SxSW 2021 Interview – FRUITS OF LABOR director Emily Cohen Ibañez

FRUITS OF LABOR is about a teenage farmworker who dreams of graduating high school, when ICE raids in her community threaten to separate her family and force her to become her family’s breadwinner. The film takes place on the central coast of California. The serene nature of the central coast bares stark contrast to the mechanical style labor in the agricultural fields and factories where Ashley works. Developed with a unique co-writing process between protagonist and director, the film is told from the perspective of a young woman coming into her own as she comes of age in her last year of high school. The film incorporates elements of magical realism into the verite documentary form, offering a new way of seeing nature, adolescence, and the ancestors.

Having its World Premiere in the Documentary Spotlight section of SxSW 2021 Online, I speak with Director, Producer, Cinematographer & Writer Emily Cohen Ibañez, here at the festival with FRUITS OF LABOR.

Welcome to SxSW! Is this your first SxSW experience?

Yes! This is my first SXSW experience and what an honor to have the experience world premiering my debut feature documentary. I wish I could be in Austin physically taking in all the sights, sounds, and relationship building that SXSW offers across tech, music, and film, but even in its virtual form, I am floored by the wide breadth of this festival. The out of the ordinary SXSW experience makes it an ideal festival home for FRUITS OF LABOR that plays with the boundaries of the documentary form.

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past!

I had a circuitous path into the industry. I made my first doc short as an undergraduate at UCSC. It was called “Santa Cruz Prepares For Y2K” – yes, it was 1999. I was fascinated by American anxieties over technology and happened to live in one of the most Y2K prepared towns in America – Santa Cruz, California. It’s a quirky film that I edited analog using VHS tapes! I had made plenty of awkward home videos growing up in Arizona, but this was my first intention of making a “film”. Since then I have completed films and started some that never saw the light of day. 

For example, I worked three years as an HIV/AIDS advocate and service provider in the late 90’s early 2000’s. I videotaped a road trip with a client I had developed a friendship with who I had first met when he was homeless. He tested positive for HIV and we bonded through the process of him turning around his life. At one moment he decided he wanted to stop taking his medications and allow himself to die; we decided to go on a road trip together along America’s alien highway in Nevada and then through Arizona where I grew up. The idea was that an alien virus was taking over my friend’s body; he reflected on this as we would have conversations with alien conspiracy theorists living out in Rachel, Nevada. I still have the miniDV tapes and one day might try to look at the footage–the whole experience felt too raw at the time. 

I entered graduate school to pursue a doctorate in anthropology. My idea was to be a scholar, professor, and occasionally make quirky non-commercial films on the side. During graduate school at NYU’s Anthropology Department, I started to realize that I wanted to become a filmmaker; I guess it took some time for me to understand that filmmaking was something that was possible and within reach–not just a private dream of self aggrandizement. I love to tell stories and learned I had a knack for camera and editing. At NYU, I was part of an interdisciplinary certificate program called Culture and Media where we could take production classes at NYU’s film department. My first production class was Sight and Sound where we got to shoot with 16mm reversible film on old Arriflex cameras and then edit on a Steenbeck. I adored this class and completed 5 of my own short shorts over the course of 2 months. Later I would meet the late George Stoney in a video production class. He saw potential in me, provided me a small film scholarship, and gave me access to the Film Department’s editing room reserved for graduate students at NYU’s Film Program. I slept in that edit room, watching Sam Pollard give notes to film students and then asking students to look at my work. I made a documentary BODIES AT WAR, filming alongside my anthropological research for my doctoral degree. I completed the film and premiered it at Bogota’s International Film Fest; it never got distribution.

FRUITS OF LABOR is my debut of a feature documentary and has changed the trajectory of my career. WIth FRUITS, I feel I have arrived. Because I didn’t go to a traditional film program, many aspects of production I had to learn by doing as well as reading and watching films on my own. To find my way in the industry, I observed how people spoke, networked, and described their works. When trying to “break into” the industry, I decided to treat the film industry as an unfamiliar culture that I believed to be my people and that one day I would belong to. I also care a lot about the craft of filmmaking and focus my energies on constantly honing my craft, thinking through new ways of telling stories, and being engaged with other filmmakers I admire.

Jason Whyte | Get Reel Movies

How did FRUITS OF LABOR come together?

Whew! That’s a big question. I met Ashley when she was 15 years old. I was teaching Visual Sociology at UC Santa Cruz and decided to create a video collective with my college students and local youth from farm working families in collaboration with the Community Agroecology Network, an org that my sister Rose directs that fights for food justice in Nicaragua, Mexico, and California. My students and the youth made a beautiful short film called CULTIVATING JUSTICIA, about a community garden project in Ashley’s neighborhood. Ashley took part in the collective and stood out. She was and still is a civically engaged and sensitive person with ambitions of creating a better life for herself and her community. She was and is a curious person, who wants to learn and has a good visual eye as well.

To make a long story short, I continued working with the youth in arts development when I noticed a sudden increase in ICE raids in Ashley’s community. Most of the youth, most born in the United States, who were in the video collective were now going to work in the fields, replacing undocumented adults in the fields. These children were becoming the breadwinners for their families as the fields and factories experienced a major labor gap due to fear caused by these ICE raids. The white working poor were not filling these jobs; children were. I didn’t see this story being told anywhere in the news media and yet this was fundamentally changing the lives and well-being of American working families, many who are from mixed documented status families. Ashley was entering her senior year in high school and I asked if she’d allow me to film her in her daily home and work life. I asked her what her dreams were and she told me she wanted to graduate highschool. When I asked her what could hold her back, tears came to her eyes and she said that she felt between “una espada y la pared” that she wanted to work to support her family but that may mean that her dreams would need to be put on hold. 

The struggle between family obligations and desires for personal freedom to pursue one’s dreams is a universal struggle I could relate to in my own life, and for Ashley it took an acute meaning. She was taking responsibilities beyond her years and navigating coming of age in one of the most difficult moments of American history–the Trump era. Unfortunately, the threat of ICE is still present and we still have a road ahead of us to assure that working families are allowed to live free of fear and the ability to pursue dreams with the dignity, fair wages their essential labor deserves. So that’s the beginning of the story. I guess we can call what I described as pre-production, although the film evolved in a much more organic fashion where film stages happened simultaneously.

From there, I didn’t have funds to update my camera so I used a Black Magic 4.6 mini Ursa that I was teaching high school students working for the Latino FIlm Institute Youth Cinema Project. Later I would rent an FS7 affordably from Santa Cruz Community Television until I finally was able to purchase my camera and lenses. I also met the fabulous cinematographer Gabriella Garcia-Pardo at T/F Film Fest. We were both there with the Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a collective that lifts up women and non-binary filmmakers of color. I was pregnant at the time and wanted to hire a woman cinematographer to help me out; when she showed me some of her work I was blown away and knew she could deliver visually what I wanted for the film. I lost that pregnancy and we both ended up shooting the film. I cherish Gabriella because she joined me on some key shoots that were not easy. Following Ashley’s grueling schedule, meant we also had a grueling schedule and worked odd hours. The conditions weren’t easy and I appreciate her coming into the project with good spirit.

At that same T/F fest, I met Kristina Motwani. She was co-editing Emelie Madhavian’s film Midnight Traveler at the time and also being a Brown Girl Doc Mafia member, we hung out and bonded immediately. She’s smart, funny, and serious about the work so after working with her on a short based on material that would later become the feature doc FRUITS, I knew we could work together and produce great work. With her as editor, together we got to an excellent rough cut, cutting while shooting the film.  Later Kristina would move onto other projects, including Peter Nicks’ Homeroom. I took several months to review the rough cut, made some edits, and then mainly worked it out on paper, reviewing the cut with Ashley and working on writing the voice over narration with her. We did a series of “artist retreats” together with the grant money I had raised. We would spend a week together once at a beautiful Bed & Breakfast at the beach, Boca del Cielo, and later at my house in Oakland. Reviewing scenes I would give Ashley some keywords to open up and express her personal feelings. Together we helped mold those writing into poetic prose that worked well with the pacing of the film. 

After doing this work away from the actual edit, I was in search of a finishing editor and after seeing Rodrigo Reyes’ 499, I asked him about his editor Andrea Chignoli. She came on and in a matter of two months, we were able to complete the film remotely — her living in Santiago, Chile and I in Oakland, California. She’s a brilliant editor and I cherish our collaboration. 

Simultaneously, composer Yamil Rezc joined the team. I had first heard his music on a Netflix Mexican soap opera, CASA DE FLORES. I was drawn into his musical compositions and researched his music online. I felt his style could capture the sound of the film. I reached out. I was delighted when he said yes to the project. He’s a fantastic musician and composer and we have continued on short film collaborations since working on FRUITS together. As an accomplished music producer in Mexico, he was able to bring on popular singer-songwriter Denise Gutierrez who wrote and performs our original song, CURAME, with Yamil. COVID has posed special challenges to finishing the film, but it also opened me to work remotely with international artists who I am already working with on future projects; I can’t wait til after COVID when I can visit my collaborators in Mexico and Chile.

FRUITS is an underdog film; it was made through a patchwork of grant money, crowdfunding, and my own sweat equity. At each step of the way, I felt like we were running out of money and then a lifeboat would save us. Thank you JustFilms Ford, Nia Tero, and Field of Vision and the countless other grants and fellowship supports throughout the years. In November 2020, while I was figuring out how to finish color, sound, and DCP, my friend Vicky Ponce suggested I apply to the GuadaLAjara Film Festival WIP Latino Program. I did and to my delight I was not only accepted but FRUITS won three prizes which included color and DCP by Chemistry in Mexico City and Animation by 19+36 founded and directed by Maribel Martinez. I had done some initial animation work with California-based animator Pamela Chavez who did amazing work with the limited funds I had. I had provided Maribel’s work as a reference for our animations so it was my delight when Maribel chose the film to redo the opening and closing credit animation as a donation to the film. We kept Pamela’s amazing composite work with the various animals and butterflies who make cameos in the film. And then of course, sound, which is always fun, especially when you are working with such a seasoned sound designer as Dan Olmsted. I was able to do some COVID safe meet ups with Dan in the studio, which was a delight, since the process towards the end felt lonely despite the real collaboration involved in finishing the film.

Director Emily Cohen Ibañez
Jason Whyte | Get Reel Movies Director Emily Cohen Ibañez

Thank you for the wonderful back-story on the movie! What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

I think each project is different but this being my first feature doc, it was Ashley and her family that kept me going. Whenever I got rejections or harsh feedback, I returned to my purpose and what the film meant to me and what it meant to the Solis family. I also had supportive team members. In moments of doubt, I distinctly remember Kristina advising me to keep going after a long stream of rejections and a harsh meeting with a film producer who didn’t vibe with the film and what I was trying to do. It helped to be reminded in moments of self-doubt, to stick with my vision and my purpose. As a director, I am the captain of a boat with many collaborators to support me through this process.

What was your biggest challenge and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

COVID was really hard. I’m not going to lie. It’s still hard. When members of the team started getting COVID, my anxiety level raised significantly. For me, the film team is like family and I feel responsible for everyone on the FRUITS OF LABOR family tree. I also have been concerned with protecting the Solis family throughout this process and have gone to some lengths to disguise locations, consult with immigration lawyers and advocates, as well as other filmmakers who have worked with undocumented people in front of the lens. In terms of finishing, I really wish I could have done color correction in person. We made due, but I would have loved to be working on a large screen. Nonetheless, we did it and I think the film turned out beautifully. I hope others appreciate it as well.

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was made from a technical viewpoint.

Gabriella Garcia-Pardo and I were both DP’s on the project. We primarily used a Sony FS7, which is a great camera for verite but actually proved to be fantastic in our studio shoots as well. I love to plan for my shoots so before working with Gabriella for example, I did intensive location scouting photographing landscapes and providing extensive notes about the look and feel as well as sharing material I had already shot. The idea was to do long takes, primarily handheld, going for very wide contextual shots as well as intimate filming close to the Solis family. I thought a lot about color. I knew from early on that the strawberry fields would be yellow – the color of sweat – and the strawberries would pop red. I also wanted the moments of isolation, like when Ashley walks at night to the factory, to have a bluish hue that felt colder and emphasized her loneliness. And likewise, I wanted a saturated look for the garden scenes and moments of reflection on nature. While many scenes feel observational, I also blocked shots. For me documentaries are films; they are dreams, representations of reality, not reality itself, so I have no problem staging shots as long as they speak truth and honestly represent Ashley’s experience. The studio shots with the black backdrops evolved over the edit. They eventually became a way to highlight each main character/person in the film. But in the process of making the film, I imagined them as spaces for reflection and joyful filmmaking. Even when Ashley speaks to more difficult moments that we portray in these studio shoots, there was so much laughter, fun, and a chance to even do healing work. For a more difficult workshop and filming in the studio, we had Ashley’s curandera come and do a cleansing to lighten the spirit after difficult work.

The production design evolved with Maribel’s animation. I knew I wanted an animated opening sequence as well as a credit roll that portrayed the themes of the film as well as its magical realist elements that entangled spiritual life with nature and the mundanity of everyday life. Pamela was able to create the first mock up with stock footage and then Maribel reworked the design using illustration, images, and collaged images, bringing the vision to its fullest fruition. 

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW Online?

For my movie, I want it to get the visibility I believe it deserves. I love my film and the team that helped me make it. I love Ashley and her family and I want everyone to feel the hardships of farm labor, the humorous and difficult moments of adolescence and also take delight in Ashley’s wonderment in nature and the ancestors. SXSW is a fantastic platform; while many audiences won’t be able to access the film, SXSW recognition of the film will extend its reach, helping push distribution and recognizing the film’s value. For me personally, I can’t wait to watch a ton of films and hopefully connect with industry and fellow filmmakers. Ashley and my whole film team has passed as well so my hope is that they also do the same.

Clearly this is such a different time with virtual festivals and online screenings. How do you feel about releasing movies in this current format and how do you feel audiences will see most films in the future?

We’re all trying to get by in this difficult time of COVID-19. Are virtual festivals ideal? No way. They are a temporary solution and I am honored that SXSW selected FRUITS for its online version of the fest. I want to get my film out in the world and I hope that perhaps late 2021, I can do some in person festivals and experience a live audience. But right now my biggest wish is that we, as in the global humanity we, control the virus and that people stop dying. So it’s okay to be virtual for now, but I hope it would make me sad to think that virtual fests were the way of the future.

Where is the movie going next? More festivals or a selective release?

Ooh. That’s a secret. The movie is going places and will have an awesome festival life.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or work in the business. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into filmmaking, especially now as things are evolving at such a fast rate?

Get access to a camera and jump in. To hone your craft, you are going to first have to make some not-so-great stuff first, but if you love what you do, you will refine your filmmaking chops. It’s important to accept uncertainty and push forward. If you can persist, you’ll likely get to where you need to be.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I had gone to the tail end of the Sundance Film Festival maybe five years ago and saw a film called MACHINES and it blew me away. I don’t know what happened to that film but it was so unique and well crafted, I still remember the experience of watching it.

Jason Whyte | Get Reel Movies

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This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to!

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