Revolution, televised: Ray Telles speaks with Jorge Zapata (grandson of Emiliano Zapata) during the making of "The Storm that Swept Mexico." (Photo courtesy filmmaker)

Telles charts 'Storm' of Mexican Revolution

Michael Fox September 15, 2009

Not long after he began developing a film about the Mexican Revolution, Ray Telles was introduced to four men who’d fought with Emiliano Zapata. "We have to get these guys," he implored prospective funders. "By the time we’re in production, they’ll be dead." Incredibly, the veterans were more than 100 years old when the East Bay filmmaker interviewed them in 2002. "A couple of them were pretty vivid," he recalls. "It was such a moment in their lives. One was with the Zapata army when he was assassinated [in 1919], and it burned it in his memory. It brings him to tears. He talks about how they all stood by when Zapata went into Hacienda de Chinameca and came out bloodied, and they all knew what happened.

Telles’ ambitious two-hour film, The Storm that Swept Mexico, with a budget north of $1.2 million, is targeted for a November, 2010, airdate on Independent Lens. Next year is the centenary of the revolution, so the piece will presumably have a high profile on the PBS slate. It will obviously reach a large Latino audience in the U.S., but Telles—whose credits include The Fight In the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle, co-directed with Rick Tejada-Flores—believes the film is just as relevant to the gringos (my word, not his) who are generally uninterested in what goes on beyond our borders.

"It’s an important American story, because what we’re dealing with here is the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico," Telles explains. "In the latter part of the 19th century, the U.S. had invested $2 billion. The U.S. was involved in every step Mexico took for 30 years. When the revolution happened, the U.S., England and Germany were behind the scenes manipulating the outcome so their interests were protected." He adds, "The Robin Hood figure of Pancho Villa was financed and armed by the U.S. through most of the revolution. At the very end they had a falling out."

In the Bay Area, we’re accustomed to (and applaud) the emphasis on social justice in documentaries. We tend to forget that a valuable function of quality nonfiction is to fill in the gaps in our often-fragmented knowledge of history. Telles has spent a lot of time digging into archives in Mexico City, England, Germany and the Library of Congress, locating the best copies of extant film and even restoring some of the old celluloid he found.

"We’re blessed with the fact that we have lots of footage," he relates. "This is the first revolution shot on film. Some of it was shot by the Mutual Film Company, some of it by Salvador Toscano, who shot every major event of that era. There’s a good deal of footage that people in the States, at least, have never seen."

Moving images, of course, have a lot to do with the fact that Pancho Villa outshines and outlives Zapata in the American imagination. "We are going to allude to the fact that Villa made a deal with Mutual, that he was a publicity hound and he appears in photos all over the place," Telles says. "Zapata was a shy man who begrudgingly let his picture be taken. Villa played into the whole media spectacle. He got out there, he was a showman."

Telles, who was born in Los Angeles and has lived in the Bay Area for 35 years, has been living with the Mexican Revolution since he was a child. His grandfather and great-grandfather were both involved in the revolution and the overthrow of [Pres. Porfirio] Diaz. "Which just about everybody in the country wanted to do anyway," he says with a laugh.

In the course of revisiting events and social forces of a century ago, The Storm that Swept Mexico will illuminate how the past continues to influence the present, Telles notes.

"Basically what happens is that you had a revolution but not much changed, right? If you look at the spectrum of history and you look at social revolutions in China and the Soviet Union, and you step back, a whole lot didn’t change. Russia had major events and look who’s running Russia now. You don’t have the tsars but you have Putin and the billionaires—the new financial tsars. In Mexico a hundred years later, you have a gap between the rich and the poor that is very similar to what it was back then. What has changed is that through the revolution Mexicans developed a strong national identity, and there was a boom in arts and culture and education. There were good positive changes that came out of it, but in terms of any change in the power structure that’s debatable, and we deal with that in this film. The rulers wanted change, but not too much. They were from the elite, and they still continued to run the show."

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