Art Talk with filmmaker Kelly Sheehan
"[T]hat ever-present element of surprise is a celestial synchronicity that not only energizes the film you're making but also hopefully resonates with your audience." --- Kelly Sheehan
At the turn of the last century, Kelly Sheehan found herself working with fellow filmmakers Kim Connell and Ilana Trachtman on a series of specials for ABC that focused on issues important to children. One of the stories the trio uncovered---the rise of mariachi arts education programs---stuck with them, eventually blossoming into Mariachi High, their 2012 documentary that takes on a year in the life of a high-school Mariachi band. As Connell and Trachtman noted in their directors' statement for the film, "We fell hard for high school mariachi, and the Zapata High School mariachi in particular, probably because the students remind us of better versions of our younger selves."With the support of two grants from the NEA---and a host of other partners, including National Geographic and PBS---Mariachi High documents the powerful impact this very traditional arts form has had on the very 21st-century members of Zapata High School's varsity mariachi band, including a performance at an event hosted by Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage month. We spoke with Sheehan about the young musicians' turn in the spotlight and the importance of documentary filmmaking.
NEA: What sparked the idea to make Mariachi High?
SHEEHAN: In 1998, 1999, and 2000, Kim Connell and I and Ilana Trachtman worked together on a series of broadcast specials for ABC television…. They were all about children's issues, and one of the episodes we did together was about arts and education [including] one of the first in-school curriculum mariachi programs which was in Tucson, Arizona. And that was really where this whole idea for making this film came from. We were really just enthralled and enchanted by doing that story, [by] the kids and the mariachi music. It was all really quite a surprise how enchanting it was and how wonderful the children were and what an incredible impact the mariachi program was having on the kids---from seeing their interest in pursuing excellence, to the cultural connection to just growing as artists and as musicians. How that experience helped them find their own voices was just really exciting…. When we finished that story we thought, wow, that was really a special story, and we kept talking about it. In about 2005, there was an article in the New York Times about how those mariachi programs had become a phenomenon in the United States. There were already, by 2005, over 500 districts from Washington state to North Carolina that had implemented curricular mariachi programs. And the reason the schools were doing this was because of the dramatically positive impact these programs were having on engaging kids in academics and on the drop-out rate, specifically for Latino kids, which is a big challenge in this country. So that was when we became convinced that it really was fertile territory for a full-length documentary.
NEA: Can you talk a little about your jobs as a producer on Mariachi High?
SHEEHAN: It is interesting the way someone with the same title can play a different role …on a different film, especially with documentaries, I think. Documentaries are such a collected effort. Maybe I'll start by saying that Kim and Ilana and I all share the “film by” credit on this film. So, in other words, three of us made the film together. But then we each also had different roles so Kim and Ilana share the director credit and then Kim is also the lead editor of the film and Ilana and I share producer credits, and then in addition I was the executive producer on the film…. We really took every step of the way together as filmmakers, but what an executive producer does different from a producer or a director is primarily raise the money to make the movie and also find the distribution for it. But what producers do is they are largely responsible for everything about making the film except for the actual creative decisions…. The three of us made the [creative] choices together---where we were going to shoot the story, what kind of story we were going to shoot, what the style of the film was going to be---and then together we selected the crew, who was going to be the cinematographer for instance, decisions like that.
NEA: How did you select the mariachi program at Zapata High School as the focus of the documentary?
SHEEHAN: Because of doing this story for ABC we knew that we wanted to do a story about a year in the life of a varsity group… so we actually did a fair amount of research looking into schools that had varsity mariachi groups, again, all the way from Washington to Tucson and South Texas to the Carolinas. We narrowed it down to probably about eight schools, and then Ilana took a couple of scouting trips and actually visited the varsity groups at eight different schools…. There were a number of schools that were exciting for all their own reasons… but Ilana said of all the programs she had visited… she felt the most strongly she would love and go back to spend more time with [Zapata High School]. So we had a number of elements of the story we were looking for, obviously great musicianship, and a dedication to the music---both from the kids and also from the school district and the community and the parents. We were also looking for character, both in terms of the town as well as the kids and the music director, of course… We weren't looking for a particular kind of character but the music director would be very important in the story and so we wanted someone who was a strong… who had a strong hand in leading the group, and that could take many different kinds of personalities but we wanted to make sure that the music director was a great personality. And we found all those things in a number of schools, which was really wonderful to see, but again, Zapata was a particularly interesting story because it’s a very small town pretty far out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a 50-minute drive south of Laredo and the town has a population of only about 5,000 people…..Zapata was an interesting story because the community support. There was such a strong cultural connection in the community for the mariachi program. It’s really lovely to see how important it is.
NEA: With a documentary film, when you are coming from the outside, how do you get people to participate and be excited when there’s no script to show them?
SHEEHAN: Mariachi High is in a style [of filmmaking] called cinema verite, and it's observational cinematography so we don't interfere with what’s happening. You are sort of a fly on the wall even though sometimes you are much more in people's faces. But people get to speak for themselves. It’s not like a Michael Moore-style of film where you might not be confident so much as to exactly what is going to happen, what is he going to say, what kind of situation are they going to put me in. But also we were really very clear with everyone---rom the school board and the superintendent of the district to the music director and the kids. We were very clear about what our intention was.
One of the things about the people in Zapata is that they were very warm and welcoming, and we were aware of the fact that they seemed astonished that anybody would want to come and film them. But one of the kids that was featured prominently in the film---his name is Eloy Martinez and this year he is the student band director, he's a senior this year---[at a post-screening Q&A] he said, “No offense to the filmmakers, but when we first found out that they wanted to come and film us for a year, we thought they were kind of crazy because who would want to watch a group of high school mariachis for a whole year? Don't tell the filmmakers but no one is going to watch that.”
So we found out that was kind of their attitude. They were wondering why we thought that it was going to be interesting at all…. We brought the band director and a couple of the kids to New York to do some publicity in the couple of days before the original broadcast in June…and so Eloy said they were changing planes in Houston on the way home and he was at a coffee shop getting a sandwich, and he said a guy came over to him who he never met before and he said, “Hey, didn't I see you on TV last night?” And he said he was stunned to realize he wasn't the only one who watched the show. I thought that was so fun. We actually had almost a million viewers for the initial broadcast so that was really exciting. The national broadcast was on June 29th but then a number of the PBS stations re-broadcast the film at other spots over the weekend and nearly 100 stations [rebroadcasted] the film during Hispanic Heritage month…. So we not only had people interested in watching them, but people have been responding enthusiastically to the kids in the film.
NEA: How long did the project take from start to finish?
SHEEHAN: We started developing the project in 2006 and we were the recipients of two NEA grants. One was awarded in 2007 through the folk and traditional arts program and the second grant was for a finishing fund and that was through the media arts.
NEA: What do you want viewers to take away from seeing Mariachi High?
SHEEHAN: We had multiple goals. One was to share our appreciation of mariachi music which in the United States has become a thing of its own in the last 30 years or so, since the mid 1980s actually when Linda Ronstadt did her first mariachi record. It’s really taken on a life of its own. It’s a very sophisticated thrilling music, and I think a lot of Americans didn't know that so we were excited to share our appreciation. The other is for the viewers of the film to witness the power of arts and education. The program that we feature in the film in the Zapata school district was started in the late 1980s, I believe. It’s been around for at least 20 years. It started as a drop-out program to engage kids in school and today, most of the kids who spend four years in the mariachi [program] not only graduate from high school but go to college, which is stunning. Not only that, but most of the kids in the program rank in the top ten percent. That kind of success is true of most of these programs if you look at the more than 500 school districts around the country with mariachi programs that compete. They mostly have very similar success.
NEA: Why do you think documentary filmmaking is an important art form?
SHEEHAN: I love that you can never know what is going to happen when you begin filming a documentary, no matter how carefully you choose who, what, where, when and why; that ever-present element of surprise is a celestial synchronicity that not only energizes the film you're making but also hopefully resonates with your audience---it's a subtle but dynamic influence that can only come from filming real life."
NEA: What’s on your wish list for a documentary project you’d like to do?
SHEEHAN: I would love to do a series of films on music arts in America because there is such an incredible diversity of music in America. I don’t mean popular---I am talking about everything from garage bands to more folk and traditional arts. There are amazing hybrids going on in interesting pockets in the country that have to do with crossing of cultures and the advancements in technology that bring people closer. The melting pot idea just has such an interesting impact on the kind of music people are making. That would be an interesting exploration as a filmmaker and as a music appreciator and I think it would be really surprising for audiences.
Learn more about Mariachi High and see related videos on PBS.org.