Indie Films: <I>Dolores</I>
Issue: September 1, 2017

Indie Films: Dolores

Cesar Chavez is often credited with transforming the US labor movement by organizing the first farm workers’ union. But lesser known is Dolores Huerta, a rebel, activist, feminist and mother of 11, who tirelessly led the fight for racial and labor justice alongside Chavez. History, to an extent, has written Huerta out of the labor movement, and her contributions to establishing the United Farm Workers’ union. In a new independent film — Dolores — executive produced by musician Carlos Santana, Huerta’s story is told.

Peter Bratt directed film and shares co-writing credits with Bay Area-based editor Jessica Congdon. The feature runs 92 minutes, roughly half the three-hour-and-20-minute cut that was first compiled by the team. Bratt spent three years following Huerta, who is now 87, but still incredibly active. The film’s opening scene details just that. In it, the camera follows Huerta as she heads toward rallies, appearances, speaking engagements and meetings. She is always walking and the framing is constant, with her being captured from behind. The locations and time of day, however, are ever changing, helping the audience understand how busy of a schedule she continues to keep. 

“It’s surprising how many people have never heard of her,” says Bratt. “We thought the challenge was to establish who she is and why she is important in the first minute of the film. It also gives the sense that Dolores does not sit still. She is constantly on the move, organizing, on the national level, on the state level, at the local level. That was a great thing that we constructed together.”

New interviews with Huerta and her family were captured in 4K using a Sony camera. The filmmakers also benefited from the abundance of archival footage contained within numerous public and private libraries.

“We didn’t know that [so much was documented],” recalls Bratt. “That was a pleasant discovery during the process. We had countless interviews of people telling us about the work that she did, but as we started uncovering one archive after another, and seeing her in the trenches doing the work, we felt that the use of archival had to become part of a larger theme, and we would show Dolores doing the work, rather than simply telling the audience about her work.”

Jennifer Petrucelli served as archival producer and assembled a team that traveled the country, going through university archives and privately-held collections. 

“We discovered a goldmine in the CBS archive, and that was all of this 16mm footage of day-long shoots that happened in the central valley, where you actually see Dolores and Cesar sitting together in front of the camera, answering questions,” says Bratt (pictured, left). “That was an incredible find, and that became a major building block in the narrative structure.

“I kind of wrote a fairly thorough treatment about the narrative arc,” he continues, “and even writing the subplot of the personal aspects and family life — personal relationships. That was kind of the vision from the outset, but there was an incredible discovery process that happened during the interviews. Clearly, we are telling a historical biography, but we always felt from the beginning that we wanted to have an organic, earthy feel — that we really wanted to get to know the human being as well as the historical figure.”

The film benefited greatly from the association with musician Carlos Santana, who served as one of its executive producers. 

“This doesn’t happen in independent filmmaking too often, where someone like Carlos Santana calls up and says, ‘Let’s make the definitive Dolores Huerta movie.’ Carlos has known Dolores for a long time and one of the things that they share is a love for jazz music. Right from the beginning, I said, ‘If we are going to make the definitive Dolores Huerta movie, music is going to play a role, and we need to have her music in the film, and that’s probably going to cost.’ He was willing to go with us on that journey.”

Editor Jessica Congdon and Bratt collaborated on the cut, working remotely and sharing QuickTime files. The film began its edit in Final Cut Pro, but later moved over to Adobe Premiere Pro.

“I started her off with a written treatment and a story beat,” Bratt recalls. “'By this point we want to be here. By this point we want to be here. And here, we are going to go off on this tangent for subplot B.' I was pretty specific with that. Her process is, ‘OK, I’ve got this structure, let me put something loose together with this.’ She’ll do a rough assembly, and then from there we start sculpting.”

The film received color treatment to help reflect the time period and unify the diverse footage formats. “You are always trying to enhance a theme,” says Bratt. “There are musical themes, there are color themes. The third act is all verite. The DP Jesse Dana had a hand in that as well.”
Skywalker Sound provided audio post services, including sound design, as much of the archive footage was shot MOS.

“It had no sound, so to bring a little life to it, there was sound design — trees, some wind, some car passes,” Bratt explains. 

Looking back at the production process, Bratt says certain themes emerged, helping to shape the final edit. 

“I shot her 3/4 and down the barrel of the camera,” he explains. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to play out…It became clear to me that she had to tell you her story herself. It’s coming straight from the source — using the archive to show the audience her in the trenches, rather than having someone tell you about all her work. We wanted the audience to experience those decades and the tireless work.”