Two of this year's strongest entries offer different perspectives on California's immigrant populations. In Rancho California, John Caldwell explores the lean-tos and shacks built in the canyons near the wealthy suburbs of Orange County and San Diego by migrant workers, hired to landscape lawns but expected to remain invisible. Although they're from Mexico and Guatemala, these workers are Miztec Indians who don't speak Spanish, but instead are isolated by their own indigenous language (Kanjobal); they need an interpreter for their interpreter when arrested or detained. Caldwell, a UCLA professor, drizzles a little Foucaultian rhetoric about observing Latino bodies, but his talk doesn't bury this devastating exposé of SoCal's "high-ground caste system," in which agribusinesses efficiently harvest an endlessly renewed crop of 14- to 16-year-old boys for cheap labor. The kids are so worn down by pesticide-related illnesses that they'll never threaten to become permanent residents of California. Everyone seems to like it that way, because everyone looks the other way.
One of the boys in Caldwell's doc, scavenging tape decks and keyboards from San Diegan dumpsters in order to perform his music, could be the younger self of Carmelo in Mark Becker's Romántico. An undocumented musician from rural Mexico, Carmelo roams San Francisco's Mission District restaurants as a troubadour. In charting his struggle to survive, the director takes a more artistic approach than Caldwell, framing the musician's nocturnal stops in coffee shops as if they were Edward Hopper paintings. A ride through a carwash is positively dreamy.
The festival's closing-night film, Stephen Vittoria's One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern, traces the trajectory of the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee who attempted real change in Fortress America. It's an invaluable history lesson, laden with footage of Vietnam-era deception by leaders that's all the more timely today. The film consciously asserts McGovern's decency, positioning him further to the left of anyone nationally prominent today, and less intentionally proves the need for mastering the nuts and bolts of effective campaigning, whether it's for president or a slot on the school board. Good intentions didn't prevent the wheels coming off McGovern's crusade; fundamentals like properly vetting his running mate and making sure his acceptance speech was seen by America were ignored (McGovern went on at 3 a.m.). Driving the point home is Vittoria's Democratic convention footage, in which McGovern bears an eerie resemblance to Howard Dean.