For me, it started in 2000 when Don Normark, my college roommate's dad, came to dinner.
As a young photographer in 1949, Don had become enchanted by a trio of close-knit Mexican American villages on a hill overlooking downtown L.A. Don spent a year taking beautiful, intimate pictures of neighborhood life. He didn't know he was capturing the last images of a place that was about to be wiped off the map.
A few years later, it was all gone — 300 families, church and school, evicted to make way for a low-income public housing project that was never built. Instead, the city sold the land to Brooklyn Dodgers baseball owner Walter O'Malley, who built Dodger Stadium on the site — leaving a residue of bitterness that still echoes in Latino L.A.
It had taken Don fifty years to get his pictures published as a book. Now the book was getting a lot of interest, and Don was looking for the right filmmaker to translate the story of Chavez Ravine to film. For some reason, my one film credit — "Waiting for Dark", a student film I'd shot in Cuba — gave him the idea I was that person.
The first interview we shot was with Frank Wilkinson, the 86-year-old former assistant director of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. Hearing his riveting testimony, I knew this was a film I had to make.
Over the next three years, with a shoestring budget and a volunteer crew including director of photography Andy Andersen and producers Mark Moran and Tomi Pierce (all alumni of The Last Express), we shot interviews with former residents of Chavez Ravine. I edited footage on weekends while commuting between L.A. and Montreal to work on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
We applied for funding, but never got any. But we got something better: Ry Cooder, on seeing the rough cut, offered to contribute a musical score (which he went on to develop into a stand-alone album) and Cheech Marin volunteered to do the narration. Their talent and credibility helped keep the project alive.
Once the film was finished, we had a stroke of luck: Chavez Ravine won the 2003 IDA award for Best Short Documentary. PBS subsequently picked up the rights. The film premiered on PBS Independent Lens in 2005 and was short-listed for an Academy Award nomination.
(A highlight of the IDA awards ceremony was the moving speech given to honor David Attenborough by Sir Ben Kingsley... who subsequently starred in the Prince of Persia movie. Life is strange.)
Making Chavez Ravine was an experience like nothing else I've done. Former residents have told me how much the film has meant to them, even that it brought their families closer together. As a filmmaker, that's the best accolade I could wish for.
I'm grateful to everyone who put their hearts and talents into bringing this film to completion and, especially, to Don Normark for entrusting me with his story.