David Mas Masumoto: Imagine a film about the Valley

The Fresno BeeFebruary 22, 2014 

The film "Nebraska" is garnering attention and audiences. It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and for the Oscars in six categories, including best picture, actor, supporting actress and director.

Some claim it captures the life of a region and the people, bringing national exposure to a place. Some Nebraskans protest the portrayal of stereotypes: dull, poor and narrow-minded characters.

In the movie, a slightly deranged man believes he has won a million-dollar sweepstake but must return to his home state of Nebraska to claim the prize. He and his estranged son journey back and meet with family and neighbors from their past and a landscape they called home.

It all makes me think of a screenplay about our San Joaquin Valley — how would we be depicted? What would a film about our Valley look like?

First, what would we call it? We can't say, "California, The Movie" because that production would exclude the Valley. San Francisco and Los Angeles dominate popular images; most of the nation forgets we're part of this golden state. I suggest our feature be titled "The Other California."

Much of our picture should take place in rural settings. Farming has to be represented. Agriculture was and remains at the core of our history and spirit. But we can't exclude the larger cities, otherwise we fall prey to stereotypes of our Valley as aimless miles and miles of nothing (and insinuating we have nothing). A great director will portray both, the contrast of cities with the working world of farms.

We need to celebrate who we are — even if it brings up strained and disturbing characteristics. I remember going to college in the '70s and being embarrassed that my family members were farmers. Only recently have those who grow food gained a new, national appeal (though we are closer to the culture of "Duck Dynasty" than "Mad Men.")

Like "Nebraska," should our cinema be shot in black and white? There's a stark beauty to black and white austerity. It's a tribute to an older era but also a statement: Our feature is not about commercialism but what is real.

Black and white imagery can capture the beauty and simplicity of Valley life: a landscape filled with the subtle and invisible. A slower pace lives here that lends itself to reflection. Yes, much of our Valley is homely roadside Americana. We live without distractions, allowing a story to come alive — if people bother to slow down and look.

Hardened actors will populate our story. We do physical work here, with our hands and backs. Our motion picture storyboards include scenes from a working- class culture as the camera pans up and down Highway 99. Poverty impacts most of our lives. Even much of the new wealth is only a generation old; memories of being poor live in many of our scripts.

Family ties bind us, with good and bad consequences. Demons haunt relationships, even for those who have left the Valley. And this is where many of the old are left behind, a place to retire and to die.

Communities of color are the majority here: We symbolize a new California and the nation. The immigrant story is alive and renewed with new arrivals. Some prosper, others struggle; most dream.

Imagine a movie where Latinos are the majority. Their story dominates and is moved to the center, not marginalized. Spanish is interwoven into conversations and those who don't know any Spanish are left to subtitles.

In our Valley production, knowing foreign languages — Hmong, Russian, Tagalog, Punjabi — is an asset and not a liability. Accents are valued and admired because diversity is lauded and respected.

Our plot could focus on telling the truth in a small town. Outsiders mistake our stoicism as rigid belief, as if we don't grapple with social and political issues. Valley folks are not blind and callous. Change may be slower here and measured by decades and generations, but it's nonetheless as traumatic and challenging as anywhere else.

Conflict drives everyday life, perhaps even more keenly because of our struggle with poverty and lack of economic opportunity. Yet for most of our landscape, depopulation is not an issue. Growth continues and lives are not wracked with total despair.

Looking toward the future, our Valley may well represent the perfect setting for a story about the shifting middle class. Here, you have many aspiring to become middle class while at the same time larger, systemic economic forces are driving many downward to a lower income status. The hardship unfolds, a fight to move forward while at the same time being beaten down.

Finally, what music plays in our Valley film? Country twang mixed with our own blues? A synthesis of Mexican with pop Asian tunes? A blend of the rich ethnic sounds of immigrants? Or a remix of all of the above?

The final shot should be of a meal, a gathering of characters around a table. Food provides the connective tissue for the Valley and continually brings people together — the richness of a "lonche" in the fields, a shared meal at an old kitchen table, the meager yet proud flavors from a family's culture.

The end shot of a feast, even with simple dishes and simple people, can portray a sense of dignity and a Valley wrestling to reclaim honor and instill pride. Music and image fades, the camera pulls back with a sense of warmth generated by the people themselves and a place they call home.

The end.

Closing credits.

 

Award-winning author and organic farmer David Mas Masumoto of Del Rey writes about the San Joaquin Valley and its people. Email: masmasumoto@gmail.com.

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