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Filmmaker Interview

POV: In your own words tell us what 'Reportero' is about.

Bernardo Ruiz: Reportero is about a group of reporters who work an independent weekly. They've been doggedly covering Mexico's drug war, often with heavy losses.

POV: What do you mean by heavy losses?

Ruiz: In the film we get to know Sergio Haro, who's a veteran reporter for Zeta which is a muckraking weekly out of Tijuana, Mexico. And over the course of Sergio's 25-year career, he's buried three of his colleagues. All murdered for either reporting on organized crime in Mexico or reporting on corrupt and crooked politicians.

POV: Did you come at this subject initially through Sergio himself, or through Zeta? What was the topic that you wanted to cover?

Ruiz: A quiet, neglected corner of the U.S.-Mexico border. I was just interested in putting together a kind of kaleidoscopic portrait of this place. And of course, as often happens, you go to that place, you start, and you're moved by what's happening there. Through my research I met Sergio Haro in the spring of 2009. We began a series of conversations that eventually led to this film. But I had no intention of making a film about Mexico's drug war or about the difficult job, the almost impossible job, that investigative journalists have in covering that drug war. It was a kind of serendipity in a way. So it just began through a series of conversations really.

POV: Tell us a little bit about Sergio in particular.

Ruiz: Sergio is a veteran reporter. He's someone who, once he made the decision to become a reporter, doesn't really want to anything else. For him, it's a day in, day out kind of job. Sergio views his region in so many different ways. The evolving story of Mexico's drug war, of political corruption, of all of the challenges that are happening in this region — that after years of collecting these stories and harvesting these stories, he's the deeper story of the region. He wants to tell the story behind the story.

POV: Aside from the contemporary reporters' stories, there's also a backstory and the history of Zeta magazine. Can you tell our viewers a little bit about that?

Ruiz: Zeta is a really unique paper in the Mexican landscape. It's an investigative weekly, but it has a very aggressive brand of investigative journalism. And the paper frequently sparks controversy. It has an opinion. It has a very clear editorial line. And it's one of the few regional papers to consistently tackle the issues of organized crime and political corruption with these very heavy consequences. The paper was started in 1980 by a journalist named Jesús Blancornelas. Blancornelas had been fired from five different papers for his aggressive editorial stance. And so in 1980, he and another reporter decided that they wanted to create a paper for journalists that would not be controlled by the government or deal with government censors. So early on in that process, they decided that they would actually print the newspaper in San Diego, across the border in the United States. And every week they'd truck the newspaper into Mexico. It was a way to defy government censorship because in 1980, paper sales were controlled by the Mexican government. From its birth the paper has always had a very clear, independent streak.

Ruiz: There's a very dynamic presence in Adela Navarro. She's the editor of Semanario Zeta. She's one of a handful of female editors in Mexico, but also someone who came up in Zeta, was trained in the paper's investigative and aggressive approach. She's a very interesting figure because she runs the paper in a collaborative way, but at the same time really pushes her reporters to dig deeper. Zeta is frequently the go-to source for other regional papers and sometimes for a national Mexican press and even for some U.S. and California reporters. A big part of Zeta's success as an investigative weekly comes form Adela Navarro. She doesn't suffer fools. She's a straight-shooter. She's a very, very direct person. She's also someone who has had many death threats over the last few years. And again, her personal life has been affected by the decision of reporting and writing, publishing the stories that she does.

There are a number of journalists in the world like Sergio and his editor, Adela. There are people who frequently labor invisibly in these corners of the world and we only hear about them when they've been killed. So part of the work of this film is to highlight the important work of people. And in the case of Sergio and Adela and the other journalists at Zeta, they feel that a film like this gives them more attention and that attention is added protection. There are some cases in the world where this type of attention would be detrimental to the journalists, but in this case, they were confident that this will bring more attention, greater protections to their work.

POV: What do you think it is about these reporters that makes them pursue these dangerous stories?

Ruiz: Sometimes when I'd be sitting at a bar with the journalists, when there were no cameras around, Sergio and his colleagues would get heated or really passionate about something, and it was always about chasing a story. And everybody in their professions has that thing that makes you passionate, that keeps you going. It's the same when you start a film — it's a leap of faith and you don't know where it's going to take you. But once, you kind of get a scent, you start following the story. You don't stop until you know you've exhausted yourself. I really saw that in the journalists I think more than in any other group of people that I've met. Their bread and butter is information, is the story, is deepening a search and going after particular things. That was one of the things that was great about the film was just seeing their doggedness, their passion in pursuing stories. And the adrenaline that comes with chasing a story like this.

Ruiz: The heart of this film is about those choices. Do I run with this information? Do I go all the way? Do I publish this investigative piece that names names? Should I show the faces of people who are used to operating with impunity and anonymity? Do we go forward that way or do we hide? And consistently in Zeta's history and Sergio's history, and the history of all of his colleagues, they choose to publish, which is why I wanted to make a film about them.

POV: How many journalists have been killed either by narco traffickers or whoever it might be?

Ruiz: So according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 40 journalists have been murdered since December of 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderón began a frontal assault on organized crime in Mexico.

POV: The whole situation there on the border, especially for journalists seems tragic. It's almost as if it's a war zone. Did you go in with preconceptions about the political situation or the narco trafficking situation that changed as a result of the film? Are there things that surprised you?

Ruiz: I think we often think of the Mexican border cities as war zones. The reality is more complicated. Truth is complicated. Tijuana is actually a really dynamic city, culturally, economically. Actually some of the best food, some of the most interesting things in cuisine are happening in Tijuana. There was actually just a profile in The New Yorker about this emerging chef in Tijuana. The other thing is that if you look at Tijuana's violence, there are five American cities that have a higher homicide rate than Tijuana. St. Louis, the city of St. Louis has a higher homicide rate than Tijuana. But when it comes to Mexican border cities, I think there's a lot of misinformation and there's a lot of hyperbole. There's no question that there's very serious violence. A city like Juárez has seen absolutely devastating violence. Tijuana, according to the reporters who I continue to be in touch with, has really has calmed down since 2008. 2008 was the peak of violence in the city.

POV: What have you come away from this experience with? What is this film ultimately about for you?

Ruiz: I started this film because I wanted to gain a better understanding of what was happening to the country that I was born in. And here in the U.S., I was reading headlines or I was seeing these sensational news packages put together on cable. It was just a report of the body count, of the heads in the street, of the blood in the street. And past a certain point there was just no analysis, there was no context. The human side of the story, the human toll of what's been happening in Mexico was entirely neglected. Just for very purely selfish reasons, I just wanted to understand or get a handle on what was happening to Mexico, as much as is possible. I don't think anybody anywhere has the whole picture,. It's a deeply complex problem and it's rooted in a number of different things. But I do think that I wanted to talk to people who are close to it. And that research led me to the reporters of Zeta and to Sergio Haro and his editor, Adela Navarro. Through them I began to get glimpses of what was happening. Also, I found authorities whose perspectives I trusted. And that trust really developed over time because I saw the kind of integrity in their process. We're at a point in our country where we're debating the future of print media, investigative journalism. Media is changing very rapidly. And personally it was a very profound experience to go to a place where people are exercising old school investigative journalism for print. It's almost nostalgic unfortunately, but it was a very rich experience to get to see people working in a way that I think has been largely abandoned here.

POV: For an American audience, what do you want them to come away with?

Ruiz: One of the things that I want the film to do is to tilt the view of what's happening in Mexico. I think unfortunately, Mexico as a whole is painted with one brush. It's just drugs and crime. And I really wanted to just highlight the work of people that for one reason or another has been ignored up until now, at least, largely neglected in international circles. More recently, Adela and the newspaper have begun to receive awards. I think that's a really positive trend. But I think it's important for American audiences to understand that there are people working with a degree of integrity that's really admirable and are doing work under very difficult circumstances. Basically working to create democracy. It's work that really needs to be highlighted.

POV: What do you call yourself? Are you a journalist? A filmmaker? An artist? How do you describe what you do?

Ruiz: I'm a documentary filmmaker. I do think that the type of work that I do is a hybrid of journalism and, and cinema. But I also think that documentary filmmakers, at least in the work that I do, get to do something different, which is create impressions or a sense of texture or a sense of feeling that journalism doesn't always do. Traditional journalism is about the facts, it's about reporting what's happening. And that's a part of what I do. But the other piece is also creating a sense of place, of texture. One of the things that we tried to do in the film is show faces. There's a recurring motif of portraits in the film. It's at the top of the film — we see children at a youth shelter. There are portraits of their faces. People at a garbage dump outside of Mexicali, we see their faces. Those types of things, those more poetic things are really important. So I guess for me what's important in my filmmaking is to get the story right. You have to get the story right. But then you must also create layers of texture to bring people into that world.