1 on 1 with Melissa Gregory Rue, Maker of Esperanza’s Turn
By: Darida Rose
Esperanza’s Turn is a beautiful short film written, produced, and directed by Melissa Gregory Rue. The film is a depiction on the modern day struggles of Mexican labourers in the United States, focusing on the arts as a coping mechanism for the stresses faced by the youth. Esperanza is the heroine of the film, a young teen whose life in poverty and immigration has left her on the outside looking in. She is bullied at school, looked at as a potential sexual prey by her employer, and isolated from her peers because of her “foreign” status. It is through the art of performance and dance that Esperanza finds a voice to defend herself with and make progress at the end of the film.
Melissa Gregory Rue is an American filmmaker with a focus on cross-cultural experiences through themes and investigations in her documentary and fiction works. Esperanza’s Turn is a balanced cinematic delight that looks at the power of imagination and art as aids for individuals to stand up to depression and oppression.
Melissa Gregory Rue takes us through the journey of filmmaking and the process of producing Esperanza’s Turn in the interview below.
Darida Rose, Phoenix Journal (PJ): What an absolute wonderful short film. The film tells much about the inner turmoils of youth that the media often oversees in their coverage of South/Central American labourers in the United States. Can you take us through the writing process a bit? What inspired you to write this?
Melissa Gregory Rue (MR): Thank you! I’m so happy you enjoyed it. I wrote “Esperanza’s Turn” after attending a weekend Flamenco retreat that my friend Laura taught on the Oregon Coast. She and I stayed up half the night talking about Flamenco, writing, and life. Laura told me some incredible stories about women who were empowered and changed their lives for the better after learning Flamenco. I’d always thought of this dance as sexy, but this new understanding intrigued me. At the time, I’d been doing a lot of research about child migrant workers. Esperanza’s character was born from that research and a lot of dreaming. My weekend with Laura inspired the story. Fortunately, I had a talented Flamenco choreographer/dancer willing to take a chance and work with me. Thank you Laura Onizuka!
(PJ): The film is not political, but it can be all about politics depending on our knowledge of modern day labourers and illegal AND legal immigrants n the U.S. Can you educate us a bit on that matter as well and its ties to the film?
(MR): It’s sad that we live in a world where any human is thought of as “illegal” because that denotes inferiority. We are all human beings. I prefer the word “undocumented.” Esperanza’s world can certainly be seen as a microcosm for the lives of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Migrant child workers have almost no legal protection. Even before the pandemic, they were at high risk for disease. Many of the kids working in our fields are exposed to toxic chemicals, dangerous equipment, unhealthy living conditions, and suffer from malnutrition. How ironic for the people feeding us to be unable to feed themselves. And tragically, sexual predators also prey upon many women and children. This happens in border crossings as well as in the fields. Fearing deportation, they have nowhere to turn for help. I grew up in a farming community in Kentucky. I’m familiar with the argument that hard work is good for kids, but what child can go to work in the field 8 hours a day, 60 hours a week and have the energy and focus left to learn anything in school? That’s what some states allow. Others have virtually no restrictions on child migrant labor. In Oregon, with a special permit migrant kids can work 10 hours per day up to 6 days per week while school is in session. I think we owe these children the chance to get an education and improve their lives. Our country just uses them. It’s an outrage that more people don’t know about this. That’s why I made this film. If we want to live ethically, we have to face the serious inequities our economy is built upon and make changes.
(PJ): Flamenco plays a beautiful role in your film. It becomes Esperanza’s voice, signifying art as a voice for the voiceless. Why flamenco? Aside from the cultural nuances of flamenco dance in South America, are there deeper signifiers that you can help us pick up on when it comes to the use of this dance form in your film? And can you please tell us a bit about the process of cinematography and choreography?
(MR): Yes! I love how you phrased that—“art as a voice for the voiceless.” I think I covered the first part of your question already, so, I’ll speak to the latter. A week before our shoot, our Director of Photography injured himself and was unable to work. I’d encountered many obstacles already, but losing him felt like the final straw. I was ill, completely exhausted, and didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I didn’t want to let people down, especially not the kids. I was determined to find another D.P. Thankfully Padraic O’Meara was up for the challenge. He wanted to shoot on an Arri Alexa, and I like my D.P.’s to be happy, so, we threw out the original lighting order for a much simpler camera and started from scratch. I had new insurance policies drawn up for everything. We came up with a concept for our shooting style, and one week later, we were on set. If we’d had more time, we would certainly have done more preparation. Padraic is a pro and we had a great team, so we pulled together and made it work.
In contrast, the choreography was a breeze. I was inspired by a viral video of a Spanish girl performing this fierce, very percussive Flamenco routine. So Laura riffed off that. Our first attempt at recording Flamenco-style music ended up lacking the punch we needed. Thankfully, my friend Don Paul came on board as music producer for this film as well as my upcoming documentary. I sent the guys the film and character and scene notes ahead of our session in New Orleans, but for the most part percussionist Hamid Drake and guitarist Alex de Grassi created the music for the Flamenco routine on site. Working with them at Marigny Studios was a dream. I was so high on life that I flew off a patio at a party that weekend and almost broke my ankle! The hip-hop routine is a nod to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.” My sister was obsessed with that video, so I thought it would be funny, kind of an inside joke. I got permission for Michael Galen to choreograph with a funk tune that my friends Pete Miser and Five Fingers of Funk recorded years ago. Those were some serious dancing days, so, there’s a bit of my own nostalgia in the film. Michael and Laura trained Niku (Esperanza) for two months. That created a lot of bonding, and I feel that comes across in their performances.
(PJ): This is a superbly well-made film. What were some of the challenges of making this film in comparison to your previous films? I’m sure financially it must have been a burden, clearly one you were able to overcome and finish the project. Tell us more about the hurdles and any advice that you’d give to emerging filmmakers who might be in the trenches fighting to get their project on its feet.
(MR): Yes, this was by far the most complex production I’ve directed. There were so many pieces-- actors, costumes, props, choreography, dance training, equipment, insurance-- and then our location for the school fell through a few weeks before the shoot. Fortunately, Laura was teaching in an old school that had been converted into an Arts Center. We got permission to film there, and their director’s generosity saved our production. They even allowed us to use their theatre company’s stage. Thank you Lakewood Center for the Arts! But by far the biggest obstacle in making the film was my illness. It turned out to be Lyme Disease. I’ve had it for many years. Lyme causes lots of different symptoms, among them, cognitive problems. So there I was, directing a film, unable to think straight, dizzy, with blurry vision, and hurting all over. I almost passed out on set a few times. As for funding, we were fortunate to have private backing.
Finding money to make films is not easy. If you don’t have the funds and can’t get private support, find people who are willing to donate their time and skills in trade.
Use contracts. They protect your workers and you. Unless it’s a small production at your own home or backyard, set up an LLC and do not skip production insurance, it could ruin your life. Get liability waivers from everyone on set. Remember the most important thing is the story. Work with a writing group. Get feedback from non-filmmakers. Get feedback from filmmakers you trust and admire. Get your ego out of the way. LISTEN to advice and use it to make your story stronger. Revise, revise, and revise again. Do not think about shooting until your readers are dying to see your film produced. If you can’t afford the expensive camera and finishing costs, come up with a story that lends itself well to a low budget look, and shoot it in an inventive way on your phone. Limitations sometimes lead to the most interesting work. Do make sure you get good quality sound. And do not get Lyme Disease.
(PJ): How has the film been received in the United States? And how has the film been received internationally?
(MR): “Esperanza’s Turn” has been in fourteen festivals so far and traveled as far as Tokyo and India. I’ve received invitations from other festivals and programmers in India and the Middle East, and we’ve been invited to show the film in London next year. My favorite feedback was hearing that people started honking their horns like crazy after it screened at a drive-in theatre. That happened at the Oregon Short Film Festival. I wish I could have been there.
(PJ): You are in the process of post-production of your first feature documentary. Is that correct? Can you please tell us more about that project?
(MR): Live Out Loud follows three people experiencing homelessness whose lives are transformed by learning to make films. I filmed them over a year while they were taking a Saturday filmmaking class taught by artists in residence at a social service center in Portland, Oregon. Their projects were all different: stop-motion animation, narrative, and documentary. Homelessness is deeply stigmatized. That stigma can destroy a person’s self-esteem. Art, on the other hand, empowers. It’s amazing to see how taking on this new identity as filmmakers changed them. My plan is to have screenings where we show their work alongside the feature. And my dream is to have them down front with me doing Q&A.
(PJ): Esparanza’s Turn can easily become a feature with the right backing. Are you at all interested in following it up as a feature film project?
(MR): Yes. Absolutely. Though I think I would ask Nelda Reyes (Sofia, Esperanza’s Mom in our film) on as a co-writer or consultant. Nelda crossed the Mexico/U.S. Border when she was a girl, and she has experienced what it’s like to be Latina in our country these days. In addition to being a wonderful actress, she is a talented writer and director. I miss her and would love to have a good reason to work with her again. So sure. Send the funders our way please!