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INTERVIEW WITH ALEX RIVERA
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Alex Rivera in May, 1997.
Well, what prompted you to make this tape,
Well, what prompted me originally was the pun, really. I had a friend of mine, Greg Berger, who was really interested in researching food and the myths that surround food, and he had just done a lot of work around the potato. I was thinking about a project that I wanted to do about my dad and about assimilation. The idea sort of came to me, this pun [in Spanish] of papa, there's potato, and papá, father. And then the more I learned about the potato from my friend, I realized that those two stories of the vegetable and my dad actually had a lot in common. Pretty parallel stories. And also one of my interests is in making videos that are really accessible and explain complicated ideas, what's usually regarded as high theory, but through a really accessable vocabulary. And using this metaphor and this kind of pun, I thought, was a really good way to do this.
So that was where it came from. It started out as a joke; when I told my professor at school about it, it was almost a threat. Like, what if I made a tape comparing the journey of the potato from Peru to America through the conquest, to the journey of an immigrant, namely, my dad. Pa-pa-pa-pá ...
That's great. Well, it's an incredibly dense piece. There is so much in there. It's really fun to watch, but it's also really interesting to think about the kinds of work that went into it, because there's so many different levels of activities. Can you talk a little bit about the research you did, finding archival material and interviewing people at the potato chip factory and things like that around the potato?
Yeah. Sure. It was a really fun process. And I mean for people who don't like documentaries -- and I think that there are those people -- I think this is an interesting tape for people like that. I might have been one of those people, and so that when I was making the film, I had a really different strategy about how to build this. It's called a documentary, it screams of documentary, but the way I built it was really different. What I was trying to do was think about concepts that I wanted to address, right? I wanted to talk about the relationship between technology and food and the way that technology's been transforming food. I wanted to make a parallel between that and the techno-cultural environment that people live in here -- make a parallel between the food technology and how it transforms the potato and the television and how it transforms culture. So ultimately the question is, How do you photograph it? How do you get it on video? How do you take a picture of it and who do you talk to?
And the answers were all over the place: I interviewed people at an advertising agency that tries to reach the Latino market; I interviewed a scientist at Cornell who's spent her whole life with the potato dissecting it; and I interviewed workers in a factory that manufactures potato chips. The rest were people I just called direct on the phone. I did a lot of research through trade journals and weird little places, and so I was researching this stuff about Spanish language media and general broadcasting.
I got in touch with an advertising agency in New York and asked about the Latino market -- how they think of that population. And I just called Jorge Ramos, the guy who can be seen on Univision. I called Univision in Miami and they said, "Okay, you can talk to this guy. He knows a lot about TV." And I had no idea that he was this reporter that millions of people watch every night. "Okay, we'll put you on the phone with this guy. He's pretty smart." A lot of it was just luck and coincidence and being really relentless -- and probably irritating a lot of people in my path. But it was a really a fun process to do that kind of research because the roads that it led me down spread out all over the place. It would be really cool to have a reunion. A lot of the people are interested, and to get them all in one place to look at each other. . . You know, this really weird crowd.
That's great. And then the other part of the tape deals with your own background, and also your father and his background. It's really interesting how you've handled the footage with your father -- the images of him sitting and watching TV. That's really poignant in relationship to the idea of "couch potato," etc. I remember the interview with him when he talked about first coming to Miami and encountering the "colored" and "white" bathroom stalls. Did you have a lot of footage of him and a lot of different stories? And how did you get him to talk to you?
My dad definitely was not a really vocal person about these things, so it turned out to be hard. I feel like he obviously went through a lot, and he doesn't really like to talk about it. He grew up in this neighborhood called La Victoria, in Lima, which was a really tough neighborhood. He wasn't an upper-class Peruvian kid. In the States immediately he was able to lead a comfortable lifestyle. It's the typical American dream: coming from basically the ghetto of Lima into the United States, and working in factories, and really working his way up, and putting himself through school at night, and then graduating. Then he worked at better and better jobs, and eventually moved to New York City, and then to upstate New York, and lived in a split-level ranch with his wife and with "2.5 children" and cable TV.
When I was growing up, he was never really vocal about the experience of the immigrant in any way. It was kind of a given. And so having the camera, at first, it was awkward really, but gradually he opened up. And as an interviewer, what I would try to do is be as specific as possible, and not ask questions that were loaded. I tried to ask about specifics like, "What kind of dreams did you have when you were a kid?" and "When you went to the movies when you were a child in Lima, what did you see? " I wouldn't ask, "As a first minority in America, what did you think . . . " You know what I mean. I did not talk in that kind of vocabulary, but I was more specific and I would try to get anecdotes. His analysis, his take on the world, sort of floated out of that.
There are a lot of films made that are about people's intimate lives. And I think the project of making something that's autobiographical is ultimately that you're telling a story from a really intimate point of view, but that that story is supposed to be valuable to large numbers of people in some way, right? Let's say, by showing your very personal life, or a story about your parents, that your audience is going to relate and take useful part of that story into their lives. There are a lot of pieces that I've seen in that genre that cross a line and are too intimate. It then becomes more like staring into someone's intimate life, and I don't want to see that much.
I was really nervous about making a piece like that, and so I cut my dad up pretty aggressively. I feel like he doesn't speak uninterrupted for probably more than 15 seconds. And as time has gone by, I kind of regret that, and I wish I'd have him speak a little more, because I think that he just came across as a really great character. But I was so concerned about burdening the audience with my dad. You know, I don't visit my dad more than three times a year. I figured, Why should you watch him for half an hour? Just get him in the tape, let him say his piece, and get him out. In retrospect, I wish I had let him hang in there a little more and have more of a presence because he's interesting. His face and his feature come across very well on the screen.
Yeah, I know, it's really interesting to watch his face. And speaking of faces, it's really interesting what you did with your grandmother's face.
What are you talking about? I know nothing. I didn't do that. [laughs] You must be talking about when I was telling the story of the first time that I met my grandmother in Lima, Peru. RETURN OF THE JEDI had been released in America, and so that was really on my mind. And then I went down to Peru and I thought this short, wrinkly character who's my abuela, I thought she looked a lot like Yoda. So I morphed her into Yoda in the film, and that's a minute and six seconds or a minute and seven into it. People are watching up until that moment; they're kind of hanging in there thinking, "Is this an educational film or is this a drama or an autobiographical film?" And then when my grandmother morphs into Yoda, they're like, "Okay. This is weird." That's usually a turning point with an audience -- when they start to enjoy it more.
What did your dad say when he saw that?
I don't know what my dad thought when he saw his mom turn into Yoda. I'm sure he sort of gasped. I don't know. He didn't blurt anything out. He wasn't like, "Ay, carajo!" Luckily, he didn't seem really mad. And he knew the story. I told him when I was right there standing with him in Lima, "Dad, she looks like Yoda." He knows my sensibility.
Right. The other thing I wanted to ask you was as we get into the piece itself, it's really funny how you all of a sudden take us off for a ride -- suddenly we go to Inca Vision, your game show on TV -- and I was just wondering how that came about. And did you perform it for a larger audience?
A video audience?
Yeah. Can we expect this on the air next week?
Right. Wow. I wish. That would be cool. But no, I was in development of it, just thinking about the ideas and what stories I could have, and what order they would go in, and what would be the stream of consciousness of it, you know, and how I would take the viewers through it all. I decided it would start with the history of the potato that would go into this contemporary history of the potato -- from the Inca's cultivating it through to suburban Peruvians eating it on the sofa. I wrote those kind of ruptures, right? And then you go from eating the potato chip on the couch into the television, which is in Spanish, and interview someone in Spanish. In any case, I wrote out the first ten scenes or whatever on paper saying, This is where I'm going to go, this is what the interview subjects are going to say. I wrote in quotes for people who I didn't even know. This is what they will say. And this isn't really good documentary practice.
So, I wrote out the story like that. And then I started producing it. But then once I had gone through the first round of production, and shot what I'd written, and edited it, and it had come out mostly like I thought, I realized I hadn't written an ending -- there wasn't really a second half. I thought, "Uh, now what?" I had laid out so many different little strings that I wasn't really sure how to tie them all up. One answer was to say that the whole thing had been Inca Vision which was this new TV station. It's a very different way of looking at the world, retroactively saying you've been watching Inca Vision. Then at that moment, taking the viewers into another world where I had more license, I was able to get to the ending more quickly, able to intervene. So, in terms of management, watching Inca Vision allowed there to be this story and then this story, etc. It was a convenient way to manage all this stuff.
I also have an interest in all of the rhetoric of cyberspace, the information age. It's so huge right now. I'm trying to think about the language, which is really rich. In those discourses around the Internet, people are reevaluating distance, reevaluating culture, and property. All these things are up in the air. But then simultaneously, the whole access thing is also really exclusionary and aimed at the upper class, giving more access to culture and information to those people.
So, thinking about that, I came up with this idea of Virtual Lima. It's distance, transnationalism and all these things that people are talking about for the corporate sphere, talking about for executives who want to telecommute from home. So, creating Virtual Lima -- which is where the whole video ends -- and the cyberspaced version of La Victoria, the neighborhood where my dad grew up, was a way of talking about recent immigrants. Looking at my dad as a recent immigrant was like consciousness suspended. He doesn't feel connected to Peru anymore. He left there 40 years ago. He left there because he was discriminated against there, and to go from being poor, it wasn't a great situation. He never feels nostalgic for it.
But then in the United States, he doesn't hear his language, his first language. And he is not surround by people who are even like him. He lives in a very isolated situation. And he compensates for that by watching Spanish language television five or six hours a night. And so, creating Virtual Lima, using the discourse of cyberspace, I thought that was a good way to talk about that state of being. It was like being between two places and not having a physical landscape that you feel part of, feeling rejected by all the options: aspiring to have some home, some place where you feel comfortable, but it's not anywhere on earth. You're not somewhere, but suspended above. So, the use of this language of the Internet to talk about that sensation and to poke fun at the upper class's slant of a lot of that rhetoric says, "Well, where's the Third World in the this virtual neighborhood or whatever? And in the global village, where does the Third World fit in?"
Yeah, so your dad gets the control and then he just decides to blow it up, right?
Yeah. Exactly. People ask me, "What that's about?" And it's a different answer every time, but I guess generally, it was just sort of cathartic. And throughout you're seeing how this potato, which has been cast as this lost Inca, is a vegetable: it was sliced, and poured into hot grease, and dissected, and put under a microscope. This poor vegetable has been through so much. And then you get to know my dad. He was cast as this tragic figure in a world that doesn't accept him. He's traveled, and tried to escape it, and improve the situation, but never finds a place he's comfortable in. And he's also bombarded by people who want to turn him into a consumer, as well as people who want to discriminate against him. I really think that's an interesting situation that minorities in this country, who are still tremendously discriminated against, have simultaneously been realized as good markets, are being seduced into the economy. And it's like, "We won't give you jobs, but you'll have your own Huggies advertisement." And it's targeted right at you.
Right. And you can pay state tax, even though we can deport you.
Yeah. I mean there are really interesting dichotomies. And so when he blows up basically the whole video at the end, it's like this cathartic kind of release and frustration. But he's not blowing anyone in particular. It's like he's in a dream, without escaping the dichotomies of these situations. It's impossible, of course.
Well, this has been great. Thanks. Do you have any odd production stories you want to add, or any moments of epiphany as you were cutting that came to you, or that you saw in a dream?
People we met through this process were just really wonderful characters. Everyone seemed to really open up and be thrilled to have someone make a movie about them. The guy at Inca Cola was such a character, and who's going to put him in a movie? And the scientist who specialized in the history of the potato. We put her in the movie. And so I think so many of them were really thrilled and over-anxious to speak to us, and would sometimes detain us for two and three hours to show us the slideshows and go on and on. We preserved them on tape.
Well, think of all the opportunities you've opened up with this one tape, Alex, for people to bare their souls to you. It's wonderful. Well, thanks. This has been really great.
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