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Fruits of Their Labor 

'Harvest' makes stars of immigrant workers and small winery owners at Sonoma International Film Festival

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We pull down a street to Paulina's house, a fourplex apartment with three kids playing on the front lawn—except the lawn is actually dirt and weeds, strewn with a shopping cart, a beer bottle, a shoe, an empty can and an overturned pink plastic tricycle. This is the Healdsburg the tourism bureau omits from its photo galleries, and that's probably just as well; drawn on the mailbox is graffiti of a huge penis, and a large, bulbous "Fuck You."

In the five minutes we're there, a woman with groceries, a young man with flowers, a kid on a bike and a small dog all enter the building. Paulina's not there, but Beck has somehow managed to find her son, who gets her on the phone. "Soy Juan, Juan Beck!" he says. "The filmmaker, la pelicula. I'm at su casa right now."

He gets an address, and we walk to the car. "You can see why I have a translator," he jokes.

North of town, we find the place—a signless warehouse next to a tire shop. Out back, a boombox plays while 20 members of Paulina's baile folklórico dance group rehearse on the pavement. Beck finds Paulina, gives her a handbill and explains that he has free tickets for her and her family to the premiere. She nods, and continues to dance.

Down in Windsor, we drive a dirt road pockmarked by gravel infill along the railroad tracks. At the end is a leaning blue house with a roof covered in plastic sheeting and cinder blocks in place of shingles. Roosters greet us at the porch, and we walk through a front door of hanging linen. Margarita is there in the kitchen, and she gives a big hug to Beck, who pulls out a handbill for her. On it is a giant picture.

"Do you know this lady?" asks Beck, pointing to the photo.

Margarita looks down, sees herself on an official film poster, and emits a squeal so loud it could probably be heard in Nevada.

On the porch, I ask Margarita about the film. She and her crew did not get paid as much as anticipated, she says. In the film, an salty Matt Reilly proclaims that "the women did just as much work, only when it was done, they did a much better job."

Margarita tells me that every one of the vineyard pickers she knows is an undocumented immigrant, with a border-crossing story similar to hers. I ask how anti-immigrant sentiment in Sonoma County makes her feel, and she responds that it only makes her want to work harder to make her dreams come true. "They're not going to make me small," she says. "Someday we will change people's minds."

click to enlarge EL GRINGO To relate to his subjects, filmmaker John Beck picked alongside vineyard workers, work he calls "excruciating." - GABE MELINE
  • Gabe Meline
  • EL GRINGO To relate to his subjects, filmmaker John Beck picked alongside vineyard workers, work he calls "excruciating."

After years of writing entertainment pieces for the Press Democrat, John Beck began making short films for the paper's website. Every week, he produced weekend previews, band interviews and event recaps (disclosure: I was in one once). When he parted ways as a staff writer with the paper—he still freelances on a regular basis—he started Sideshow Video, making short films for small businesses.

In 2010, he and partner Don Lewis made Worst in Show, a documentary about Petaluma's Ugliest Dog Contest. But when Wine Road hired him for a night harvest shoot, he became intrigued by the process, and the idea for Harvest was born.

Robert Hunter Vineyards was the first place Beck filmed for Harvest. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this is gonna be a nightmare,'" he says. "And every time I came back, they would just kind of say . . . I know enough Spanish to know that they're cussing and making fun of me. But if you look at the situation, man, they have no say. The owner of the winery said I can come in and shoot, and the pickers have no say in that. So I was very careful to ask them if it was OK."

The night harvest scenes have a cinematic quality all their own, even one involving a machine harvester at Foppiano. A segment about pigs invading the vineyards affirms the challenges of the small farmer. A day off at Balletto Vineyards yields a much-needed game of baseball. There's even a little bit of criticism from Randy Pitts, of Harvest Moon Winery, about other winemakers leaving fruit on the vine too long and then having to battle the rains, which makes up Harvest's third act.

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