In the beginning, Lauren Estévez ’13, stuck to her list. There were ten questions on it—everything she knew she needed to know about the lives of citrus workers in Florida.
But there was more. And she often got it just as silence was settling in: the person in front of the camera would start talking again, offering up stories and information Estévez’s questions never reached.
“You find that really interesting stuff happens at the end—after you’ve asked the last question, and there’s a pause,” said Estévez, a first-time filmmaker and member of the International Human Rights Clinic. “It’s important as an interviewer to sit back a little and listen.”
Last fall, the Harvard Law Documentary Studio offered Estévez and four other students the training, funding and equipment they needed to make a short documentary film. It was a challenge, fitting filmmaking into law school. But after months of research, shooting, and editing, Estévez’s 12-minute film about the lives of citrus workers in Florida screened this month at the Harvard Film Archive, part of the Studio’s first annual DOC Festival.
The films at the festival explored a range of social justice issues, from transgender asylum seekers to cultural perceptions of breast feeding. Together they represent the first crop of documentaries produced by the Studio, a student organization that started last spring to support films on social and policy topics.
[Read full coverage of the festival in the April 16 edition of the Harvard Crimson, “Students screen original documentaries.” The article includes coverage of a documentary by Alexandra I. Gliga ’14 on breastfeeding titled “Milk.”]
When Estévez started research for the film in October, her goal was to tackle two issues—immigration and fair food. She found an advocacy group, the Farmworker Association of Florida, that had close ties to citrus workers; negotiated conditions for filming, including non-disclosure of names; and during January term, went down to her home state of Florida to shoot.
The crew followed workers through their days: boarding a hushed bus before dawn, working from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., then boarding the bus back home.
“It was like I had stumbled into a different world,” Estévez said.
With striking cinematography by Desta Tedros ’13, and Nina Vizcarrondo, Harvard College ‘08, Naranjeros shows the grueling work that goes into picking citrus. In other agricultural sectors, a premium is placed on careful picking, so as not to bruise the fruit; in citrus, it’s all about bulk, which means it’s all about speed. Workers are paid by the pound.
For each bin they fill with 1,000 pounds of fruit, the citrus workers earn $9.50 cents. Some workers can fill six bins a day. Others can fill only four.
“You go to bed exhausted, you wake up exhausted,” says one man in the film. “You have to start slow in the morning because your bones hurt.”
Because most of the workers are either undocumented, or working on H-2A visas, they were reluctant to complain about wages, let alone protest. The threat of deportation loomed too large. And that’s when Estévez shifted her focus for the film, away from fair food and toward immigration reform.
Without it, she said, it was hard to see how things might improve.
One citrus worker who agreed to talk by phone the other day said he was glad to share his story with the students from Harvard. He believed they had seen things, and learned things, that would help them in their careers as lawyers.
“I think one thing they learned is: don’t let go of all of the opportunities they have,” he said.
It was this man’s story that stuck with Estévez the most. He had started in citrus picking, moved up into construction, then fallen back into picking five years ago, when the recession hit. He invited the crew to his home, where Estévez met the oldest of his four children—a daughter who had been accepted to college to study criminal justice. But most scholarships require social security numbers. The worker’s daughter has no social security number.
For his part, the man held out hope for an improved economy. Back when the economy was good, he could make $100 a day. Maybe, if the students showed the film, someone powerful might see it and think something should be done for his “partners” in the groves.
“They show the film to somebody, it’s going to touch somebody’s heart,” he said. “Somebody’s going to do something at the end.”