“Patrimonio,” a 2018 documentary from directors Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale, is an engaging and emotionally affecting David and Goliath story. Complete with an evil American corporation oppressing poor fishermen, corrupt government officials, family betrayal, and a wrongfully imprisoned hero, “Patrimonio’s” plot summary reads like a tragic Hollywood blockbuster movie … except everything that happens in the film is 100% real life.
There is a small town in Baja California, Mexico. Todos Santos is its name and for generations has been home to 6,000 people that fish and farm and live fairly simple lives. They are connected to the land in a way that most people don’t appreciate in this world. In 2015, their lives changed forever.
in 2014, Tres Santos came to this small town with a plan for a massive, 5,000 house development which would also include a world-class resort. The beachside development was billed as a “wellness center” of sorts with holistic benefits. For the indigenous people, Tres Santos sold them on promises of economic benefits for everyone in the town. The reality of the situation turned out to be very different.
When Tres Santos broke ground on the hotel, things began to go south immediately. The developers erected barrier walls which rerouted the ocean’s natural water path, driving destructive runoff water into the fishing area known as Punta Lobos – home to generations of fishermen. The development, which had total the residents of the town that they would be using their own source of water, switched gears and began tapping into the limited acquirer which supplied the town with its only source of potable water. The development also produced documents that showed the fishermen of Punta Lobos no longer had the right to fish from the beaches they had used for years – the government had changed their land deed without telling them and given the beachfront property to Tres Santos.
“This is your patrimony. Raise your voices” – John Moreno
In the blink of an eye, the residents of Todos Santos were under attack from a large multi-national corporation with deep pockets and key government officials in its pockets. “Patrimonio” tells the story of this fight which has raged on for years at this point.
With this background established, directors Jackson and Teale tell the compelling story of Todos Santos from the point of view of one of the main fishing families, the Salvatierra’s, and the coop’s lawyer, John Moreno, as they fight back the invaders from all sides. We experience the highs and lows of the coop as they maintain a blockade for three months only to see it smashed by bought police in riot gear. Later on, after the municipality’s governor visits the completed Tres Santos hotel resort, John Moreno is arrested on charges backed by forged documents.
“Patrimonio” places you squarely in the middle of a fight for survival. With subtitled interviews with locals that explain, better than I ever could, what this land means to them, to cut scenes of the development during its construction (and the damage its causing to the natural resources), to videotaped interactions with the ineffectual (and fairly corrupt) government agencies which make the ultimate decisions in play. The narrative arc at use in “Patrimonio” keeps you glued to the screen because the story is naturally cinematic. The way the film is cut and assembled, it feels like this couldn’t possibly be real, that such injustices could not possibly be happening in the 21st Century. And yet, it is.
The story takes a dramatic turn when the coop’s lawyer, John Moreno, is arrested. Stemming from charges which predate the Tres Santos conflict, Moreno is held for over three months without bail. All the while, the local judge accepts the fact that the evidence brought against Moreno is forged, he doesn’t allow Moreno even a hearing. It’s not until a federal judge intercedes does Moreno get out of jail. Tres Santos’ fingerprints are all over this event but their plan backfires because the entire town rallies for Moreno’s release and even with him incarcerated, the protests against the development never cease. The people never lose faith that they are on the right side of history.
“You can’t say you are a conscious being without protesting the injustices that are happening.” – John Moreno
The people of Todos Santos are examples of indomitable spirit and hope and “Patrimonio” allows them to shine for the world to see. “Patrimonio” raises the alarm on unchecked power that a deep pocket corporations can exert over others that are less powerful and governments which are comprised of flawed and corrupt men. The film is a cautionary tale of what happens when we allow lawless development at the expense of our land, its finite resources, and those that have acted as its protective steward for generations. But, and this is the key to the story, the people can fight back. If they remain united and strong, they can persevere.
In the epilogue, we learn that the fishermen of Todos Santos finally won their right to use their ancestral lands. It took years to accomplish and countless obstacles to overcome, but David conquered Goliath. The audience in the theater broke into elaborate applause as this script came across the screen in the epilogue -that’s the power of “Patrimonio,” it unites people by reminding them that there are some rights and wrongs in this world that are black and white and as a people, we need to always stand united against those that would do wrong to our fellow man.
Seeing the men and women of the coop join together to fight Tres Santos and then come together to fight the wrongful imprisonment of their lawyer is uplifting and reaffirms your belief in humanity. If these people, who stand to lose literally everything they’ve known in their life, can stand up to faceless criminals, perhaps there is hope for all of us to right the wrongs of those that would try to destroy our world.
With “Patrimonio,” Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale force our eyes open by putting us into the fight. With on the ground video production values that mimic the experience of the fishermen as they fight against Tres Santos and their own government. Their film prevents you from turning your head away and makes you confront something you don’t want to believe is happening not too far from our home. In the end, it’s difficult to see but you are better off for having watched. If you get the chance to see “Patrimonio,” run don’t walk to spend time with this important story.
“Patrimonio” had its New York City premiere on November 13, 2018, at 5:15p at the IFC Center (323 6th Ave.) as one of the entries in the “Fight the Power” section of this year’s Ninth Annual Doc NYC.
For more information on the documentaries in this year’s festival, head to Doc NYC’s website, http://www.docnyc.net/. In addition to making the festival circuits in 2018, “Patrimonio” will also release in the US digitally and on DVD via First Run Features in March 2019.
Featured image credit: © Robert Saltzman