Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?
What motivated you to make this film?
My personal commitment to tell stories of indigenous people whose rights are being trampled by corrupt government and corporate interests.
Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.
Canon 7D Mark II
Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story.
We spent time getting to know our film’s heroine and her community to build trust and gain access to the people and locations needed to tell the story. We were also blessed to work with Brigitte Gynther, from the NGO, School of the America’s Watch, as our community production coordinator. Brigitte has lived and worked in the Lenca community of Rio Blanco for many years and her relationship with the community there allowed us to get inside in a way that would not have been possible without her support. Equally important was the work of Tegucigalpa based fixer Renato Lacayo and his amazing team of drivers and security personnel. We used fairly straight forward production techniques. We did shoot some time lapse footage of the landscape to show the drama of the ever changing weather in the mountains of western Honduras.
How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?
The story evolved in a way that was unexpected because while we were filming, our heroine Berta Cáceres, began to receive death threats. This led to the entire team feeling a level of stress and tension that, while not close to what Berta lived with, gave us all a palpable taste of what her ever challenging life was like. Berta was always on high alert, she had to be in order to stay a step ahead of the corrupt government, military, national police and corporate interests, who were all out to get her in one way or another. On our last day we had to decide, both as a team, along with Berta and the Lenca community of Rio Blanco, how to evade those who were trying to kill her. These were not easy choices or decisions. We finally came up with a plan and met the threat of a community down mountain from Rio Blanco that had blocked the road, along with the National Police, who are Berta’s arch enemies. We all escaped harm but not before a tense standoff between members of the Rio Blanco community, members of Berta’s Lenca indigenous rights NGO, COPINH and the pro-mining, pro power plant community that had blocked the road and wanted to confront Berta, if not much worse. We escaped but only with the cunning wit of fixer Renato Lacayo and his amazing team of security personnel and of course that of Berta and her COPINH counterparts.
Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.
Bonding with the Berta, her family and the Lenca COPINH community members we lived and worked with. Also, seeing how audiences react to Berta and the story of her community’s successful struggle.
What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?
You must have passion for the subjects of your films because you may have to live with them for years before having the opportunity to complete your story. If you don’t think you have it in you to stay with a story for as long as it takes to find a resolution, then perhaps you should reconsider getting started because once you’re in you should be in 100%, up to your chin! Stay dedicated to your commitments, be open hearted, sincere and honest with the subjects of your film as well as to their family’s and fellow community members.
What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?
Getting to know the subjects of my films and the crews in foreign countries. It’s the establishment of life long relationships with individuals who have dedicated their lives to the betterment of their fellow human beings and the protection of planet earth. Doing this work makes me want to be a better person, to do more, to give more of myself to others and to the issues that matter to me. In fact the work does have that desired effect.
What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?
Parmigiano reggiano, the king of cheese because it travels well due to the fact that it is a hard dry cheese, because it is universally loved, I’ve eaten it with everyone from Tibetan exiles, in a Himalayan monastery at 12,000′, to indigenous asháninka people on the headwaters of the Amazon in Peru. It also brings a little taste of home and comfort when in far away places, at times with unusual food customs from my own.
Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.
My crew and I have never been so personally and physically challenged as we were on this shoot. Director of photography Vicente Franco and I are currently in Guatemala, working on a film about a Mayan indigenous rights leader, working to protect his family and community from the destructive impact of a Canadian owned nickel mine. The weather here is unseasonably wet and cool. However it is nothing compared to our experience making Berta’s film in Honduras. The drive on our first day of production, from regional capitol La Esperanza to the Lenca community San Francisco de Opalaca was supposed to take 2.5 hours on a packed dirt road. Due to unseasonable rains and the commensurate mud, the drive took 12.5 hours! Our four, 4×4’s each got stuck at least 12 times on the drive, in 3 feet of mud! The hills were as steep as the steepest streets of San Francisco, CA, our home. Our Lenca drivers would leap out of their vehicles, indicating that we should also get out to help. Luckily they knew to buy us knee high rubber boots with vibram soles, because when we jumped out we had to be sure the mud didn’t swoosh into our boots and we also had to be sure we didn’t twist our knees or loose a boot in the thick, adobe mud, which could literally pull your boot off once the suction worked its way. The Lenca would yell, Le lasso, le lasso, the ropes, the ropes. The 24 people in our team would alternately push the vehicles or pull on the ropes, which had been secured under a vehicle’s front axle. Then, one gifted Lenca would begin to shout orders, inspiring us to pull or push in unison. Miraculously, we always got the vehicles out of the mud, which doesn’t mean they didn’t immediately get stuck again at times. The entire team was wet, cold and literally covered from head to toe in mud by the time we finally arrived at San Francisco de Opalaca. We dragged our tired selves into the nunnery where we were staying, ate our cold, hours old meal of franks and beans and crawled into our sleeping bags, still cold and wet. The next day after filming a community ceremony in the morning we repeated the drive back to La Esperanza in the same style, getting stuck at least one dozen times. This time we had prearranged for one or two communities along the way to help us. One with a tractor, another with a monster truck on steroids with a wench, another with 24 people who came out to join in our pushing and pulling brigade. The return trip proved to be foggy in addition to rainy and wet, adding to the degree of difficulty for the drivers who had little ability to get up any momentum prior to climbing a long steep hill due to a lack of visibility. We took the next day off to sleep, bathe and have the vehicles and our video equipment washed and detailed. Phew, that was one difficult trip that almost broke our spirits but instead we managed to pull through it (all puns intended) and it bonded us as a group. The Lence knew we were no soft city slickers.
Can you describe any obstacles you encountered in making your film and/or in your distribution/exhibition efforts?
When Berta Caceres was assassinated in her sleep, almost one year after we completed our film, I began to question the validity of my work, its value. Berta told us that she thought our film about her would in fact help protect her. I’m not so sure and I carried a heavy personal load for many months after her death. Eventually, I spoke with a number of indigenous, environmental, human rights and social justice activists who I have worked with these past 25 years. They all told me to keep on doing the work I’m doing, telling the untold stories of activists who are fighting to make this world a better place than the world in which we live.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
An understanding of the personal strength indigenous rights leader / environmental activist Berta Caceres brought to her fight for her people’s rights to self determination and the fact that any single person, armed with courage, strength and commitment can make a positive difference in the world. This isn’t some kind of pollyana idealism, this is reality. Berta gave her life for her beliefs and the rights of her people and indigenous people across the globe.
Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:
Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has witnessed an explosive growth in environmentally destructive megaprojects that would displace indigenous communities. Almost 30 percent of the country’s land was earmarked for mining concessions, creating a demand for cheap energy to power future mining operations. To meet this need, the government approved hundreds of dam projects around the country, privatizing rivers, land, and uprooting communities.
Among them was the Agua Zarca Dam, a joint project of Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam developer. Agua Zarca, slated for construction on the sacred Gualcarque River, was pushed through without consulting the indigenous Lenca people—a violation of international treaties governing indigenous peoples’ rights. The dam would cut off the supply of water, food and medicine for hundreds of Lenca people and violate their right to sustainably manage and live off their land.
Berta Cáceres, a Lenca woman, grew up during the violence that swept through Central America in the 1980s. Her mother, a midwife and social activist, took in and cared for refugees from El Salvador, teaching her young children the value of standing up for disenfranchised people.
Cáceres grew up to become a student activist and in 1993, she cofounded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) to address the growing threats posed to Lenca communities by illegal logging, fight for their territorial rights and improve their livelihoods.
In 2006, community members from Rio Blanco came to COPINH asking for help. They had witnessed an influx of machinery and construction equipment coming into their town. They had no idea what the construction was for or who was behind the project. What they knew was that an aggression against the river—a place of spiritual importance to the Lenca people—was an act against the community, its free will, and its autonomy.
With mandates from local community members at every step of the way, Cáceres began mounting a campaign against the Agua Zarca Dam. She filed complaints with government authorities, bringing along community representatives on trips to Tegucigalpa. She organized a local assembly where community members formally voted against the dam, and led a protest where people peacefully demanded their rightful say in the project.
The campaign also reached out to the international community, bringing the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and lodging appeals against the project’s funders such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank.
Ignoring these appeals, the national government and local mayors forged ahead. They doctored minutes from a community meeting to paint a false picture of unanimous approval for the dam, and offered cash to local people in exchange for their signature on documents declaring their support.
In April 2013, Cáceres organized a road blockade to prevent DESA’s access to the dam site. Using a carefully organized system of alerts to keep everyone in the loop, the Lenca people maintained a heavy but peaceful presence, rotating out friends and family members for weeks at a time. For well over a year, the blockade withstood multiple eviction attempts and violent attacks from militarized security contractors and the Honduran armed forces.
Honduras’ violent climate is well known to many, but few understand that environmental and human rights activists are its victims. Tomas Garcia, a community leader from Rio Blanco, was shot and killed during a peaceful protest at the dam office. Others have been attacked with machetes, discredited, detained, and tortured. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice.
Against these odds, Cáceres and the Lenca community’s efforts successfully kept construction equipment out of the proposed dam site. In late 2013, Sinohydro terminated its contract with DESA, publicly citing ongoing community resistance and outrage following Tomas’ death. Agua Zarca suffered another blow when the IFC withdrew its funding, citing concerns about human rights violations. To date, construction on the project has effectively come to a halt.
Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?
Death threats to Cáceres continued until March 3, 2016 when she was murdered by gunmen in her home, in her sleep in La Esperanza, Honduras. Her death, followed by the killing of her colleague and fellow COPINH member Nelson García just 12 days later, sparked international outrage. Dutch development bank FMO and FinnFund have since suspended their involvement in the Agua Zarca project as a result.
What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?
Join Berta’s family and demand justice for her murder at Action Network
Donate and help protect the members of COPINH via their trusted partner, Rights Action
Join the campaign calling for an immediate end to all threats to the Rio Blanco community and members of COPINH
Honor Berta’s legacy and visit bertacaceres.org where you will find statements, media coverage and ways to take action
Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.):
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