Begun in 1994 – the year of Califonia’s infamous anti-immigration bill Proposition 187 – “Rancho California” opens with a montage of conservative titans Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and Pete Wilson decrying the influx of (mostly Mexican, specifically Oaxacan) migrants into America. John T. Caldwell’s new documentary is not out to condemn such viewpoints, but to explore the kinds of lives these migrant laboroers actually lead in “informal housing” camps across San Diego and Orange County.
The human dimension of the workers’ abject existence, their struggle to maintain some vestige of dignity, is an intriguing subject. But Caldwell does have a tendency to undermine their stories with his dryly scholarly approach and somnolent narration, banging on about “geographic performance”, “ritualized space/sexualized landscape,” “rural spatial æsthetic” and “indigenous bilateralism.” He’s attempting to place the workers and their greedy overseers into a kind of artistic context, as if they are participants in some collective ethno-cultural diorama. Stacked against the eloquent humanity of the dirt-poor and homeless workers, however, Caldwell’s incessantly reiterated perspectives seem pretentious and patronizing of his subjects. At one point he intones, “Documentary makers are like academics.” Actually, only some of them are. Luckily, the workers are able to speak for themselves, and they get their point across loud and clear.