Santa Barbara International Film Festival opens with documentary about farmworkers
Editor’s note: This is the first in a News-Press series previewing specific movies at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which runs Wednesday through April 10.
Say “Coachella Valley,” and most people think of its prestigious music festival and popular golf resorts.
But there’s another side to the Southern California valley.
There’s the side in which low-income farm workers go home to structures with no running water and no electricity or inadequate, unsafe electricity, according to filmmakers Aaron Maurer and Zachary McMillan. They noted there are farmworkers who are homeless and sleeping in their cars.
They investigated the plight of agricultural workers for “Invisible Valley.” The 87-minute documentary will make its world premiere at 8 p.m. Wednesday to open the 36th Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
You can watch the movie for free on the beachside, drive-in screens at Santa Barbara City College. Or you can see the film online for 24 hours beginning 8 p.m. Wednesday. (See sbiff.org.)
“Even though it’s a story that focuses on Southern California and the Coachella Valley, there are themes and issues in the movie that are applicable to the whole country,” Mr. Maurer, the “Invisible Valley” director, 37, told the News-Press last week by phone from his home in Minneapolis.
Mr. McMillan, the producer, 38, participated in the call from his home in Brooklyn.
“Aaron and I have been down to the valley together a long time ago for the Coachella Music Festival,” Mr. McMillan told the News-Press. “There was this whole hidden side that we knew nothing about, the agricultural side that contains the majority of the valley that no one sees or talks about outside of Southern California.”
Mr. McMillan and Mr. Maurer grew up together in Minneapolis and have been making films since they collaborated on a video for a social studies assignment back in high school. Mr. Maurer earned his bachelor’s of fine arts in film and animation in 2006 at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I. Mr. McMillan received his bachelor’s in liberal arts and science in 2008 at New York University.
In the Coachella Valley, the filmmakers became interested in the difficult world of migrant farmworkers, many of whom are illegal aliens. It’s a world that exists next to Coachella Valley’s tourism-driven world of music festivals and golf resorts.
“Invisible Valley” follows an agricultural family as members struggle to survive and a pair of nuns who are working together to build a shelter for homeless and hungry farmworkers. The movie also features a snowbird from the gated communities who looks for ways to help a population she recently discovered.
Mr. Maurer said he and Mr. McMillan filmed their documentary in 2017 and 2018. “We learned so much about the issues they (farmworkers) face and just how grueling the work really is.
“We would see them in 110-degree heat working in a field, then going to sleep in their car in a parking lot at night,” Mr. Maurer said.
Despite the difficult circumstances, the workers welcomed Mr. Maurer and Mr. McMillan into their homes and were gracious hosts, offering the filmmakers what little water they had.
“I think what surprised me was how joyous and loving and close these families are, even in circumstances that from the outside seemed so depressing,” Mr. McMillan said. “There was so much humor and levity and love, even in these conditions.”
Mr. Maurer said the filmmakers saw families dealing with hunger. “They were barely able to put food on the table and pay for the trailer they had. It went from that to folks who are living in the desert and have no running water. They can’t wash their dishes. They can’t take a shower. These are families with children.”
Mr. McMillan said they saw homes without electricity or with electricity in such a shape that it’s a fire hazard. “There were homes with tarps for the roof. It’s intensely below the poverty line.”
Noted Mr. Maurer, “It was pretty shocking and sad to know that people who are really essential workers in this country have to deal with these circumstances.”
Mr. McMillan said the farmworkers in the Coachella Valley follow the harvests and include people who travel to Santa Maria and other Santa Barbara County areas to work in the fields.
While the problems are dire, there’s a variety of possible solutions, Mr. Maurer said. “A lot of farmworker unions are working to mitigate issues with workers in the field. There’s a lot of shelters and outreach programs in the valley.”
The director cited the example of the Galilee Center, which works to provide food and clothing and meet other needs for low-income residents.
Mr. McMillan and Mr. Maurer also met with two nuns, Sisters Gloria and Claudia, who are working hard to help the farmworkers. “Invisible Valley” covers the nuns finishing a shelter, which opened during the filming.
“The nuns are warm, lighthearted, funny and incredibly driven,” Mr. Maurer said.
The filmmakers said they hope to help the farmworkers by raising awareness.
“The first step is to make people aware of these people who are picking the crops that we buy at supermarkets through the winter but can’t afford to put those same products on their table,” Mr. McMillan said.
One person who became more aware was Mr. McMillan’s mother-in-law, Mary Ingebrand-Pohland. She’s a snowbird who spends winters in the Coachella Valley. She discovered the farmworkers’ plight when she joined a program called “Read with Me,” in which she volunteered to help local students with their reading skills.
“A lot of the students she was working with came from farm-working families,” Mr. McMillan said.
Mr. Maurer said the filmmakers discovered members of the golf communities, who joined programs through their churches and became aware of the farmworkers’ problems.
“There were very, very successful people who had had long careers and were retiring in Palm Springs,” Mr. Mauer said. “They said some of the most gratifying work they had ever done was volunteering with these communities.”
Wednesday’s and Friday’s News-Press:
More stories in the Life section will preview the film festival’s individual movies.