mexican lady sitting with a guitar on her lap

The Makers of Mezcal

Francisca Siza

When you put a drink to your lips, do you think about where it came from, or who made it? The same could be asked of so many things we consume. Food, fabrics, raw materials… and it’s this question which inspired Francisca Siza’s first feature length documentary.

Like many great projects, it started almost by chance. Working with producer Gautier Heins to make promotional videos for a beverage company, they met Yolanda Ruiz, president of Mujeres del Mezcal y Maguey del México, an association that improves the lives of mezcal farmers and distillers. Francisca and Gautier were immediately fascinated by the story: a tale of oppression and brutality, but also dedication, conservation, and hope.

mexican lady inspects a large wooden tub of ingredients © Francisca Siza | Sony α7S III + 28-70mm f/2.8 | 1/100s @ f/2.8, ISO 1600

“We saw that they needed a voice to bring this story to the world,” Francisca says, “and Gautier invited me to direct a documentary on the subject.” What followed was a gruelling, but inspiring 30-day shoot across Mexico, and a project that Francisca says changed her life.

“Right from the start,” she explains, “it was a very endearing project to me. It’s about women's struggle to be recognised for their work, raises issues of ecology and sustainability, and asks fundamental questions about the way we treat people and places on the other end of supply chains all across the world. Do we care enough to change the way we behave and support them?”

“Mezcal,” Francisca continues, “is a drink like tequila. Both are made from Agave plants. But while tequila is made in an industrial fashion, mezcal is often handmade and created in a very traditional, natural way. Many of the farmers and distillers are women, and they strive to keep the old ways of production alive.”

mexican lady sitting on a log weaving strands of reed © Francisca Siza | Sony α7S III + 28-70mm f/2.8 | 1/100s @ f/5.6, ISO 640

But there are some traditions that have needed to be challenged, she explains. “Women were not allowed to be the owners of mezcal brands or factories and so they and their families saw scant reward for their efforts. Over a period of 20 years, this women’s association fought for better conditions and better rights in the sector. They never gave up, and in the end, they were successful, but it was a supreme struggle, and one that saw vice president Luz Maria Saavedra survive two murder attempts.”

Despite not being recognised or rewarded for so long, the mezcal farmers have always battled to keep their traditions of manufacture alive and this includes a healthy respect for the environment, she reveals. It’s a stance that is more important than ever in the face of the drink’s growing popularity and profitability.

mexican lady stirring a pot of mezcal © Francisca Siza | Sony α7S III + 24-70mm f/2.8 | 1/100s @ f/2.8, ISO 640

“There’s a need to be cautious,” she continues, “because there’s a big boom in mezcal. In the last two years its popularity grew 10 times or more in the United States. So the protectors of the traditions are afraid that big companies will come to their lands and intensively farm, without respecting the ecology.”

“That’s what’s happened with tequila,” she continues. “People want to buy cheaper and cheaper supply. Tequila comes from Jalisco state and those lands are dying because of the over exploitation of agave plants. They should take 10, sometimes up to 30 years to grow to their proper size, which is the point where they can be used to make good mezcal. If you do it right, you don’t kill the immature plants just to have more product.”

man cutting agave leaves from a plant © Francisca Siza | Sony α7S III + 28-70mm f/2.8 | 1/100s @ f/6.3, ISO 640

In documenting the story, she also wanted to challenge some typical stereotypes about Mexico. “It's a very vibrant, friendly country,” she explains, “but many people have this clichéd view of it from movies and TV. That it’s deserts, cities, and slums. But there is so much beauty there. Everywhere you look is folklore and tradition, and wonderful colour, especially in the dress of the working women.”

“It was important to me to capture those vibrant colours, rural beauty and the teeming green of nature everywhere,” she continues. “And I didn’t want or need to use artificial light or fancy camera movement to embellish what was in front of my lens. It was just so intense, all I needed to do was open the shutter to capture it.”

man and a lady standing either side of a large wooden barrel © Francisca Siza | Sony α7S III + 24-70mm f/2.8 | 1/100s @ f/3.5, ISO 640

She was also intent on showing the kindness and generosity of the people she met. “They were so excited that someone was telling their story and they wanted to show us everything,” Francisca says. “We went to very, very poor places, and they would prepare us lunches and dinners, even though sometimes they would give us food they didn't have for themselves. It was a very humbling and emotional experience. Of course, we tried the mezcal they offered when we could. It’s so pure and natural when it’s made in the right way.”

Along the way, Yolanda Ruiz was always alongside Francisca, Gautier and their crew. “She travelled with us from day 1 to day 30, as we moved around on planes, buses, and cars, sleeping on the road or on the floor where we were camping. She became a real inspiration to me, more like a mother than a friend. She is 20 years my senior, but her energy is boundless. She is so strong mentally and physically, and she seemed to know everyone. We went to some dangerous places and couldn’t have done it without her.”

group of men digging on a large mound © Francisca Siza | Sony α7S III + 28-70mm f/2.8 | /1/100s @ f/10, ISO 640

Also at her side was her Sony gear, primarily the Sony Alpha 7S III, but also a Sony Alpha 7 IV. Both were used for video and stills. “Because we are always travelling, those cameras were perfect for the job. They’re so portable and have such high quality that I never doubted they were capturing the beauty of Mexico and the character of the people we met exactly as I saw it. Of course, with features like its brilliant S-Log3 mode, people know the Alpha 7S III for video, and many think that means it’s not for stills. I don’t believe that at all. I use the 7S III for everything and it takes great pictures.”

Having completed the documentary it’s now entering the festival circuit. Francisca also previewed it to the women involved. “They love it, though, because we interviewed a large group of people, some of them joked ‘oh, why is she in the movie more than me?’ and ‘why is my brand not shown more?’,” she laughs. “But that’s all part of filmmaking, and they were all glad they had been able to share their story.”

The most powerful feedback came from Yolanda Ruiz, however. “She sent me a voice message, almost crying with happiness because for the first time their voice was going to be heard outside of Mexico. The film shows how, by working together, these people have empowered themselves, and changed the status quo in Mexico.”

man standing in front of a flower decoration holding a sword © Francisca Siza | Sony α7S III + 28-70mm f/2.8 | 1/400s @ f/7.1, ISO 640

“Most of all, I think I learned how privileged we are in Europe, the United States and other affluent places,” she concludes. “There are people all over the world, with so much less than us, and even though they always get up early and they work, and they fight, they don’t have lives like ours. These are the people making things we need or enjoy as luxuries. We need to learn their stories so we can have more empathy. Sharing that understanding can bring a better world, and that’s my purpose now.”

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