VIFF 2011: THE OTHER CALIFORNIANS Review
The Other Californians is a documentary about "rancheros" living in Baja California, Mexico. Most of us know the term "rancheros," which conjures up images of rugged, Mexican cowboys. This connotation is only partially accurate--but what you may not know is that rancheros typically reside in ranches extremely far off the beaten path, and engage in simple, earnest work day in and day out. Their lifestyle is not necessarily glamourous, but in its own purposeful, honest, old-fashioned way, it is admirable and perhaps even enviable.
Cesar Talamantes' documentary aims only to observe them, shedding light onto their existence and dispelling any preconceived cliches or stereotypes the audience may have about them. In this regard, The Other Californians is a total success. Talamantes' camera is never intrusive, and the film never imposes any kind of narrative onto the people being filmed. They are not so much interviewed as invited to speak, with seemingly the only common question being whether they liked living on a ranch (the response being overwhelmingly "yes") and whether they would live in a town (mostly an assured "no").
The effectiveness of The Other Californians lies in this passive-viewer style of approach. We can learn a lot about both their lives and our own by simply seeing how the rancheros live, day by day. There are several different ranches featured, some with large families housed inside, some with one single person manning the operations. They milk goats, cows, slaughter the occasional animal for meat, gather water from local springs, break in wild horses, and do whatever else needs to be done. They don't have TVs, cell phones, or most of the creature comforts we call necessities. And they're perfectly happy without them.
One of the most poignant scenes in the film depicts the event of the "ball," for which people trod for roughly four hours on horseback to reach a road, then take a vehicle the rest of the way to an adobe-style dance hall. As one man explains (I'm paraphrasing the subtitles here) "we party for two or three days, with the band playing the whole time". I suppose that makes it worth the ride. Footage of couples slow-dancing beneath a disco ball, and then a clever cut to several garbage bags full of empty beer cans, gives us a glimpse at what it might be like at one of these fiestas.
I've always had a fascination with desert-ish, southern landscapes, and The Other Californians subtly encapsulates this beautifully. Shots of sunsets obscured by cacti, skies full of stars, and vistas of wide open lands abound. This peek into the world of rancheros is both fascinating and edifying. These are settlements that reportedly began as rejections of colonialism, and it's nothing short of amazing that they remain still today.