Last month, a series of earthquakes hit Mexico. One of those quakes was the strongest in over a century, decimating communities in the state of Oaxaca, collapsing buildings in Mexico City, and killing over 500 people–some of them students buried under the rubble of their poorly built school.
Many of you who are friends of mine both personally and on social media had a glimpse into the tremendous spontaneous organization that surged in the city: restaurants closing, yet preparing food exclusively for first responders, neighbors digging through rubble for days to rescue people they’d only seen before in passing, and a network of help springing into action through social media, among others.
From my safe haven in Los Angeles, I witnessed how grips, gaffers, PA’s, and coordinators applied the skills they learned through years of work in production towards the rescue efforts. It was generators and lights from the production equipment rental houses that lit the rescue efforts at many of the collapsed businesses and homes on that very first night. It was transportation coordinators who got them there; it was caterers who fed them through the night; it was—essentially—the production industry at its best.
And the effort to save lives never seemed to cease. Three days after the earthquake hit, hundreds of messages continued to flow through a WhatsApp group that includes everyone from the Catatonia production office (full disclosure, I’m a partner in Catatonia’s US operations). The group originally created to celebrate employee birthdays now served to communicate the urgent needs of those whose calloused hands continued to move tons of dirt in search for survivors:
• “We need more drill bits but make sure they’re for concrete, more gloves, more LED lighted vests, more water.”
• “Diesel for the generators is running low at X location; who can bring it?”
• “I need to sleep for a few hours, who can take my place?”
One was particularly impactful…“We need hoses to pump oxygen through the rubble where a few kids are buried alive at the Rebsamen School.” That was the first time I cried. The feeling of impotence was overwhelming. Here I was in Los Angeles reading these messages from the comfort of my backyard, unable to help in any meaningful way while my friends and colleagues suffered through personal loss and continued to demonstrate immeasurable courage.
It was only later I learned that one of those kids was the daughter of a member of the production team I frequently work with. The young girl didn’t make it. In the following days, her father and mother collected numerous donations and took them to the hard-hit areas of Puebla which, due to their geographic location, were receiving no media coverage whatsoever, but were damaged far beyond what the capital was. They delivered these donations on behalf of their daughter. Even in a moment of tremendous grief, they still found a way to help others.
I wasn’t alone in those feelings of impotence. Many of you wrote to me asking how to help, where to send money, who could fly down clothes, food, etc. Fortunately, not much of that was needed as everyone—and I mean EVERYONE—was doing their part. People who were volunteering were being turned away, and tons of food that was cooked for first responders and victims went unused and ended up in the trash. Literally, there was too much help.
So how can we help?
Today, several weeks since the earthquake hit, and with rescue operations ended, the fundraising efforts lie with NGOs to provide immediate relief to the 2.5 million affected. This help will be plentiful (we hope) and may allow many who lost their homes to rebuild, including those whose homes didn’t fall during the quake, but have since been closed by government engineers and are awaiting demolition. As of last count, there are over three thousand buildings on that list. Buildings, not single units.
As controversial as it may sound, I’ll leave the fundraising to the charities, the crowdfunding sites, and the generosity of the public. I have, of course, supported many charities and will continue to do so, but I firmly believe that long-term help is what is needed most now.
We help by returning to what we have done freely in the past, but now we no longer do without misgivings. That is to film movies, shows, and commercials in Mexico.
It's all about the long term
“While natural disasters capture headlines and national attention short-term, the work of recovery and rebuilding is long-term.”
~ Sylvia Mathews Burwell, 22nd U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services
In a world and a time where quick fixes are the go-to solutions, we need to look beyond the short term and start championing the long, slow rebuilding process. Not just to help Mexico recover, but to try to prevent an economic catastrophe from happening during the rebuilding of the status quo. As dramatic as that sounds, the earthquake's aftermath does have the potential to nudge Mexico towards a recession, and our hesitance to return to film there can influence that nudge.
Look after our own
Crew members in Mexico are in many ways members of the extended Hollywood family, and now, many are without a home. As much as they appreciate immediate aid, what they really want, what they really need, is a paycheck so they can rebuild their houses and continue sending their kids to school. If a major natural disaster were to hit California, we as an industry wouldn't throw paper towels at our grips; camera assistants, Pas, and location scouts, we would continue to provide them with paid work. So let's do that for our neighbor to the south.
I’ve heard many US-based production companies say they’re no longer willing to film in Mexico, saying, “It’s just not stable enough.” I am, of course, assuming they’re speaking about the ground underneath the feet of those who inhabit the city. Regaining the industry stability that existed prior to this tragedy, though, starts with us, those of us who’ve filmed there in the past, those of us who know the benefits of and care about the people who make the experience of shooting in Mexico so gratifying.
Mexico's film industry has just as long of a trajectory as Hollywood's. Furthermore, the country has a reputation, as noted by Kevin Trehy, executive producer for Warner Brothers Production, for being an indispensable destination for filming. We as an industry have witnessed and appreciated the benefits of producing in Mexico, ranging from unique locations to achieving high production results for those projects whose budgets make them difficult or impossible to shoot stateside—all done by top-tier crews.
As challenging as we might think it will be to revitalize an industry in a city that was hit as hard as Ciudad de México was, we must.
As an E.P. who’s proudly part of the U.S. advertising community, my message is to all the clients who've shot in Mexico before, from the AT&Ts to the Verizons; the Hondas to the VW’s, Coronas, Coca-Colas, Coors, and so on…
I know that you truly want to help those affected by this terrible tragedy, so let's go back and film there again. Your crew, the same ones of which some lost loved ones and many lost their homes, the same ones who used their production skill set and tools to save lives and recover bodies, will be forever grateful, for right now they’ve been out of work for a month, and it’s time for life to start getting back to normal.
See you on set.
PS: Over the last few days, the “Cumpleaños” WhatsApp group slowly began a return to normal. It was always obnoxiously busy, and I had the tendency to mute the group for days. Now, though, I look at the birthdays being celebrated and pictures of cakes being shared, and I’m grateful that everyone is still around to celebrate. They were the lucky ones, and I am luckier yet to be a part of that group, privileged to call them colleagues and friends.
PPS: I would be remiss to not mention Carlos Muñoz, who lost his life—the victim of a vicious murder—while scouting for the Netflix series “Narcos.” While not a direct friend of mine, he was a good friend and colleague of many of my friends. Upon his death, there were a number of production companies and clients who stated the ill-informed opinion that Mexico City was not safe and would no longer consider filming there. I did not hear that same conclusion being drawn when location manager and industry veteran Edward French was senselessly assassinated in the streets of San Francisco. No one said, “We will no longer film in the Bay Area” when that happened, yet when we compare crime statistics in San Francisco and Ciudad de México, they aren’t as different as you might expect.
PPPS: With some luck, Puerto Rico will rebuild the infrastructure that it recently lost, and we can make this same calling for that community. I recognize that the damage done to the island is greater than what many of us can imagine. I’m saddened by the politicization of the tragedy. When our P.R. production colleagues confirm that they’re able to receive us, I’ll be the first one encouraging our agency friends and clients to go there to film.