We got an assignment to make a film to support a government program to get migrant workers out of the fields and into more ‘viable sustained employment.’ The acronym for the program was HEP, that stood for a High School Equivalency Program to get migrants a proper education to help ensure their futures. The assignment was daunting because of an earlier documentary by Edward R. Murrow, HARVEST OF SHAME, done in the early sixties that showed the plight of migrants in America and echoed the infamous GRAPES OF WRATH, a story that’s still relevant.
The purposes of the program were indeed noble and were a residue of the JFK administration embodied by LBJ. The project was to take some time, perhaps more than a year to enable me to visit all parts of the country where the program was taking place. It was an election year, Humphrey vs Nixon and I was working on Humphrey’s campaign at the same time. When Humphrey lost (not my fault), I questioned the future of the film and was assured that the film would be supported by the ‘greymen’ of government, those that keep things working despite changes in administrations.
One thing I needed were success stories, not just promises, and was assured that there would be migrants that succeeded through the program. However, when push came to shove, it appeared that there were migrants in various programs but none had really succeeded in anything. When I pressured them, they spoke of a girl that had become an airline hostess, a glamorous position, and I pinned my hopes on her.
The more I pressed for her story and whereabouts, the more SILENCE I got. Meanwhile I filmed the grape growers strikes in Delano (and was confronted by angry farmers with shotguns) and other stuff.
I couldn’t get many farmers to participate (only one, and he had no idea what I was doing). I visited many of the centers and found mixed results. Some had dedicated teachers that were committed but many of the students were disinterested. In Colorado Springs one of the students hated being there because of the snakes. In Florida, the head of the facility there had the ‘students’ washing her expensive Mercedes.
I was frustrated at not having access to our heroine and not being able to get answers, I found out her address, and flew to find her. She lived in the Colorado agricultural community of Greeley, north of Denver. I loved driving along the Colorado Front Range. On the way. Glen Campbell’s WICHITA LINEMAN played on the radio and I pulled over and went for five mile run.
I got to the address I was given. It was an incredibly tiny and modest house. I knocked on the door, and knocked, and knocked. Finally the door cracked open and when I asked the question, the answer in halting English. “No here. No here anymore.” And the door closed.
I didn’t have an ending for the film and I was furious for having been lied to. I refused to finish the film and the Feds threatened to sue me. I said to the attorneys that they didn’t deliver what they had promised and that I thought that the whole program was bogus, since I hadn’t really seen any results. I held my own during a legal meeting but then thought that there was a film there anyway.
I had been listening to Richie Havens a lot and hearing his cover of MAGGIE’S FARM, gave me an ending, though a cheat. My partner, Rift, and I met him between sets at THE TROUBADOR in West Hollywood and asked him about his music and he graciously consented. Bob Dylan gave his blessing as well.
If the film has any strength, it’s in showing the conditions of the migrant workers, still shameful after HARVEST OF SHAME. Old people, children, all working in the fields and going back to horrific living conditions. I didn’t seek out the worst. The worst is what the conditions were wherever I went.
I’m not sure if there’s been any improvement.
I should revisit.