The Documentary Craft
By Marc Savlov
OCTOBER 6, 1997: At age 44, Hector Galán may not yet fall under the "Elder Statesman of Documentary Filmmaking" heading, but he's on the verge. Since 1972, when he joined the San Angelo CBS affiliate straight out of high school, this inspired and inspiring Texan has created some of the best documentaries around. Starting with 1978's Disco Discrimination -- which focused on the problems young Latinos encountered in the nearly all-white discotheques of Lubbock -- Galán has turned out a steady stream of well over 30 pieces, many for the acclaimed PBS series Frontline. In 1984, needing to get out on his own and away from the rigors of Boston and WGBH (where Frontline is created), he formed Galán Productions here in Austin and immediately began production on such noted films as The Hunt for Pancho Villa, Songs of the Homeland, and the acclaimed, five-part Chicano! series. Now, as part of the Texas Documentary Tour film series (co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society, the UT Film Department, SXSW Film, and The Austin Chronicle), Galán will be screening and answering questions about his explosive 1989 Frontline segment Shakedown in Santa Fe, a harrowing glimpse inside the walls of the Santa Fe Maximum Security Prison.
I met with the amiable and animated filmmaker at the West Austin offices of Galán Productions, and spoke with him about his life and work to date.
Austin Chronicle: Can you fill me in a little on how you got started in documentary filmmaking?
Hector Galán: The executive producer of Frontline, David Fanning, brought me up to Boston, and I started working there with Jessica Savitch. I worked up there for a couple of years, and at that point I really had the independent bug, I wanted to go independent, so I just took off. Boston is great, but I like it here, you know? I like scorpions.
I came back and started the company [Galán Productions] in 1984 here in Austin, and worked in documentaries exclusively ever since. In long-form, we've produced about 30 films. We've practically employed everybody in town. Last year, we had 35 people working for us -- everybody that I could get my hands on.
A lot of folks who have gone on to become real successful in terms of TV have worked with me in the past, here in town. I'm still at it, I think it's amazing that I've been able to survive since 1984 in the documentary genre. It's a closed field. It's very hard to get in. It's very hard to get money. A lot of people know each other in the industry, but I actually went along for a number of years without anybody knowing I was here in Austin. I did that primarily because I was involved in a lot of news and public affairs programming -- I didn't want people to find me, because I wasn't protected. You know, some people don't like what you do, they get angry. I did a piece in Arkansas, I was in Little Rock for a long time right when Clinton was taking off, and he didn't like this piece that I did. It was a show called Who Cares About Children?, and basically, it was looking at the whole troubled foster care system in the state of Arkansas. Ironically, last year I was invited to the White House [to screen his PBS series Chicano!]. I thought I was going to get kicked out when Clinton saw me, because he must have known. Maybe not. Who knows?
AC: Frontline is such a great outlet for documentaries. How was it working for them?
HG: Well, Frontline is the only hour-long long-form national news and public affairs series that's there on an ongoing basis. These films, you don't find these films on network television. Maybe HBO does some, but HBO has a real strong entertainment value to it. Their rules are sex, violence, and crime, and of course that's what sells. But they may push it a little too much, I think. Frontline deals with the policy aspects as well, and that may not sound sexy, but it's important. And that's what PBS really does best. The support really isn't always there, however. I think the stations are scared of Frontline sometimes, and I think they don't really want it. They want Lawrence Welk and things like that. Frontline gets in trouble. But that's what we're supposed to do. It's PBS -- it's supposed to be shielded from advertiser interests, so that you can talk about these sorts of things.
AC: Shakedown in Santa Fe originally aired on Frontline, right? How did that come about and what can viewers expect from the film?
HG: Right, that aired on Frontline about nine years ago, but through my career I can pick maybe four or five that are my favorites, and this is one of them. I don't think that a film like this could air again, nationally, because it was pretty risqué for its time, mainly because of the language and the violence that's involved.
What's interesting about this film is that it's a process film. It's one of these vérité films that, when you plant yourself inside of a prison for a month, things are going to happen. And they happened. And I was there. And the camera was there. So, it's a day in the life of a maximum security prison and the power struggles within that environment. It's like its own community.
AC: Why the Santa Fe setting?
HG: The reason I picked the Santa Fe Maximum Security Prison was that it was the scene of one of the most violent prison uprisings that has ever happened. That was in 1980, when prisoners literally took over the prison. The death and mayhem and destruction was just unbelievable. It hadn't been seen before. What happened was that the prisoners completely revolted because of maltreatment and abuses by the guards and took hostages and the killing began. None of the guards died, but they were all horribly brutalized. If you can imagine severing somebody's head and putting it on a stick and then going up to a prison guard and saying, "This is what is going to happen to you." I mean, it does something to you psychologically. Those guards were never the same after that.
The question that we raise in the documentary is: "Is it safer now that we've had this prison reform, or has it gone too far?" And, eventually, we answer that, but throughout the course of the piece, there are these characters that we get to know. The jailers, the prisoners -- it was very interesting to get in there and get closer to some of the people in the white gangs, because I am a minority.
AC: How'd you swing that?
HG: When I first met with them, they told me they would talk but not about what I wanted to talk about, which was the riot. Eventually, though, as we got to know each other, they realized that they did have a story to tell, and I was there, so I featured one of those convicts in the film. Eventually, they came around and opened up.
AC: Has funding for these projects been tough to come by? It's hard enough securing funding for mainstream films. Are documentaries that much harder to get off the ground?
HG: I was part of a golden age of major federal lovefest funding, and there really was a commitment, even earlier in the Eighties when the Department of Education was really trying to create this multicultural presence in media by funding programs and bringing in the historically under-served audiences, people who had not had the power to create their own reflection of their community and society. And that's still happening today. Even now, you can look at network television and hardly ever see a Hispanic face there. Something's wrong.
Something that is a reality and something that is changing is the fact that Hispanics are growing in incredible numbers. Once you start looking at a $350 billion consumer market, and the loyalty of that market, and trying to reach that market in economic terms, then you'll have an impact. That's the only time it's going to change.
People like me, in the documentary world, other emerging filmmakers creating their own stamp, will bring more and more of these films to fruition.
AC: What about your minority status? Has that helped or hindered your filmmaking?
HG: A lot of times, they try to make you more of a minority than you are. I, for instance, would never be the minority producer or the minority that does just the minority stuff. On the other hand, a lot of the work that I do, there's this incredible void in terms of the long-form documentary, capturing history, and telling stories that are important to tell; stories that I, as a Mexican-American, Chicano, Latino, whatever, can tell. I want to do these stories because I want to do them, not because I have to do them. So there's a real fine line there in terms of do you do only minority films or do you do all films? I happen to want to do stories that I feel need to be told. Otherwise there's no point.
AC: Here's a twofold question for you: What's your goal as a documentary filmmaker, and what's your goal as a Hispanic documentary filmmaker? Is there a difference there?
HG: That's really not a twofold question at all, it's one question, because, yes, I did do documentaries on African-Americans; I've done documentaries on Anglos, Cubans, you name it. I've done it all simply for the craft, because I believe in the craft of documentary filmmaking. I think that these are stories that in many ways are more powerful than fictional films, because these are real stories, real people. For years we've heard of the death of the documentary form, we've been told that they're going to disappear, but it seems like now, with so many channels to fill on television, that the documentary film is re-emerging big time. And they've never really gone away.
Simply working in that area -- in documentary filmmaking -- is challenging and exciting. It really is, and that's why I'm still doing it after all these years. I always learn something, whether it be in editing, or new shooting styles, or collaborating with someone.
As a Hispanic documentary filmmaker, I have a real strong interest in capturing history that hasn't been told. For instance, when I was growing up I'd see Acapulco Reds, Bandito caricatures, and all this stuff about Pancho Villa, and so when I had an opportunity to create an impact, I did a film on Pancho Villa for the American audience as part of PBS' The American Experience. It was called The Hunt for Pancho Villa, and that allowed me to talk about that history so that people could have an understanding of why this guy practically went to war with Mexico, with 200,000 troops stationed on the border and with General "Black Jack" Pershing going in looking for this guy to kill him... somehow that disappears into history, and I want to bring that back. Stories of the Southwest, stories of Mexican-Americans, there are all these wonderful stories that need to be told.
I know that a television show isn't going to change the world, but it can give you a glimpse. An insider's glimpse. And I think that's very important.
Shakedown in Santa Fe screens as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, October 8, 7pm (doors open at 6:30pm), at the Alamo Drafthouse & Cinema (409 Colorado). Hector Galán will introduce the film and hold a Q&A session afterwards. Admission is $5 ($3.50 for AFS members and students). The Galán Productions website address is http://www.io.com/~galan/website.html.
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