When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21; box office and doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: West Side Theatre, 1331 Main St., in Newman
Cost: $10 per ticket, available in advance at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/257893 or by calling 800-838-3006
Info: West Side Theatre, 862-4490; film, www.thefightforwaterfilm.com
Driving through his home city of Firebaugh in Fresno County in early 2009, Orestimba High School graduate Juan Carlos Oseguera, 38, would regularly see long lines of farmworker families queuing up for food and set out to investigate the reasons.
The San Francisco State University film graduate learned that many Latino agricultural laborers were without jobs while fields lay fallow because of drought, caused in large part by federal regulations to protect a threatened fish in the Stockton-San Joaquin Delta.
Those workers’ plight and their four-day, 50-mile protest march from the city of Mendota to the San Luis Reservoir are the subjects of Oseguera’s first full-length film, “The Fight for Water,” which is playing at Newman’s West Side Theatre on Friday, Sept. 21.
“(The film) just centered around the farmworkers’ point of view,” said Oseguera, who graduated from Orestimba High in 1993. “The whole water situation is so big and so complicated. It’s hard to define in one single film.”
Oseguera’s documentary explains what happened to farmworkers when irrigation districts that use water from the federal Central Valley Project conveyance system received only 15 percent of their standard allocations three years ago. Initial predictions were they would receive no water at all.
The filmmaker, who completed film school in 2000, had worked mostly on short feature films while supplementing his income with a substitute teaching job. But he always loved documentaries, he said, and he decided to make one of his own when he discovered the story breaking in his own backyard.
Comedian and actor Paul Rodriguez, best known for his stand-up comedy work, makes an appearance in the film because of his work as chairman of the California Latino Water Coalition, which helped organize the march. The film also includes footage of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when he met with the group of laborers at the San Luis Reservoir west of Santa Nella.
Oseguera said he had a chance to speak with Rodriguez after making the film and said the comedian was enthusiastic about the documentary.
“I was pretty surprised; he’s a pretty humble guy,” Oseguera said.
“The Fight for Water” also features a couple of Firebaugh farmers who initially came to California as children in migrant farmworker families, as well as several migrant farm laborers, Oseguera said.
Thousands of people participated in the April 14, 2009, march, and 7,000 to 8,000 people showed up for the rally at the San Luis Reservoir, he said.
Oseguera said his goal for the film was to provide a voice to farm laborers, as news reports on California’s water issues tend to report the voices of farmers and environmentalists, not those who harvest the crops.
“My parents were migrant farmworkers, and many of my relatives are still working in the fields,” he said. “This is lending a voice to that.”
At the same time, the director said he wanted to avoid political debates about water during the making of the film. He said the film’s major premiere in Fresno would wait until after the November election, in hopes of preventing its use by politicians in their campaign rhetoric.
“This is my own perspective,” Oseguera said. “I hope people don’t see this as agenda-driven. It just expresses the concerns of a community.”
The documentary briefly describes how measures designed to protect the Delta smelt contributed to fields going dry throughout portions of the West Side three years ago. During 2009, when farmers only received only a smidgeon of their water allocations, refuges that protect the threatened fish received all of the water designated for them.
The reason for that discrepancy is that the smelt are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. Many immature smelt die when they are sucked into irrigation pumps each year, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. Scientists classify the Delta smelt as an “indicator species,” which means that when it is in trouble, other fish in the Delta are threatened and the quality of the entire Delta is at risk.
Oseguera said he had received little feedback about the film from members of the environmental community as of this point. He said, however, that someone who described herself as an environmentalist at the Twain Harte Film Fest, where the documentary was screened Sept. 2, said she liked the film, as it provided a viewpoint she had not considered.
The director said he planned to screen the film at the State Theatre in Modesto at a yet-to-be-determined date and would love to see it picked up by a distributor.
In the meantime, he’s looking forward to seeing the reaction of viewers at the West Side Theatre on Friday.
“It’s exciting,” Oseguera said. “Nervous, but exciting.”
Farris Larsen, the executive director of the West Side Theatre, said few films had appeared there recently — concerts and stage shows are more common — but she hoped to screen more. She said that attendees came in droves to the May premiere of “George Biddle CPA,” directed by Patterson native Nick Walker, and spent $3,000 at the theater’s snack shack to boot.
Larsen said she was excited about showing “The Fight for Water,” particularly as the filmmaker grew up in Newman and is featuring an issue that is relevant to the Central Valley.
“There are people from here (in Newman) that are doing things like that, and, gosh, that’s a great thing,” she said.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187, ext. 26, or firstname.lastname@example.org.