An Interview With the Emmy Award-winning Director and Professor Ray Telles
By Edgar J Rosales
“The Storm that Swept Mexico” is a documentary examining Mexico’s evolution as a state and a country. The film is constructed through personal accounts, archives and professional analysis. This was the first Raymond-Telles-directed film I had seen. What got my attention was the personal connection I developed with the documentary. After meeting Telles in a “Q and A” presentation at Berkeley City College, he agreed to a personal interview with The BCC Voice. This interview was held in the Center for Latino Policy Research near the University of California, Berkeley main campus. As Telles greeted me with the hospitality of a Chicano relative — rather than that of a professor or director — I rejoiced in the same unparalleled feeling of personal connection I had experienced while watching his film. This was the impetus behind why I wanted to interview Telles, his work connected to its audience. More than just a dull documentary, he offered a true glimpse into individuals’ lives.
What drove you to pursue filmmaking?
I started out in literature, double majored in Spanish and English. Then went to University of California, Los Angeles where I got my master’s in Latin American Literature. At the time, some of my friends were making films, and they were the ones who exposed me and taught me the basics of filmmaking. Since I already had a career, I needed a program where it was intensive and fast. I wanted to learn all of the fundamentals of filmmaking in just a couple of years, so I applied to UCLA’s film graduate program and got in.
I started working at the bottom, as a production assistant for a television producer by the name of Jack Webb, where I basically just drove around delivering scripts. Since I knew how to shoot I was offered a job with Univision, which at the time was called Spanish International Network. I worked my way up for a couple years, where I was learning how to produce and direct, and at the same time I was writing scripts on my own. After moving to the Bay Area I started to do freelance work and got involved with KQED, and that’s where I kinda fell into documentaries. Originally, I wanted to do narrative feature films but I ended up doing documentary and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
What drew me into documentaries was that it was story telling but with real people, and because of documentaries I met people and went to places I never expected to go. I was learning about life through this work and that’s why I love it and it’s where I’ve been for the last 35 years.
In an interview with HIPGive you stated, “My give is giving voice, storytelling from people from our community whose stories need to be told.” What made you want to dedicate your life to telling other people’s stories?
It’s an evolution. As a journalist and a filmmaker, people inspire you and make you see the world through a different lens. As a Chicano, I grew up with my version — my family’s version of history — which is as valid as anyone’s else’s, but I wanted to explore beyond what my family knew. That’s how we ended up working on the film “The Storm that Swept Mexico.” Many people have studied the Mexican Revolution for over one hundred years, and I had the opportunity to hear the story through my grandparents perspective. I figured, these are personal stories that I want to explore a bit more and they are also individual stories that tell a personal perspective of a bigger history. My passion for the last 20 years as a filmmaker has been to tell those stories that I think are interesting and important for all of us to hear. That’s what I hoped to achieve doing “The Storm that Swept Mexico” and “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey.”
That is why I am working with student-filmmakers and journalists, to encourage them to tell other people’s stories, whether it’s in the form of an article, or a film. Our families, our relatives, our friends and our people all have stories to tell and if we don’t tell them who will?
Who is your target audience?
It depends on the film. For example, in “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey,” I appealed to people who were interested in photography, architecture and art. Since [Guerrero] was Latino, there was a bicultural audience of Latinx who were discovering this kind of field. You want your films to be seen by as many people as possible, but we knew in particular who the target audience was — architects, photographers, and Latinos who were discovering a passion in photography.
In the case of the “Storm that Swept Mexico,” this film was a national broadcast. It was recently screened in festivals and the Mexican-American audience loved it. Chicanx and Latinx communities hardly see ourselves on PBS or on other national outlets, because not a lot of films talk about the Chicanx and Latinx communities’ history. But in general, I go for the broadest audience possible.
What is the hardest part in creating a film?
The hardest part, besides getting the funding, is finding what is the essence of the story. With the film “Pedro E. Guerrero: A Photographer’s Journey,” we had 46 minutes to tell his story. It’s basically taking all of the information you have about the subject and condensing it to an accurate story that works. It’s being able to tell the story with the least amount of words possible and letting the images work for you. That is the challenge — having every line, and every image reveal something. To me, filmmaking is like poetry. Editing, condensing, and writing, being able to convey the story in the simplest way possible, it’s a challenge.
You’ve emphasized in previous interviews the importance of mentorship. Who was a mentor for you? Both in life and in your field?
My parents were always my support system throughout life. But in my professional life there was a guy I worked with in KQED by the name of Spencer Michels. He took me under his wing and showed me the importance of writing. I see Spencer as one of my biggest mentors. Every once in awhile we do a story together. I got to be good friends with him and still am.
But there have been a number of people who have mentored me throughout the years. I’m constantly learning from other people, producers and even my students. This is why I enjoy teaching, I read papers on films that I’ve watched a dozen of times and occasionally I read a paper with a perspective that I have never thought about. I’m constantly learning.
What is a Chicano film?
The concept of a Chicano is something I grew up with. From the late ’60s to the mid ’80s I was involved in politics, and during this time we were establishing our identity as Mexican-Americans. This was a political statement. A Chicano was first interpreted as a Mexican-American who was born or raised in the United States. A Chicano film is a film by a Chicano with a Chicano theme. However, Chicano films have now shifted to Latino films. I teach a Latino film class and show Latino films that are not always made by Latinos. For example, I just showed “Sin Nombre.” This is a film about a migrant family coming from Honduras, through Tapachula which is by Chiapas, Mexico, with the overall goal of arriving in Texas. This film has a Latino theme but is made by a Japanese-American writer from Oakland, Calif., Cary Fukunaga. That is a Latino film, that term has now shifted. But at the same time a Chicano film would be “Zoot Suit,” a Chicano theme film, made by a Chicano director. That is what is considered a Chicano film right now. There are very few Chicano films because of its requirement of needing to be made by a Chicano filmmaker. But I think we need to think bigger than that because the term is expanding now, Chicano is also part of the Latino experience in the United States.
What are some tips you can give to young filmmakers and producer?
Best advice I can give is to never give up. If you really believe in what you are doing, never give up. I spent over ten years on “The Storm That Swept Mexico,” and there were times I wanted to give up, but I stuck with it. You have to have faith and believe in your story. Believe that what you are doing is the right thing. If you believe and stick with it everything will work out.
At the top – Photo courtesy of: Ray Telles