In the opening scene of “Agave: Spirit of a Nation,” a car creeps along the road in the dead of night in Jalisco, with the headlights that serve as the lone source of illumination that casting the foliage all around in gold. In the sun, the plant may be green, but as recent years have proven, the nectar inside has led to a gold rush in Mexico not seen since the days of the Aztecs, being a key ingredient in tequila and mezcal, two spirits once seen as “what you’d get if you didn’t have enough [money] for Brandy” as someone says in Matthew Riggieri and Nicholas Kovacic’s splendid documentary but now have become some of the country’s most sought-after exports.
While increased global demand and the uncertainty of environmental conditions in an era of great climate change put a strain on resources that agave famers have never seen before, Riggieri and Kovacic’s fascinating portrait of three tequilia and Mezcal producers — Carlos Camarena, Graciela Angeles Carreño, and Aquilino García Lopez — bringing their family businesses into the 21st century while observing traditions that began with the great-great grandparents and beyond suggests that they can brave just about anything. Following the grueling process of waking up at the crack of dawn to harvest agave crops to distilling it into a most satisfying beverage, “Spirit of a Nation” shows the pride that goes into every bottle of the spirits that is shipped out of the region and how the plant has shaped the lives and fortunes of Mexicans for the better, offering upward economic mobility in a region where such opportunities are rare.
This week in Austin where many will be drinking the fruits of all this labor during the SXSW Film Festival, Riggieri, Kovacic and Chantal Martineau, whose research for the books “How the Gringos Stole Tequila” and soon-to-be-published “Finding Mezcal: A Journey Into the Liquid Soul” provided some of the foundation for “Agave: Spirit of a Nation,” spoke about their adventures in Jalisco and Oaxaca to show everything that goes into making mezcal, as well as meeting the remarkable people that pour their blood sweat and tears into the process and creating a culturally sensitive film that brings out just how special and unique every bottle of the spirit is to the people that produced it.
Matthew Riggieri: We made two previous documentaries called “Brewmore Balitimore,” about beer in Baltimore, and “Decanted,” which was about wine makers in Napa Valley, and Nick and I are like, “Well, we should really complete the holy trinity of drink documentaries.” [laughs]
Nicholas Kovacic: Like we’ve gone this far.
Matthew Riggieri: So we thought, “Let’s make one about a spirit.” And Mezcal was always the most romantic to us. We read Chantal’s book, “How the Gringos Stole Tequila” and we fell in love with the story and basically wanted to find out more about it. So we did a lot of research to tell it in a way that respected Mexican culture without completely appropriating [it] for a mass media representation.
Chantal, when these guys come calling, what is your response to it?
Chantal Martineau: I was very flattered – someone read the book! – and we talked about what they envisioned. After a few phone calls, we met at a great restaurant in New York and drank some mezcal together and decided to work on this together.
Nicholas Kovacic: It was interesting because we had never done a film with narration in it before, so that’s where Chantal’s research and her help came through.
Matthew Riggieri: We knew we wanted to do something that was character-based [around] people that inspired us and would inspire our viewers. It was somebody that you’d want to spend a lot of time with and and when you meet them, you’re just kind of in awe. You’re like “Wow, they’re such a much better person than I am.” [laughs] But [while] we knew we wanted to do a character piece, I don’t think we knew exactly what characters we wanted to [follow] and Chantal really helped us guide that.
Chantal Martineau: That’s what really happens when you go to Jalisco, which is where tequila country is based and as well in Oaxaca, which is the hub of Mezcal in Mexico. You meet these people that completely flip on its head the idea you had about tequila or Mezcal because when we’re here drinking it, that’s really the only experience you have. You don’t think about all of the work and the history that went into making it. So as soon as I talked to these guys, I knew it would just be amazing to see some of these people onscreen.
Chantal, how did you get interested in mezcal in the first place?
Chantal Martineau: I write about wine and spirits pretty often as a journalist and I’m a wine person and I’m French-Canadian, so I’ve been to France a lot and really buy into the whole terroir idea, which is the wine having a sense of place. So the first time I had a real tequila tasting, it was set up like a wine tasting and I realized “Wow, tequila has that [sense of place],” and then with Mezcal, it’s like even more so.
Nicholas Kovacic: Yeah, you really can’t have a favorite Mezcal because you’re always constantly discovering.
Matthew Riggieri: Yeah, they’re completely different from one another.
Nicholas Kovacic: It’s crazy. The flavor profiles are all over.
Chantal Martineau: Yeah, even [from] a producer you like, it might be different from one to the next. Your favorite Mezcal is the one you’re sitting and drinking with the person who made it.
Nicholas Kovacic: Yeah, your favorite Mezcal is definitely the one you’re enjoying.
Did you know about your subjects beforehand that you focus on?
Chantal Martineau: Yeah, some of them were in my book and some of them we found through various channels. Basically, you think of your favorite mezcal and find out who makes it. [laughs]
Matthew Riggieri: We had a fair amount of characters that we did pre-interviews [with] and we wanted to find characters that complimented each other, thematically, [in] the story we wanted to tell, so we whittled it down to the three main characters that we have and it became so much more about generational history and the hand-off of tradition. Carlos, Graciela and Aquilino’s mission in life almost is to make sure that their traditions are going to live on.
Chantal Martineau: I was really hoping that we could include this idea of the younger generation coming back [because] everybody knows that people from Mexico cross the border and come here, but I don’t think a lot of people know how many go back, especially now that they have this opportunity to work in the family business. There’s a market for it, so I was really pleasantly surprised with Aquilino’s story, [which] I couldn’t have dreamed for him to tell it in a more beautiful way.
Nicholas Kovacic: Yeah, he left home out of necessity, but he wants his village to be successful. He wants his people to be there because that’s his home, so his goals and aspirations are just like anybody else. He just wants to provide for his family and build his community and it just comes back to being a universal message.
Matthew Riggieri: And it’s a message that unfortunately you don’t see a lot in the mass media representation of Mexico right now. It’s all narcos and cartels and it was an honor for us to be able to tell something positive to what Mexican culture is. You can get a lot of eyeballs [with more sensationalized crime stories], but that’s not what Mexico is and that’s one thing when we went into it, we’re like let’s make something that’s really positive.
Nicholas Kovacic: There’s also so many more of these stories throughout Mexico that you could literally make probably hundreds of movies…
Matthew Riggieri: I feel bad about the stories we couldn’t put in…
Nicholas Kovacic: It’s such a rich tapestry of all these threads coming together that creates this culture. The film gives you a glimpse into the culture and the people that are producing the spirits, but hopefully people will come away and want to learn more. The other thing is that we’ve always been into collaborating and we wanted to make sure that when we went into this, we were collaborating with our counterparts in Mexico too, so we have two cinematographers – Ernesto Pardo, who is based in Mexico, and also Nate Pesce, who is our cinematographer [in the States who] we worked with on the last two films.
Matthew Riggieri: Every step of the way, collaboration was a theme of ours, so we had a Venezuelan editor [Clementina Mantellini] who lives in Mexico City, our composer [Caleb Stine] who we’ve worked with on two films went to Mexico City to immerse himself in the culture and find some of the tones and musical qualities he wanted to use. He was the lead composer, but we also have a composer from Mexico City who worked with Caleb to come up with a few of the tracks. Our poster designer is Mexican, but he lives in Guatemala, so it’s a very big thing for us to make sure that this is a film of the country.
Nicholas Kovacic: Everybody that worked on it was amazing — our co-production company Habitant Films, and the crew. Everybody got it once we started getting into production. After we watched some of the dailies, everybody was just really excited about it.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on it?
Matthew Riggieri: We couldn’t shoot a couple of days because of protests in Oaxaca, but that wasn’t particularly crazy. Where Aquilino lives in Candelaria Loxicha, it’s only a hundred kilometers from Oaxaca City, so you’re like, “Hmm, that’ll only take you an hour-and-a-half.” But it’s actually about four or a five hour trip because you drive an hour down the highway, which is filled with speed bumps and then an hour down a twisty mountain road, and then you get to a dirt road and it’s another hour down that dirt road. Then you go through a small little town and think “Well, we’re almost here.” Then it’s another hour and it is like a dry river bed that we had to end up running jeeps to get there with our crew. Then you get there and the bridge is out, so you have to cross the river to get to Aquilino. That was a whole day just to get to him, but we camped out there under the stars with him and that was just magical.
Nicholas Kovacic: Yeah, even at Arandas [in Jalisco] when we would go film with Carlos, I remember we were trying to shoot the opening and we had this idea of what it was going to be and it [would] rain every single day. Honestly, when you think about Mexico, people in the United States think of it like desert. You don’t ever think of it raining and being really lush, so it really worked out well because people come and they’re like wow, I didn’t even realize it rained in Mexico.
Matthew Riggieri: Yeah, it really does rain. A lot. [laughs] Yeah, we got a lot of rain.
At least would you get to drink some mezcal at the end of a shooting day?
Matthew Riggieri: Yeah, it would be rude for us not to, right? And it’s so much different than anything else. It’s so celebratory and held [in] a spiritual manner [in Mexico], so when someone is sharing with you their Mezcal, they’re sharing with you a piece of themselves. They’re inviting you in.
Nicholas Kovacic: And when you go to their house, they’re going to give you mezcal.
Matthew Riggieri: Everyone. Everyone’s going to share with you their mezcal. But it was good. Aquilino has his own awesome little Mezcaleria at his house and one night he’s like, “You’ve got to try this.” It was Puntas, which is 80% alcohol. We’re like, “This is really good” and then you fall out of our hammock. [laughs]