Though it never really went away on much of the globe, a sort of creeping feudalism is making such a striking comeback — with the ever-more-fabulously-rich squeezing the poor of every dime and resource — that Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale’s documentary “Patrimonio” feels like a frightening portent. Will such crude appropriations of land and water to benefit the privileged, while depriving others of their most basic needs, become an increasingly typical future scenario?
Receiving a modest DVD and on-demand berth a year after premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, “Patrimonio” charts the struggle of a fishing village’s residents in Baja Mexico to maintain simple ocean access, among other things, as a humongous multinational development moves in. This particular David-vs-Goliath fight has a happy ending (at least so far). But what remains frightening is the ease with which the better-funded, better-connected combatants simply ride roughshod over every official legal right and procedure to get their way — with precious little objection from equally corrupt government authorities.
Rosario Salvatierra and his three brothers are current heads of a family that’s fished in the ocean near the town of Todos Santos for at least a century. Punta Lobos Beach is the only place in the region accessible for loading and unloading their trade’s boats. But as the film starts in 2015, that lifeline to the sea is already getting gobbled up by Tres Santos, a huge hotel-and-condo complex being built by U.S.-based multinational firm Black Creek Group. We see its glossy promotional materials promising an “epicenter of wellness,” with celebrity hotelier Chip Conley touting it at a glitzy Manhattan PR event as “not a resort, but a community.”
However, the actual longtime community of Todos Santos is alarmed by an invasion projected to triple the local population, placing huge demands on an already fragile, finite freshwater supply available to this “oasis in the desert.” The bad-faith moves are immediate, and constant. Soon the developers’ construction crews have narrowed fishing access to just 100 meters, while seriously degrading the shoreline environment overall. It is absurdly claimed that residents’ longtime access rights are not actually to the water, but limited to the hills above. Locals fear not just for their livelihood, but their very culture, should a scenario ensue akin to nearby Cabo San Lucas. There, crooked deals so buried the interests of natives that they can no longer use the beaches they grew up on without paying for that privilege.
It emerges that Black Creek’s shadowy partners include a company affiliated with former Mexican President Carlos de Gortari, who left office a quarter-century ago (he’s lived in Irish exile since) amid a cloud of corruption and criminal scandals. In any case, no one representing the developers is willing to negotiate or even communicate with the locals, let alone be interviewed for this film, despite innumerable pleas. Meanwhile, key legal documentation is either withheld or turns up in conspicuously altered form.
As a last resort, residents blockade the construction workers’ access road. Even then, the shameless duplicity continues, eventually encompassing major government figures as well as, sadly, a few covert sellouts within the fishing community. When the resistance fails to crumble nonetheless, the remote, deep-pocketed corporate powers use legal intimidation, including getting activist lawyer John Moreno arrested on trumped-up charges.
It is finally just another chapter in Mexican history where “the rich and powerful get ahead by screwing the poor,” as someone here puts it. The dirty high-handedness applied by executives piously selling a “free-range, locally-sourced life,” not to mention the blunt greed-driven collusion of at least some elected officials, is infuriating. And that it should all be taking place largely to profit Americans, so close to our southern border, hardly flatters our sense of national moral fiber.
Jackson and Teale closely follow the events of 2015 and 2016. But one suspects their ability to stay on-site dwindled severely after that, since subsequent events are detailed in a closing rush. The “happy ending” is thus too abruptly arrived at (mostly via onscreen text) to be satisfying in storytelling terms.
Still, “Patrimonio” (the title referring to the locals’ inherited access rights) is thoroughly engrossing. Without over-sculpting their narrative, the directors settle on a few principal characters as our identification points. While ponytailed lawyer Moreno clearly enjoys a higher standard of living than those he represents here, he more than demonstrates his sincere dedication by staying the course even at the price of death threats and imprisonment.
The documentary is well-shot in a principally handheld style by Jackson, to which Pilar Rico’s editing provides a strong but not over-rushed forward momentum.