Abby Ginzberg can be a fighter or a diplomat, depending on what the situation calls for. For a lawyer (which she was, for a decade) and a documentary filmmaker (her calling for the past 25-plus years), those are required roles. One crucial lesson she's learned along the way is picking your battles.
"I'm now at peace that we have months dedicated to Hispanics and African Americans, because it gives my work a venue," Ginzberg declares. "And I think that good shows open up the possibilities of other times for programming. But we're not there yet. It is ghettoized. But it's not a bad thing -- if the alternative is the films never being seen at all."
September is National Hispanic Heritage Month, so Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice, Ginzberg's galvanizing 2010 profile of the pioneering California civil rights advocate, law professor, and judge, is getting some extra attention. The documentary screens tonight (Friday) at the Mission Cultural Center as part of the S.F. Latino Film Festival. It also airs over the weekend and early next week on KQED-TV.
The subject of Ginzberg's documentary is the son of farm workers who put himself through Pomona College and U.C. Berkeley Law School in the 1950s. You read that right: Once upon a time it cost almost nothing to go to a quality law school at a public university in California.
"I'm only interested in the past for the light it can shed on the challenges we are facing today," Ginzberg says. "Because Cruz grew up under difficult circumstances, students today can see themselves in his life story. And education is a very important part of making it. One of the tragedies is the demise of affordable public education. His whole life was decided by good, almost free education."
As the first Latino director of California Rural Legal Assistance, which provided free legal help to farmworkers, Reynoso staved off the multiyear attack by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to block the organization's state funding. Reynoso went on to become the first Latino associate justice of the California Court of Appeal, and he was eventually promoted to the state Supreme Court. But in 1986, stampeded by a "soft on crime" campaign, voters ousted Chief Justice Rose Bird and Reynoso along with a third judge.
"You've got a tension [in the film] between the fact that he remains optimistic, and has a very sophisticated political analysis, and that he lost a number of battles he was engaged in," Ginzberg says. "His message is keep fighting. 'If you're working on a problem that is solved within your lifetime, you are not working on a big enough problem.' So he doesn't feel like he has to win every fight."
The East Bay filmmaker isn't always clear whether she's quoting Reynoso or offering her own political philosophy. Regardless of whether the above aphorism is Ginzberg's or Reynoso's, it serves as a guide nonetheless.
"Our job is to keep the momentum going so that we turn over to the next generation what it means to fight for social justice," she says.
The documentary screens today (Friday, Sept. 23) at 7 p.m. at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts as part of the S.F. Latino Film Festival. It airs Saturday, Sept. 24, at 6 p.m. and again Tuesday, Sept. 27, at 11 p.m. on KQED-TV Channel 9.