In Focus launches a new feature of this space: In Focus. This column focuses on a project being created by a Latinx filmmaker. We’re proud to debut this column with a look at “The Plume,” a documentary being created by veteran journalist Franc Contreras, a native of Tucson, Arizona. Read more about Franc at the bottom of our Q&A with him.

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The Plume main image

Filmmaker Franc Contreras built an acclaimed career as a journalist, devoting more than 20 years to covering major news events across Latin America. But it was a series of very personal developments that led him to focus on an issue that had altered not only his life, but lives across his hometown in southern Arizona.

Contreras’ documentary project, “The Plume,” invites us to accompany him as he returns to Tucson’s southside neighborhood where he grew up, to expose a secret hidden below the ground – a plume of toxic contamination from a former weapons plant that had flowed into the aquifer of his predominantly Mexican American barrio.

Latino Screenwriters caught up with Contreras to talk about the inspiration for his project and how he used his skills as a journalist to bring his documentary to the screen.

Q – What was the spark that inspired you to pursue this project?

My mother’s death at the young age of 34 is one of the main reasons I decided to make this documentary film. She left behind seven children, two pets and a husband. My family watched her wither away from cancer inside our own home. I was just 10 years old. After her death, I became a sort of emotional zombie. Little did I know that other families on our block had also lost family members to cancer. It was not until the 1990s that I began to read articles explaining why my own neighborhood had been declared a Superfund site. In December 2015, I survived a quintuple-bypass heart surgery. Then, in September 2017, I endured the earthquake that devastated Mexico City. The combination of those two events made me realize I could not wait any longer to begin making this non-fiction film.

Franc Conteras at work on “The Plume”

Q – Did you have any experience in film/documentaries?

My work in television had allowed me to produce more than a dozen short documentaries, about 20 minutes each, that covered social issues, including the rise of undocumented immigration from Central America and the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico. I created those pieces in a typical expository mode with me as the reporter/narrator. But was always left with the feeling that I needed to tell much deeper, multi-layered stories.

Q – What were the biggest challenges for you as you were getting started?

I faced many challenges while making the transition from news style to a more narrative style of storytelling. The first was deciding how to create a story structure for a 1-hour and 20-minute non-fiction film that would engage viewers in a full cinematic experience and still get the facts right. That forced me to beef up my production skills. To do that, I bought a mirrorless camera and a set of six cinema prime lenses and learned to capture all the elements for scenes. Now this project is ready to transition from the story development stage to field production and I am facing the biggest challenge – convincing funders that this documentary about water contamination and community unity is worth making.

Q – What have been the sources of support that enabled you to keep going when things were difficult?

My main sources of support have been my executive producers, Edwina and Victor Brandon-Kane, who are based in Ho Chi Mihn City, Vietnam. They began working with me in June 2018 and have guided me through the complex maze of documentary fundraising. Whenever I start thinking that the film should be cut down in duration or that I might need to cut the budget and use lower-grade cinema cameras, they always help me see that this story must be told in the very best way possible. Environmental investigative journalist Jane Kay, who first broke the news about the contamination problem and followed up with a series of investigative reports, has given me her full support. The original activists who fought for environmental justice in Tucson —  Melinda Bernal and Rose Augustine, are also encouraging me to complete this film. My girlfriend in Mexico City, Pamela Salinas Parra, has also been a constant inspiration.

Franc Contreras speaking with Tucson activists who lost family members to cancer.

Q – Tell us a bit about the writing of the film. What was your process? How did your background as a journalist help the process and what did you learn about the differences between writing for journalism and writing for a documentary?

Because this film is a documentary, I am writing a fully elaborated treatment based on my own interviews and research that I will eventually share with my Director of Photography and Editors. It will be our guide once in the field. The idea is to stay true to the story that actually occurred while simultaneously telling it in a cinematic way from the perspectives of people in the affected community. The middle part of the story will lean on my own journalistic investigation of the events that led to the contamination of my desert community’s main source of water, an underground aquifer. A former military weapons-maker and the United States Air Force are legally responsible for the clean-up of the carcinogen trichloroethylene (TCE), which workers clandestinely dumped into the desert.

Q – What is the current status of the project and what is next for it?

I spent the last year in the development phase, sharpening up the story structure. The project remains a work-in-progress that is now ready for field recordings in Tucson. First, we must raise enough money to rent camera and lighting gear and pay a professional crew to work with me. The first 10 days of field work will yield enough footage for us to create a teaser film that will be used to raise more funds.  

Q – This is the sort of project that will resonate with people who live in neglected communities across the country: What are the takeaways that people should have from your project?

The film will tell the stories of Melinda Bernal, Rose Augustine and Linda Robles, brave Mexican American women who each became environmental justice leaders in the Southwest. They confronted major political and economic powers in southern Arizona in the name of defending their barrio’s key source of water. Central themes in the film are the impact the water contamination has had on human lives and the idea that unified communities are more resilient in the face of major threats against their natural resources and health.

Q – What has the reception been for the project?

Every person who has learned about this documentary agrees that it is an important and untold American story that will resonate in communities around the world. For that reason, I strongly believe that it must be made. And because the problem had a devastating impact on my own family and that of my neighbors and friends, I know I am the right person to make this documentary. The challenge now is to convince key funders to support us financially so that this project will become a reality.   

Q – How has this project changed you?

Making this documentary a has provided me the space and time to deal with deeply buried feelings of sorrow and anger that I have been carrying around for decades. I have spent the greater part of my life placing large distances between myself and my affected community, where people are still dying of cancers and related diseases. My own efforts to investigate the history of this water contamination problem and its impact on human lives hits home directly for me. No doubt it is the most challenging narrative I have ever tried to tell and it provides a greatest opportunity for me to share the nuances of this crucial story with others through cinema.

Q – What’s next after “The Plume”?

For now, I will continue to work hard to create this documentary with the best possible quality of sound and images given my budget and story outline plan.  My very talented team and I want to make certain that this film has an social impact campaign, so that it can be used in university classrooms to teach issues of environmental justice. After that, I would like to get an MFA in documentary making, then teach and continue making other films about social issues that are crucial in our times, such as sustainable agriculture and explorations of race and the environment.

Read more about “The Plume” on FilmFreeway.

About Franc Contreras

Contreras’ family traces their roots to the Mexican state of Sonora, which sits directly south of Arizona. A native of Tucson, Contreras was still a child when the family moved to San Jose, California. In 1972, after his mother, Ana, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the family returned to Tucson. She died on June 8, 1974, in the southside neighborhood that was later placed on the National Priorities List of the Environmental Protection Agency, certifying it as one of the most contaminated communities in the country.

Contreras graduated from Saint Ambrose University in 1987 with a double major in Mass Communications and Western Philosophy. In the early 1990s, he began freelancing for National Public Radio’s flagship news program, “All Things Considered” and was part of the team that formed the network’s seminal broadcast “Latino USA.”

In 1996, Contreras moved to Mexico City, where he learned Spanish from the locals and become a freelance radio correspondent. Contreras later switched to television news and documentary production, becoming the first Mexico correspondent for Al Jazeera English television. He currently covers Mexico and Central America for the China Global Television Network. In late 2017, he began work on “The Plume,” his first feature-length documentary.

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