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Spotlight #2
Cantinera by Ruth Villatoro

In DitoGear™ Spotlight #2 we’re sharing brave work of Ruth Villatoro, a documentary “The Cantinera” filmed mostly undercover, exploring the subject of cantineras – an unexplored territory of human trafficking. Learn more about the documentary and challenges of the crew during 5 years of production.


And what’s your latest project? Share your interesting stories in the next spotlight.

Patryk Kizny: Ruth, could you tell us a little bit about the background of the production?


Ruth Villatoro: The production of The Cantinera took many turns in the five years it took for us to complete it. We set out to tell the story of a woman who drank for a living in Latin bars in the U.S. What we found is a world of sex trafficking like we had never expected.


Our production plan began as a normal documentary crew who was going to follow a girl as she worked the clubs. We quickly learned that these clubs are not eager to share their stories and the women are equally shy to open up.


For about two years, we worked at building trust and a relationship with our main subject and the some of the clubs she visited. Finally, we had our opportunity, a chance to go inside a club. The only problem is they did not trust the men in the crew. This meant I would have to shoot, record audio and watch my back alone as I followed the subject on a night of work.


PK: What was the ignition spark that actually pushed you towards shooting this subject?


RV: I felt the necessity to tell the story of The Cantinera while I was researching the subject. I needed to gather facts and statistics about these women who were drinking unheard of amounts of alcohol. I wanted to see long term physical effects, psychological effects and how they are lured into such a trade.


In the months I spent pouring into the research circuits, I was able to find one educational research thesis on the subject. This blew me away. Any other subject search will result in thousands of results; domestic violence, drug addiction, human trafficking, but the subject of cantineras is virtually unknown.


I saw this as my opportunity. A chance to tell the world what is happening.

PK: How the film differs from other films of similar kind?


RV: There are hundreds of documentaries on human trafficking. Cantineras are a form of human trafficking as they are forced to work to pay off a debt for passage into the United States. However, the other documentaries I have seen, with exception of only a few, are done with reinactments.


We were relentless until we found a girl willing to talk, to open up like never before. Our subject, Liliana had been working for twenty‐three years in the cantina. She was ready and she had a lot to say.


PK: What were main technical challenges during the production?


RV: The biggest technical challenge was shooting with hidden cameras. In my opinion, the standard hidden camera gear is very obvious. You can buy a baseball cap, a big canvas tote, or big glasses. I knew I couldn’t pull it off without being obvious. I decided to construct my own hidden camera.


To do that, I bought a small purse with a floral detail and cut the lining inside. I taught myself to work the small consumer HD camera by feeling the buttons. The camera worked great. It gave me 2 hours of footage with audio.


I was able to dress up in my best “cantinera” clothes, put my purse on and go inside with my subject girl. I had a crew member go in as a patron to keep an eye on me while inside. I can’t believe I got away with it.


PK: What were main artistic challenges during the production?


RV: The artistic challenges were many. The type of shooting we were doing, we had to make our artistic choices on production logistics. However, there is a common thread to the cantinas. They all have the same lighting and general asthetics, so we decided to enhance them rather than cover them up.


As we visited a dozen cantinas, they begin to look alike. They had low lighting with pops of color from Christmas lights or neon signs hanging around the club, a small dance floor, pool tables, and a bar full of men with a few girls. You wouldn’t even know it was a hub for human trafficking unless you were able to get a girl to open up.


PK: What role played the DitoGear™ equipment in your production?


RV: We used our DitoGear Omni Slider for several of our most powerful shots. There is one shot I especially love because we come from what appears to be a fun night of dancing and drinking, but the morning light reveals the true story of what happens. I set up my Omnislider in a vertical position coming up from the morning dew of the grass, over the railroad tracks and to the cantina.


Everything was perfect about that morning. There was an eerie fog, the roads were wet and the sun barely broke through the clouds. Within the gray of the picture, is a cantina painted bright red.


PK: Can you share your experience about using OmniSlider for this kind of work?


RV: Since we were in very dangerous locations, it was essential to have a quick setup and breakdown. We were able to quickly pull up to cantinas, set up, shoot and were out of there in five minutes. DitoGear is no fuss and made it possible to still have amazing dolly shots with all the constraints we were working against.


PK: So the production’s over. A great moment, but in fact, that’s just a checkpoint halfway to the finish. What expectations and plans do you have regarding the next steps and making the film reaching wider audiences?


RV: 2013 is our festival run. We have submitted worldwide and hope to attract the right distributor. Our goal is to eventually make it into the educational circuit. Since I had such a hard time gathering information for this topic, I hope others can use it as a tool to continue researching.


PK: From the perspective – are there any things that you would do differently today?


RV: It is easy to sit and think about how you would have done things differently, but in retrospect, I can honestly say, we did the absolute best we could given our circumstances, production challenges and resources.


There are events I wish would have unfolded differently. I wish we could have had our vigilante subject find a girl and rescue her, but that is not how the events happened, so I had to be true to the story. Many girls who are cantineras simply find an opportunity to leave and take it.


PK: What we truly love about heroes is not that they never fail, but how they rise after a failure. What was the biggest failure during the production and what lessons you can share with us?


RV: My biggest failure was one of the nights we visited a cantina with my hidden camera. We were on a mission to find the outbuilding where prostitution was taking place. I was undercover along with two other women and I had my camera positioned in my purse.


We spent two hours in the cantina. I positioned myself to capture some interesting shots of men and cantineras working, women coming and going to what seemed to be an exit of some kind.


When we were reviewing the footage, I realized the camera shifted in the hidden purse and it was pointed at the ceiling the entire time. The footage was unusable and we missed a great opportunity.


I kicked myself for days, but we decided to give it one more try and returned to find the place where prostitution takes place.



PK: What is the next big thing for you?


RV: We are traveling to Uganda at the end of November to do a documentary short on families rebuilding post Kony or LRA era. There is an amazing organization who brings orphaned children together with mothers who have lost their own families. There is a village of these new formed families and their stories are so inspiring as they come together to rebuild.


PK: Ruth, thank you very much for sharing the production details with us. I am really impressed with the amount of work that you put into that film despite tough conditions. It’s also a tough subject on itself. I wish you good luck in 2013 at the festivals and in other endeavors!


Follow Ruth and the film:


The Cantinera Website
Ruth Villatoro on Vimeo