Rodrigo Reyes, a local independent filmmaker, is in the middle of shooting his latest project – one that he hopes will help shine new light on Merced.
Reyes, 31, is best known for his work in “Purgatorio,” a feature film that takes a fresh look at the U.S.-Mexico border. The film premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival last year and has won a Michael Moore Award.
“It’s the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s seen in a much more cinematic way – it’s as if you were having a lucid dream,” Reyes said about his film. “You feel like you’re there … it’s very vivid and intense.”
The feature film does not focus on immigration politics, but rather on the people living near the border.
The concept of telling individual, personal stories is something Reyes is also applying to his newest film: “Under the Sun,” in which he plans to share the stories of Merced’s peach pickers.
Reyes was born in Mexico City and brought to Merced at the age of 6.
According to Reyes, his work has been greatly impacted by his bicultural upbringing. At a young age, he was introduced to a world of literature, theater and art by his father, a history professor in Mexico.
“I always liked movies,” Reyes said. “My dad was big on taking us to movie theaters back when movie theaters were really wonderful.”
Reyes, who did not attend film school, graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with a degree in international studies. After college, Reyes decided to follow the creative path, and began directing and producing short films.
But as soon as he “broke the bank,” he found himself back in Merced. Reyes now doubles as an interpreter at Merced Superior Court. It’s a job that, according to Reyes, has helped him not only financially but also visually.
“Being an interpreter has helped me a great deal in making these films,” Reyes said. “It’s actually a great balance because I get to meet a lot of different people with lots of stories; stories I can think over and reflect on.”
Cinematographer Justin Chin has worked with Reyes on “Purgatorio” and “Under the Sun.”
According to Chin, what makes Reyes a great filmmaker to work with is his eye for filmmaking and his ability to tell stories that have yet to be told.
“The great thing about Rodrigo is he has an interesting point of view, and he likes to execute on that point of view,” Chin said. “He also likes to execute on the business of filmmaking and that’s a strong combination, because he’s not just waiting for things to happen – he makes them happen.”
Drawing inspiration from the lives of local people, Reyes is currently shooting “Under the Sun.” He has shot at local orchards, Applegate Park, the Food Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and the zoo.
His new film will center on the life of a peach picker, who Reyes said reminded him of his own grandfather.
“I started thinking of all the men that come out here and leave their families behind and somehow end up falling into a limbo, a time lapse of some sort, and don’t accomplish what they wanted to,” Reyes said.
His goal is to be able to communicate to viewers the lifestyle and thoughts of these field workers. “I think for an agricultural town, a lot of us never go into the fields,” he said, “and most of us never interact with our field workers.”
“It’s not a story about immigration as much as it is a story of the choices these (peach pickers) made, and how they’ll look back at their life,” he continued. “These guys that work in the fields are family folk, simple folk, they’re hardworking folk. That’s the story I want to tell.”
Reyes said this is also an opportunity to highlight Merced’s ag industry and educate people about the arduous work that goes into picking peaches.
“People don’t know how hard that work is and how much skill you need to have to pick a peach,” Reyes said. “There’s a lot of similar jobs out there but this is one thing that says ‘Merced.’ ”
Reyes is the recipient of a Canon Filmmaker Award. He said Canon provided a camera package, including cinema lenses, that will give the film an “amazing feel.”
Reyes estimates that filming for “Under the Sun” will be completed by the end of this month. The crew should have a cut by February or March, and then decide which film festivals to participate in, he explained.
In the meanwhile, Reyes is also planning a national release campaign for his film “Purgatorio.” Beginning in October, “Purgatorio“ will hit theaters in 30 cities nationwide, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Reyes and his crew are working on bringing the film to Merced to be shown at either the Multicultural Arts Center or the Art Kamanger Center by mid-November.