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Erin Li's Beautiful Short Documentary "Lets.Give": A Support Initiative For California

Before COVID hit the fan, it was hard enough to garner support and attention for charities. Lets.Give is an incredible support initiative created by Naomie "Morenita" Coronado and presided by Morea Sabido. Running on the donated time, energy and skills of volunteers, Lets.Give holds an annual clothing drive and event offering free haircuts, massages, and purposeful arts and crafts for migrant farm workers and their children in Bakersfield, California. Only seven minutes long, director Erin Li and her team have crafted a short overflowing with heart and humanity. In the same way that the people behind Lets.Give strive for the huge community of underrated hard workers to feel cared for and seen, Li's short extends this purpose. With an Agnès Varda-esque approach to documentary, this is poetry in motion that demands to be watched and shared. Click here to watch.

Erin Li and Composer of the short, Risto Miettinen, both took some time to answer my questions about their experience making the short, the draw to documentary film, and how COVID has brought many already existing societal issues to the surface.

Image: Gregory Valdez, Owner/Barber, Inner Circle Barbershop

In conversation with Erin Li, director of the film:

How did you come into contact with Lets.Give?

I directed and co-wrote "To The Bone", a short film about a pre-teen migrant farm worker who attempts to rebel against the status quo. I cast Naomie as the lead, and we've kept in touch ever since. When she told me that Lets.Give's annual clothing drive for migrant farm workers in Bakersfield was partly inspired by her work on "To the Bone", I was blown away. The power of stories extend well beyond the creator, and they take on a life of their own after it goes out into the world. It's pretty amazing.

Your filming style struck me as similar to Agnès Varda’s documentary style – but what are your cinematic/storytelling inspirations?

That's high praise! I have to give most of the credit to the Director of Photography, Andressa Cor. Capturing a live event with no additional takes requires a certain level of sensitivity and storytelling skill. You have to work on the fly. She rolled with the punches and captured some really beautiful moments.

As an artist, I think it’s important to discover who you are and what makes you tick. Emulating the greats is one way to learn the craft. But it’s good to dig deep and figure out what makes you unique as a storyteller. How do you see the world? And how does that inform what type of projects you take on? What types of shots you use? Colors? Lenses? Performances? Filmmakers and films that inspire and excite me are the ones with a really specific, distinct voice - like Yorgos Lanthimos. Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire comes to mind as well. That was a work of art.

How long did the project take, from its genesis to completion?

It took awhile because we didn't have much of a budget to work with, and nearly the entire crew and I donated our time. Some of the Lets.Give members who were interested in film also helped out. After the doc was shot, we didn't have funds for post production, so the project got put on hold for a bit.

Special shout out to our editor, Keita Ideno, who took the footage and crafted it into the story you see. He worked on this doc in between everything else he was cutting. Right as we were about to release the film, Covid-19 took over. But I'm glad the doc is out in the world now.

Image: Erin Li and Violet Treadwell Hull

What do you hope to achieve with this short?

I hope it brings more awareness about migrant farm workers and what they go through. “What do I do now?” is a question I hear often from audience members after they watch a film that exposes an injustice. I think one thing we can do - at the bare minimum - is vote. Do your homework and research the candidates - vote for someone who aligns with your beliefs and hold them accountable. If they fall short of your demands or refuse to listen, resist. Resist by protesting, boycotting, educating, spreading awareness, filming, etc.

What drew you to making this documentary?

I've been in touch with Naomie and her mother, Alma, since we made "To the Bone", and Alma reached out to ask if I'd come out to film their annual event. Of course I said yes.

How do you think COVID has affected charities? And migrant farm workers?

I'm not sure how Covid-19 has affected charities as a whole. I do know that migrant farm workers - a group that the U.S. government (and companies) perpetually oppresses and exploits - were deemed "essential workers" after the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, the government wasn't concerned with deporting these farm workers as much as keeping them toiling in the fields. The government knew - and have always known - how vital migrant farm workers are to our society. I mean, they pick the food we eat. Without them, our society would collapse.

Overall, the pandemic has brought to the forefront many issues that institutions and individuals have tried to suppress - and the horrible treatment of essential workers who are the backbone of our society is just one. White supremacy in all its forms, poverty, income equality, the list goes on. The hypocrisy, the injustice has been laid bare, and there is no going back.

Do you have a favourite line or moment that came out of this film?

One of my favorite moments was seeing the Lets.Give volunteers in a circle, united in their intention and efforts to help a group in need. I’m also grateful to the migrant farm workers who volunteered to be interviewed on camera. Their voices are ones we rarely hear, and I’m grateful that they chose to share their story.

How did you begin collaborating with each other?

I first met Risto through a mutual composer friend, and he was looking for a photographer to document a conceptual sound project he was doing in Joshua Tree. I was looking to get out of Los Angeles, so we all went for a day trip. We climbed over and under rocks, and Risto recorded the echoes of the wind. I mostly remember Risto holding up a mic to a cactus and recording the sounds it emitted. Good times. So I had wanted to work with him ever since, and we ended up working on a commercial campaign together. This is our second collab. Hoping for many more!

Anything else you’d like to add? I’d like to highlight an epic resource on how to dismantle systemic racism in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, compiled by Patia Borja and friends. Coincidentally, I came across this database by way of Moréa Sabido, the President of Lets.Give! Where there are people, there is racism. These resources are relevant regardless of where you live in the world.

In conversation with Risto Miettinen, composer of the short film:

What drew you to the project?

The chance to work on something topical and to bring attention to people who are often unseen and unheard from. We rarely think about the people who pick our food.

What were you trying to achieve with the composition?

To create a modern score, that has heart and soul capturing the emotions of everyone you meet on screen. And hopefully walk away humming too :)

What have been your inspirations for composing music for the screen?

Hmm, the greats like Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone as well as whatever I’m listening to at the moment like

Miami Nights 1984, Tool & Thievery Corporation.

How do you think COVID has affected charities? And migrant farm workers?

Good question. I think it’s made it harder for charities to do things in practice. Virtual awareness is good, but I think you need both - “boots on the ground” & an online presence. For migrant farm workers, I think it’s very scary. They are on the front lines with very little protections. And they do a very important job. From what I’ve read there’s a lot people struggling to make ends meet, who don’t have access to all the services they need.

Do you have a favourite line or moment that came out of this film?

Yes, at the end the single shots of the workers. To me it represents a moment to think about how we’re all people with unique stories. This often gets lost in the 24-hour news cycle and endless barrage of statistics we're hammered with.

Support Lets.Give by reading about their campaign and how you can help here. A massive thank you to anyone who donates.

Discover Erin Li's work here and Risto Miettinen's here.

All images in this article are courtesy of "Lets.Give".

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