to San Diego with a yacht full of Mexicans earns the divers up to $3,000 per trip. Many divers take one or two trips per year while others, now retired, recall the years they spent in the California prison system when they longed for their life at sea.
Although finishing the film is my number one priority at the moment, I feel that not even trying to look for funding for a second short documentary project would be to overlook a unique opportunity. I personally do not think there is anyone that knows Popotla the way I do and who is genuinely interested in the social issues that the community harbors. With some luck and hard work, hopefully I will be able to fund this second project.