The spice, sweetness and sadness of life is keener now in the 4K restoration of two of Les Blank’s documentaries, Chulas Fronteras (“Beloved [or beautiful] Borderlands;” 1976) and the shorter follow up Del Mero Corazon (“Straight from the Heart;” 1979). It’s part of the irreplaceable work of a trio of East Bay filmmakers: the late director Les Blank, co-director Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling.
These collaborators were the heir to Alan Lomax and others who travelled from the swamps to the mountains. The trio worked on about a dozen films on ethnographic music, each one a treasure that preserved sounds being muscled out by monolithic American pop culture.
Chulas Fronteras shows the team at their best, touring the Rio Grande Valley in the years before los narcos fouled it. The film gives eloquent translation to the lyrics of conjunto trios playing at events as formal as a 50th wedding anniversary and as colloquial as a backyard barbecue. They were there at the right time to film aging legends such as “Flaco” Jimenez, Lydia Mendoza and the one and only “Hurican del Valle,” Narciso Martinez. (Meanwhile, the film promoted musicians for a new audience, as Strachwitz reissued their work and sold it out of his Down Home Music store in fogbound El Cerrito.)
Despite the exuberance of the beat, Chulas Fronteras doesn’t neglect the political side of life. Key to this film is the problem of crossing a line that, as Octavio Paz wrote, is not a border, but a scar. This diaspora culture is shown in Grapes of Wrath-worthy detail. We hear El Pinguinos del Norte play their ballad about Cesar Chavez, against documentary footage of the all-ages stoop labor in the potato and onion patches.
Later, the DJ at the Tamaulipas based XEOR, whose show “Chulas Fronteras” gave the film its title, spins a 45 corrido. It’s all about the beating that the state police gave a pair of UFW labor organizers in 1967 at a strike of melon-pickers trying to get more than 25 cents an hour in wages.
Like The River and the Wall, about the borderlands that administration proposes to maim with their wasteful and stupid wall, Chulas Fronteras is a film we need now more than ever.
‘Chulas Fronteras’ and ‘Del Mero Corazón’ open on Friday, Sep 27, at Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol. Sunday, Sep 29, screening at 1pm includes Q&A with Maureen Gosling, Chris Strachwitz and other special guests. rialtocinemas.com.