Years as Barbara Kopple’s cinematographer serve documaker Hart Perry well with his magnificent cinema verite epic of campesino struggle in a small south Texas town, “Valley of Tears.” Fascinating assemblage combines strike footage first shot in 1979 by Perry when he was working for the Texas Farm Workers Union with film and video lensed over the ensuing 20-plus years. Result reps expansive study of a community riven by race and feudal economics. Major fests have mysteriously ignored Perry’s film, but smart ones like L.A. Latino fest have given it a decent profile preceding solid international tube life.
Perry jumps right into the action as onion field workers in Raymondville, Texas, rallied by United Farm Workers organizers like Jesus Moya strike against landowner Charles Wetegrove & Co. Their basic complaint — that the wage of 25¢ for filling one bag of onions hadn’t changed over nearly 20 years — gathers force in the broader Latino section of town.
Anglo farmers and landowners reflect nostalgically on happier times (encapsulated in choice archive footage of Raymondville’s annual Onion Parade), but quickly realize the conflict is setting up a racial divide neither side quite knows how to contend with.
The town’s bloody early 20th century history is presented to explain the arrogant and threatening behavior of white power brokers, who ultimately manage to break the strike. But as title cards indicate, this is only Part One of the tale. Part Two’s dramatically tells of the Latino community’s efforts after the strike to reform the historically white-dominated county school board.
Pic draws telling links between the overtly feudal nature of the local industry and the treatment of farm workers’ kids in schools as second-class citizens. The school board election shows a dramatic spike in Latino voter turnout, but results in the re-election of the “good ol’ boys.”
Real change appears impossible in Raymondville, whose agricultural production declines so much that by the ’90s, the forlorn town looks like it belongs in a Larry McMurtry novel. In conditions of grinding poverty and stubborn racism, county district attorney Juan Guerra is seen as a real hero in Part Three, as he continues to press for school reforms and generally angers the local power elite. Guerra’s fortunes rise and fall like up and down harvest years, and though pic’s final thoughts are optimistic, the setting’s general sadness is hard to ignore.
Some Anglos come off none too well in front of Perry’s stealthy, probing camera, and the good-guy-bad-guy lines seem drawn more cleanly than reality would allow, which can be a flaw of politically committed filmmaking.
Pic blends film and vid-shot footage nicely, firmly in Kopple’s docu style, free of visual devices or trickery.