A painstaking, somewhat plodding labor of love, “Weaving the Past: Journey of Discovery” finds filmmaker Walter Dominguez paying affectionate and exhaustive tribute to the life and work of his late grandfather, the Mexican Methodist pastor Emilio N. Hernandez. Tracing Hernandez’s long legacy of activism back to his early revolutionary days in Mexico, where he participated in a resistance movement aimed at overthrowing the cruel regime of president Porfirio Diaz, this assiduously detailed documentary emerges as a detective story, a history lesson, an ode to workers’ rights and a chronicle of the immigrant experience. Pursuing these ends with a level of patience that will likely tax the viewer’s own, the film is playing a one-week Los Angeles run and will thereafter be most in demand as an educational tool.
Dominguez, who wrote and delivered the film’s continual narration, begins with a lengthy reflection on how 9/11 and its grueling aftermath left him in a state of deep despair, hungry for a sense of meaning and purpose. He found both in the example set by his beloved grandfather, or “Tata,” who died decades earlier in 1973, and whom numerous relatives here recall as a loving, selfless individual who spent more than half a century ministering to the Mexican immigrant communities in Arizona and California.
“Everybody loved him,” notes one interviewee. “There was not a person who said anything negative about him.” The film largely follows suit, offering up a portrait that, while not exactly hagiographic — that Hernandez led an exceptional life of service is beyond doubt — nonetheless becomes rather laborious in its recounting of every virtuous particular. The dark and painful secrets hinted at in Hernandez’s past turn out to be the trappings of an abusive childhood, which spurred him to flee his Mexican mining town in the 1890s (when he was only 5), after which he was taken in by the wealthy Guerrero family.
At its core the film is about how Tata’s devotion to others was born not out of a simple do-gooder impulse, but rather out of a harrowing firsthand experience of human suffering. It was also deeply influenced by his friendship with Praxedis Guerrero (the film’s stealth subject and most compelling figure), a journalist and political activist who made it his life’s work to help end the Diaz regime and its brutal campaign of worker exploitation. To that end, he became active within the anarchist Mexican Liberal Party and published newspapers to drum up attention for their cause.
In 1904, Guerrero and Hernandez crossed over into Texas and got jobs, laying down railroad track and digging in mines, to help fund the resistance. But their hard work and dogged heroism met with no shortage of persecution on both sides of the border, and by the time the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, Hernandez faced severe personal losses and an uncertain future.
There’s no denying the aptness of the film’s title. “Weaving the Past” takes shape as slowly and intricately as a tapestry, dutifully charting the dramatic trajectory of Hernandez’s early life, the resurgence of his faith and the eventual beginnings of his ministry in the U.S. — all of it accompanied by a wealth of black-and-white archival footage and plentiful re-enactments shot in lightly muted color tones. But even as it digs around in the past, the film plunges forward into the future, following Dominguez as he wanders present-day Mexico in search of his grandfather’s roots, looking for a family that he has never known — and, inevitably, for a deeper sense of his own identity.
Whichever story is being told at any given point, the filmmaking never feels especially intuitive: The silent reconstructions are capably staged but never stir to dramatic life, and the footage of Walter’s journey, though meant to bring us into identification with his role as seeker, feels aimless and remote. Almost everything we see comes across as visual filler, suggesting that “Weaving the Past” might have worked just as well as a radio program, though even then it would have benefited from a more judicious hand in the editing room. The love and dedication that the filmmakers (including Dominguez’s wife and exec producer, Shelley Morrison) have poured into this project are more than evident onscreen; what it needs now is the sort of strong, supple cinematic vision that could tie its disparate strands together.