Wednesday, January 01, 2014

EZLN @20

Were we any better at this "blogging" thing, we'd have put together a thoughtful look at the Zapatista movement for the 20th Anniversary of the Chiapas uprising.  It would have been really well written, and interwoven with an analysis of NAFTA (not coincidentally also celebrating its 20th Anniversary today).  But we're not especially good at this stuff, and are currently distracted making arrangements to return to El Norte for a few weeks to dazzle The Man with our non-blogging talents. [Update: Daniel Hernandez has got ya covered here.] So instead we'll rerun a couple of pieces from 100 years ago, recounting our lone encounter with the Subcommandante himself.  Enjoy.

Sup 'n Me, Part I (Aug 26, 2007)

A friend returned to town this week.  Like many men here, he had gone to El Norte in search of work, and had been away for four months.  One of the first things he asked me was about my time spent with the Zapatistas last May.  "Jesus, dude, it's all been on the stupid blog," I started to say, and then I realized, well, no it hadn't.  Somehow, while wasting valuable internet space bitching about my overzealous cleaning lady or posting goofy pictures of the dog, I never managed to get around to writing up my experience with the compañeros. Burro Hall - we're all about priorities.  So, since August is typically a slow news month...

How does a gringo who’s been in the country less than a year wind up passing an evening with Marcos? (El Sup to his pals...though to be clear, if I were to show up unannounced tomorrow, I'd probably be shot.)  I'm not at liberty to say! Specifically, because the whole thing was set up through channels I had nothing to do with.  Marcos had agreed to the interview before I ever got involved.  So what did they need me for, you ask?  Good question!  Everyone knows that 1,000 monkeys at 1,000 typewriters could produce a tv show every bit as good as a human could, and at a fraction of the cost - but have you ever smelled 1,000 monkeys?  If you’re not prepared to clean all those cages and maintain all those typewriters, you call me.  I’m the next best choice.  (Assuming the first five guys you call are busy, I mean.)

Usually, as a producer, I would play a pretty significant role in conceiving the story, doing the preliminary reporting, coming up with a general outline and, most importantly, prepping the correspondent for the interview.  Except that in this case I had never spoken to Marcos, would not have the chance to before the interview, and had no idea what he wanted to talk about or what he might say in response to any of the questions we might think up.  On top of it all, Marcos wanted to do the interview in English.  This sounds like good news, but the only recording I could find of him was, to put it kindly, not very promising.   You can always dub or subtitle over Spanish, but garbled English is a big problem.

Also, owing to the EZLN’s almost paranoiac security-consciousness, we wouldn’t be told where or when the interview would be until shortly before it was to take place.

So that's what I signed up for: to spend tens of thousands of someone else’s dollars bringing a jet-lagged, poorly-briefed correspondent together with a man I had never met, who is cryptic and often unintelligible in his own language and would be speaking broken English through a balaclava.  I had no clear idea what we were going to talk about, or whether a band of masked guerrillas could be counted on to provide me with an interview location that would satisfy the particular sound, light and space requirements of Hi-Def television.   We also didn’t know how long we’d have to sit around, with over half a dozen people on the clock, waiting for this interview to happen or, once it did, how long it would actually last.  An hour? Ten minutes?

That this would be a disaster was pretty much a foregone conclusion; it was the potential scale of the disaster that intrigued me.  I mean, if you're going to completely implode your own career, you might as well have a pair of $85,000 HDV cameras there to capture the moment, right?  So off we went to Mexico City, with me technically in charge of a shoot over which I had virtually no control.

I should probably mention that the Zapatistas had absolutely no editorial control or input whatsoever (in fact, a DVD of the finished piece was only delivered to them a few weeks ago, and I have yet to hear a reaction).  What they did have was logistical control.  They even asked for my resume.  (I'm guessing the Queen Latifah profile sealed the deal.)  I wanted to use at least one Mexican crew, to cut down on travel costs, but they nixed it, saying they didn't want any Mexicans involved.  Foriegners are more or less all the same to them, but Mexicans...that's a little more complicated, and you never know who might have loyalties or connections they'd prefer to avoid.  (And yet, when we discovered that the Mexico City crew we wanted were actually foreign-born, they were approved, even though they'd lived in Mexico for many years.)  Obviously, they would pick the interview location in Mexico City (Marcos was expected to be there, not in Chiapas around the proposed interview date.)  In Chiapas, our drivers, who would take us into EZLN-controlled territory, would be approved by them.  Annoyingly, my request that our cameraman be allowed to ride with Marcos to and from his rallies in Mexico City was turned down because of "security concerns."   So the Zapatistas were worried that we might be Mexican intelligence agents, while I was worried that the actual Mexican intelligence agents who always follow these guys around would think we were Zapatistas. (The Mexican Constitution is pretty clear that "Foreigners may not in any way participate in the political affairs of the country," and I've paid a good chunk of my rent here in advance.)  Multi-layered paranoia was the order of the day.

And...Wow, this is rambling on, no?  I suppose we'll just have to do this is serial form.  Let's end here by saying the final element over which I had no control was that all this happened on or around May 5, which happens to be when Cinco de Mayo was held this year.  I'd always assumed this was a fake holiday invented by the Corona-USA Marketing Dept., and that actual Mexicans had never even heard of it.  In fact, there would be a two-day party raging in the overpriced hotel we were supposed to be sleeping in - while, outside my window, 18,000 people would be milling around naked, as part of a Spencer Tunick photo shoot. And this was probably the least-weird part of the whole weekend.

Sup 'n Me: Part II (Aug 28, 2007)

Our first couple of days shooting in Mexico City were devoted to a pair of rallies that Marcos was leading – or at least speaking at.  Marcos insists that he doesn’t lead anything, but merely speaks on behalf of those who do (he is, after all, just the Subcommander.)  Since our request for unfettered access was denied, we were basically no different from the rest of the press pack following him, except that we had a crew of 12 people and had come 3000 miles, and now were standing out in the middle of the street trying to figure out what would happen next.  For me, the interesting thing was watching the logistics unfold; how does a supposedly very wanted man move about in Mexico City?  He’s afraid to let our (vetted, pre-approved) cameraman into his van, but he’ll march down the middle of Avenida Reforma?

Marcos actually has little reason to fear arrest, partly due to a shaky agreement with the government not to arrest anyone while “peace talks” are ongoing, but mostly because arresting him would be an unmitigated PR disaster for the government.  The Zapatistas no longer carry guns (in public, at least) and haven’t fired a shot in anything but self-defense in about 12 years. Still, the guy is unquestionably a target, if not for the government then for any number of vested interests, and so he surrounds himself with unarmed security.  Of course, that depends how you define “armed.”  These guys, a double cordon of about 60 men, form a circle around him, all carrying these neat little homemade flags – mounted on three-foot long, three inch thick clubs.  If you want to get close to Marcos, you better come in heavy.

This is not to say that everyone was unarmed, however.  There’s also an absurd police presence around the guy.  In keeping with the axiom that the Mexican police are never there to help, these guys aren’t there to protect the masked man, but to monitor him. This was the scene at the end of the first rally, where the “endless speechifying” part took place.  I kept thinking of that scene in The Blues Brothers  where Elwood greets the audience: “We would especially like to welcome all the representatives of Illinois’ law enforcement community who have chosen to join us here in the Palace hotel ballroom at this time.” Would’ve been a great line if the Sup had thought to use it.

Where it started to get a little nerve wracking – at least for me, since my residence visa was coincidentally expiring later that week - was that Marcos wasn’t the only one under police surveillance.  Every other cop (and by cop I mean uniformed police officers as well as casually-dressed intelligence and security agents) seemed to be armed with a camera or videocam, and they were aimed at the crowd, their license plates and, of course, the half-dozen white guys with the expensive equipment.  One of the rallies was at a prison a couple hours drive from Mexico City, and to make sure we wouldn’t be left out of the convoy, the organizers marked our car with “EZLN – La Otra Campana” in big letters, despite my pleading that they just write “Prensa” – or, better still, “TV.”  (It's not illegal to cover the Zapatistas, but it is illegal for a gringo to join them, and I'm not sure I could convince the cops of the difference.) This is a picture of the cops taking a picture of me riding in a car with “EZLN” on the windshield – a picture I was sure was going to make its way to the immigration office up here, just in time for me to try to renew my visa.  (The fact that I’m still here should tell you how that story ended.  For once, the bureaucracy’s lack of modernization – the records there are written in pencil in a giant ledger book – worked in my favor.)

The rest of the time was spent shooting video around the city that would help illustrate the things that came out in the interview - again, a bit of a challenge since we still had no idea what the hell we were going to be talking about.  So we went with what we in the tv business refer to as "iconic images" - what the rest of you call "cliches": the Mexican flag, crowded streets, people selling tortillas, Indians in brightly colored clothing, etc.  My favorite moment came during the lowering of the flag in the Zocalo, which takes place every night at 6:30 with great pomp and ceremony and which was on this night marred the the immoveable presence of the drunkest skid-row bum I have ever seen in my life.  According to one of our guides, while the army can ask him to leave, it can't force him, so the entire regiment of soldiers, drummers and buglers had to march around his tequila-stinkin' ass.  It was actually pretty heartwarming, and it's nice to know that if he can do it, you can, too.


Update, Jan 1, 2014:  

And then it occurs to us that we never got around to writing Part III, about the actual interview.  And now we're short on time.  But it finally happened on the 5th of May, 2007.  Despite the insane amount of secrecy and paranoia, it was held in the back room of a coffee shop/bookstore called El Rincón Zapatista, which was brightly decorated outside with colorful revolutionary murals.  Not exactly Deep Throat in a parking garage.

Sup came in, got wired up, and catted amiably with TV's Dan Rather for a couple of hours.  (We had been hoping to post the finished broadcast here, but for some weird reason we can't find our only copy of it.  We'll put the interns on it later.)

Sup's English was better than we expected, and he was quite charming, personable, passionate and very, very soft-spoken.  Our favorite moment of the interview was when the noise from a nearby Cinco de Mayo party got too loud, and Marcos tried without success to get them to turn it down a bit.  We were glad to see we're not the only ones who can't get peace and quiet around here.

The next day was when things got hairy.  We were going down to Chiapas to shoot in a little hamlet under Zapatista control.  We were going to be there for a couple of days, but Dan and a previous engagement (specifically, MC-ing a Cancer Society benefit at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC, at the behest of the host, Gov. Eliot Spitzer) and would have to be back in Mexico City that night to catch a flight to NY the next morning.  Factoring in the time to get in and out of where we were going, we had about 5 hours on the ground with Dan - more than enough time to interview some local Zapatistas. and shoot a couple of standups...  Unless something horribly fucked up.

So we get to the town - the name of which escapes us at the moment - and expect to be greeted by a welcoming committee, since all of this was set up in advance through Marcos himself. Except that the Zapatista caricoles are an exercise in self-government in which leaders are not elected, but rather pretty much everyone serves on the government committee for two weeks before returning to their farming or whatever.  And today was the day that one committee - the one Marcos talked to - was handing it over to the next.  Somehow, "gringo TV crew arrives" was not on the agenda the first team left behind.  The new guys were distinctly unamused.

The first thing they asked for was our passports.  There were probably about eight of us, and a clerk laboriously transcribed every word of all our passports into a ledger.  That took a few hours.  Then we sat and waited.  For a long time.  Meanwhile... Dan's gotta go.

The next several hours were a blur of tense conversations, desperate attempts to get cell reception, and a lot of your humble correspondent banging his head against a picnic table.  Long story short (though it's probably too late now), when you're in the jungle with Dan Rather, working for a show financed by Mark Cuban, there are resources that can be brought to bear. We can't confirm this, but this was probably the first time a private jet had been chartered from within this caracol.  This bought Dan several more hours of waiting around.  We shot a few standups and eventually got to interview the governing committee around midnight.

The amusing part about that interview was that their Spanish was worse than ours.  Everyone around there spoke Tzotzil as their first language, but we needed them to do it in Spanish because our translator didn't speak Tzotzil.  And then we got to New York and had to translate their Spanish into English, and it was utterly unintelligible.

But anyway, around 12:30AM, we put Dan in one of the vans for the long trip back to Tuxtla Gutierrez. We didn't want to send him alone, so we sent the Mexican sound guy, who spoke no English and hadn't said a word in any language the whole time.  We basically sent Dan on a two hour ride in the dark with Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.  The sun was rising by the time he got to Mexico City.  For Spitzer, it was a happy ending.

We shot another day in Chiapas (we'll post photos at some point - it's pretty gorgeous) and then went to New York where - since we were not living there - we had to be put up in a hotel.  The show's travel office for some reason booked us into the Times Square Hilton, which was about $495 a night.  We stayed 31 days, thus running up a bill that managed to deflect a lot of attention from the $6,000 private jet.  (Mark Cuban called Dan Rather personally to bitch about us, as if it wasn't his own employees that put us there.)  The interview - Marcos's first on television in about five years, aired on Dan Rather Reports, where it was seen by about as many people as are reading this blog post.

¡Ya Basta!


Daniel Efosa Uyi said...

hey nice post mehn. I like your style of writing. The way you writes reminds me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog titled How To Build Up Passion In Whatever You Find Yourself Doing .
keep up the good work.


Burro Hall said...

That is without a doubt the stupidest comment ever left here. And we've had crazy people with multiple personality disorders, and burned-out drug casualties threatening to murder our dog. Congratulations!

Kiko Vega said...

Not so fast compa, The Baja has not phoned in yet.

Burro Hall said...

Operators are standing by. 867-5309.

Crazy Rita said...

I try hard, but always fall short. After looking at Daniel's blog, apparently I fall way short.

Anonymous said...

Google's your friend. Here's a transcript of Dan Rather's interview:

Burro Hall said...

Thanks - that one I have (I wrote it). What I don't have the is that actual film. I assume the NSA hacked in and deleted it somehow.

Unknown said...

Frank, we did the Queen Latifah profile!
It's stories like that one that developed your producer chops for Chiapas.

Burro Hall said...

Marcos was much lower-maintenance than Latifah...