Jose Andres Solorzano was looking for work that has a greater sense of adventure. He already had a very successful career at Red Bull Mexico Headquarters but wanted to pursue his career as a filmmaker full time. Although he had experience as a cinematographer he had never taken the full plunge. Feeling that the fortune smiles on those who take the risk, he quit his safe day job and ended up getting more risk than he had imagined or hoped for. Within a very short time he received a phone call from Argentina. Hernan Vilchez, famed documentary director, was looking for someone to cover the gathering of the traditional government of the Huichol Nation on top of their most sacred mountain. The Huichol were discussing a situation with a Canadian mining company that involved one of their most sacred sites. Without skipping a beat Solorzano was in, beginning what would become a three-year-long journey which would include escaping from armed drug cartels, witnessing ritual sacrifices, and often find him alone in nature without protection from its brutality. If Jose were not so busy filming a documentary about the Huichol it would be fascinating to watch one about his own epic experience as DP for “Huicoles: The Last Peyote Guardians.”
“Be careful what you ask for.” is a highly appropriate description of this period in Jose’s life. For three years he travelled some of the most remote areas of Mexico, sometimes alone and often at great risk. At times being around other people posed more danger than the forces of nature. It’s fitting that the Huichol and such a spiritual and enigmatic people; it’s an apt description of Solorzano’s experience as DP working with Hernan Vilchez on this documentary. Hernan sent Jose to the Huichol traditions government gathering on top of the Cerro del Quemado. He was so convinced by what Solorzano captured (by himself) that he immediately extended the project into a feature documentary. Due to Hernan’s permanent residency in Argentina, he often sent his trusted DP out by himself to get the footage he required. The belief of this celebrated director was both confidence building and demanding.
“Huicoles: The Last Peyote Guardians” follows the Ramirez family trough their sacred pilgrimage to Wirikuta, the place where they connect with their gods and gather peyote in order to talk to them. The documentary portrays at the same time the cosmogony of the Huichol culture and their fight against foreign mining companies that are trying to create an open sky mining in their most sacred territory. This natural protected area known to them as Wirikuta is the most biodiverse desert in the world for cactus plants. The documentary tells the point of view of the Ramirez family and the Huichol culture but also presents the point of view of the mining companies and the mestizo population of that area, presenting a dialogue to all the parts that create the complex problem of mining in this region of Mexico. The members of the Ramirez family are introduced on camera as we learn about them, their history, culture, and this pilgrimage that is intrinsic to the relationship they have with their gods. We also see the inhabitants of the Wirikuta, a very poor region of Mexico in great need of the work resources that could be brought by the oil company. The documentary tries to balance both points of view, allowing the audience to make their own decision.
The journey of the Ramirez family and the documentary start in Laguna Seca, Jalisco and it finishes on the top of their most sacred mountain, the Cerro del Quemado (Mountain of the burned one). Jose created a visual language for the film based on his director’s desire to be very realistic but also communicate the aesthetic of the sojourn. The method which both director and DP agreed upon was the use of time lapse photography as a recurring resource for this language. Time lapse allowed for the portrayal of these amazing locations in an unconventional way. This technique allows the audience to witness with an altered perception of time and movement normally unseen by the human eye. Time lapse allowed for this film to show the stark contrast of natural terrain and topography versus machines and other manmade objects. Of course, it also magnifies the viewer’s understanding of the mysticism and magic the Huichol feel connected with.
Remote locations without electricity, the middle of the desert, tops of mountains, the depths of mines, etc., were some of the many challenging factors which Solorzano was confronted with in his work on this production. The absence of running water or a sewer system can be navigated but cameras without electricity cannot be dealt with the same way. Solar power mats, power inverters that ran off car batteries, and gear which utilized less power in general were all a part of the required package for the cameras. Extreme heat, cold, and pervasive dust exacerbated the complications of running even a small amount of production gear. Jose concedes that it was the Huichol themselves who enabled him to survive due to their knowledge of navigating this perilous journey. Professing the constitution of these people he recalls, “We had been shooting a ceremony in the bottom of a valley and we needed to carry all the gear down the mountain to this sacred place. They sacrificed a cow and had a ceremony. After shooting the ceremony we needed to walk back to their village on top of the mountain. There was a moment when my legs couldn’t go any further. I was literally crawling and couldn’t keep on going. Hernan was still going forward and while in pain he kept a good attitude on every step of this way up. Near the end some of the women in the family grabbed my back pack and tripod and helped me to finish the way back to the village.”
Jose Andres Solorzano went looking for change and he found it. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that he helped to make it. “Huicoles: The Last Peyote Guardians.” had a premier tour that visited many different venues, two of which were a part of the Huichol nation territory. Thousands lined up outside the theater in Guadalajara to see the documentary under the rain in Mexico City, a strong indicator for any premier. This feature documentary garnered more than 11 different awards at international festivals. The effect on the Huichol and those who viewed their story is public, the lasting meaning on Solorzano has been much more private until now. He reveals, “For me, this documentary changed my life and how I live it. Before starting to work on this production I came from doing a lot of actions sports content for brands like Red Bull and Vans. This content was really fun to shoot but I was missing something. ‘Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians’ took me back to my interests of trying to shape a better society with my craft. It also helped me understand a unique culture that is still alive in my country, the Huichol nation. With the understanding of their cosmogony it also opened my eyes to my interest in learning more from my roots and the different native indigenous cultures that are still alive in Mexico. If I had to choose the most memorable part of this production for me, it would be all the knowledge I gained and the people I knew in the road. That is a really interesting difference between narrative and documentary film. In a narrative film you are trying to create a world in order to portray an idea or message. In a documentary film you are trying to grasp that knowledge from other people and circumstances and at the end of the movie, you have changed because of all of that you have learned. Documentary filmmaking changes the filmmakers and the audience. At least, that is what it should do in my estimation. I believe that after three years of going to the desert and the different Huichol communities, I became a completely different person. The old Jose Andres died in the desert in one of those adventures when I rolled from a mountain or maybe when the drug cartels stopped us. One thing is for certain, without this movie I wouldn’t be who I am today.”