It started with the election of a new president, and ended with a 21-minute film.
And after screening at 25 film festivals nationwide, airing on multiple public television shows and being featured on The Atlantic Selects, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is pleased to make its documentary about rising immigration tensions on dairy farms available on its website.
“Los Lecheros” (Dairy Farmers) was co-produced with Jim Cricchi and Susan Peters of Twelve Letter Films in 2017. The Center’s reporting on the issue started in 2009 with a series of stories called Dairyland Diversity about the growing reliance of Wisconsin’s signature industry on undocumented workers.
After the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, knowing that 51 percent of dairy workers nationwide are immigrants, Wisconsin Public Radio and Center reporter Alexandra Hall, who is fluent in Spanish, set out to discover what challenges those immigrants and their employers faced under the new administration.
Hall’s first report, Under Trump, Wisconsin dairies struggle to keep immigrant workers, on March 19, 2017, caught the attention of Cricchi and his wife Susan Peters, who has been a long-time supporter of the Center. They then contacted the Center about making an investigative documentary to further Hall’s reporting.
“Los Lecheros” (Dairy Farmers) takes viewers to rural western Wisconsin, where reported raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents spread fear among the Latino workers. The film explores the conflicts faced by a farm owner who says a raid would shut down his farm, an undocumented farm manager who says he has no choice but to stay to feed his family, a state legislator who co-sponsored a controversial anti-sanctuary city bill, and a worker finishing his last shift on a dairy before returning his family to Mexico after 16 years on the farm.
While Cricchi is an experienced editor of documentaries, feature films, television and short films, this was his first documentary as director and cinematographer. Filming for “Los Lecheros” began in May 2017. The film took one week to shoot and 10 weeks to edit. Cricchi also hired musicians, a colorist and a re-recording mixer to complete production of the film. He also worked with the Center on editorial accuracy and fact-checking of the film.
“It would have been much more difficult and taken a lot more time to make this film without the journalists from WCIJ,” Cricchi said.
“Working with them gave me immediate access to the farmers and farm workers, as well as their trust. Because of the first article, I knew everyone’s backstory, so we were starting with a lot of information. I also had access to Alexandra’s incredible audio interviews which make up about half of the interviews in the film. They provided intimacy that I would not have been able to get so quickly.”
The Center and Twelve Letter Films were thrilled when the film was selected to premiere at the Meet the Press/AFI film festival in Washington, D.C., in November 2017, and later was featured on the Meet the Press website as part of an online film festival.
From there, the film took off, and was showcased at 25 film festivals nationwide in 2017-18, including: DOC NYC, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana; the Wisconsin Film Festival, the San Diego Latino Film Festival, Mountainfilm, and the Traverse City Film Festival, to name a few.
“Los Lecheros” was also featured on the Milwaukee PBS shows 10thirtysix and ¡Adelante!, which included a panel discussion with Center Managing Editor Dee J. Hall, Digital and Multimedia Director Coburn Dukehart, dairy farmer John Rosenow, and Shaun Duvall, who helps build relationships between farmers and their immigrant employees.
“The film festival circuit is very competitive,” Cricchi said. “There are thousands of films competing to get into festivals and it was such an honor to screen with so many amazing films throughout the year. Festival screenings are really important because you have a chance to engage with an audience. One of the highlights of the year was at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Two of our subjects, John Rosenow and Guillermo Ramos Bravo, spoke at the screening, and the audience gave them so much respect.”
The film won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award, presented by the Radio Television Digital News Association to recognize outstanding achievements in broadcast and digital journalism. It was named best news documentary in Region Four — which covers Wisconsin, North and South Dakota and Minnesota. It also made the IDA (International Documentary Association) shortlist.
As the film wraps up its film festival run, Twelve Letter Films and the Center are pleased to make the film available to the public, with the hopes of continuing the conversation about immigrants and their role in the U.S. economy.
The public is invited to contact the Wisconsin Humanities Council to arrange screenings around Wisconsin to foster community discussions of immigration issues.
“We hope that by viewing Los Lecheros, people in Wisconsin and across the nation gain new perspectives that nurture greater understanding of the role of immigrant labor in our society and the impacts of policies,” said Andy Hall, executive director of the Center and a co-producer of the film. “And we hope our work supports the exploration of solutions to the immigration issues that have so divided our nation.”