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Richard Ray Perez produced and directed the seminal political documentary Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, which The Los Angeles Times called “a riveting story about the undermining of democracy in America.”
Also, Perez executive produced the multi-platform documentary series, In Their Boots, a series about the impact the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are having on communities across America, co-executive produced The Freedom Files, Season II, a 9-episode documentary series about the impact civil liberties violations have on the daily lives of real people and was supervising producer of Sierra Club Chronicles, a hard-hitting, half-hour documentary series of environmental stories.
Kathleen Wells: “Cesar’s Last Fast” is a documentary film about the dramatic life of one of the most respected civil and labor rights leaders of the 20th century — Cesar Chavez. The film highlights the spiritual commitment and genius which sustained Chavez through 40 years of fighting for America’s poorest workers — her farm workers.
This film is structured around never-before-seen footage of Cesar’s 1988 “fast for life,” where he refused all food for 36 days as an act of penance for not having stopped growers from spraying pesticides on farm workers.
This afternoon, I’m speaking with Richard Ray Perez, the producer and director of the film. Thank you, Richard, for taking the time to speak with me this afternoon.
Richard Perez: Well, thank you, Kathleen.
Kathleen Wells: Well, Rick, I know that you produced and directed the documentary “Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election.” Tell me, what motivated you to take on this project, “Cesar’s Last Fast”?
Richard Perez: I think the motivation was a personal connection. My fellow producer on the project, Molly O’Brien, likes to say that I was destined to make this film. I’m not sure I can agree with that a hundred percent, but there are certainly many, many connections I have to this subject.
First off, my father was a farm worker and a migrant farm worker for 22 years. So when we were growing up (and by then he’d settled and had a factory job), he’d told us about the life of farm workers and the migrant life and how difficult that it was, and he really vowed that he was going to work very hard so that we didn’t have to do that work. So I had a sort of family connection to the farm workers’ struggle.
And then when I was growing up, I grew up in the city of San Fernando, which is the Northeast San Fernando Valley in the area of Los Angeles — it is a Mexican-American community that was very, very supportive of the farm workers’ struggle.
And so, from the time I was a child, there were picket lines in front of the supermarkets around the grape and the lettuce boycotts. And one of the local universities, Cal State University Northridge, had a very active Chicano studies program, and a lot of those students were supporting the farm workers.
So there was, throughout my life, this link. And then, lastly, there’s a dramatic story about how this specific project came to me. It was … I think part of this really sort of [was], if I might call it, a karmic cycle. A fellow producer-director and I wanted to pursue the project originally, and my colleague just called, wanted to direct, was very dead set on directing the project and we met with the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation. At that time, that was the foundation that controlled the rights, and we made a proposal: I would produce, my colleague would direct. Ultimately, they wanted to make a project with us, but they couldn’t give us an exclusive agreement because somebody close to the family was working on a project, and we said, “Okay, that’s fine. We don’t want to compete with that project.”
So about a month after that, I got a phone call from the other filmmaker close to … the person close to the family making the project. She says, “Hi. My name is Lorena Parlee. I’m the other filmmaker, and I’ve been working on this film for about ten years. In fact, I used to be Cesar’s press secretary. I know that you guys are trying to make a film, and right now I’m really struggling to finish the film I’m making, and I want to know if you and your colleague would like to join forces to make this film.”
She said that she wanted to direct the film and that we can come on board as producers. And I told her that my colleague really, really wanted to direct the film, that he was a very experienced feature film director and that I don’t think that the project had room for two directors or a co-director.
So she understood that if she joined with our team, she would have to maybe give up her director’s role, and she didn’t want to do that. She asked me, “How about you? Would you be willing to come on board as just the producer, and I’ll direct and you can help me finish this film?” She told me the footage she had acquired. She had acquired about 85 hours of Chavez-related footage, 15 of which had never been seen by the public. That was about eight hours of footage of behind-the-scenes materials of Cesar’s fast in 1988, where he went without food for 36 days, and about eight hours of material of the Chavez family’s private burial of Cesar — that was the family’s rosary, the family’s preparation. So, she had all this intimate footage of — Cesar’s brother building his coffin and the grandchildren helping cover Cesar’s coffin with dirt when they lowered his body into the ground at La Paz, the UFW headquarters. With the fast footage, it was the doctor’s treating Cesar and the family becoming very, very concerned at Cesar’s bedside, trying to convince him to break the fast.
So she had all this footages. I told her, “Oh, I would love to help you. I would love to help you finish this film, but I just signed a deal to direct a series that had been up on the Sundance Channel and so I won’t be available for another six months.” And she tells me, “Well, I need somebody to help me now, because I’m being treated for breast cancer and I could only work on this film two weeks out of the month.” And, of course, I was moved and I thought, “Wow!” So I said, “Well, you know, I can’t help you now, but in six months, if you haven’t found anybody, please call me. I’ll work in kind, deferred, whatever you need to do to make this film.” She said, “Okay.”
Six months came around, I didn’t hear from her. I figured somebody else jumped on this opportunity. Nine months later, I got a phone call from an elderly gentleman. He said, “Hi, I’m Lorena Parlee’s stepfather. Lorena died last month of breast cancer, and she left your name in her notes for us to contact you immediately to see if you would like to finish her film.”
Kathleen Wells: Oh, my goodness!
Richard Perez: “Do you want to finish her film?” And at that point, between all the family connections I had with the farm workers struggle, and the personal experience I had growing up around that time, and this fate meeting Lorena only by phone, I said, “Of course I want to make this film and finish this film.” There’s too much acting externally driving this project to me, so that’s when I took on the project.
Kathleen Wells: I mean, Wow! That’s a riveting and dramatic story.
Richard Perez: Oh, yeah, and it’s a powerful story, and in the process of working out how to finish Lorena’s film, I became very close friends with Lorena’s mother and her stepfather, Donn and Helen Crail.
So it is a powerful story about this filmmaker who started this project — her lifelong passion. She worked first as a volunteer for the United Farm Workers and then became Cesar’s press secretary. She really wanted to see this project done, and when I looked at the work that she had been working on, though, I realized that it was a very different film than the film I could make and wanted to make, and I asked the Crails if I can take it in an entirely different direction. The film that I saw was so structured around that intense never-before-seen footage of the fast and focusing on his spiritual commitment. They understood it perfectly, because Donn Crail himself is a retired minister, and they gave me their blessings to make the film that I saw in the footage.
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