The Donald Trump administration created an extremely hostile environment for immigrants all over America. Gone was the land of hope and dreams – replaced by threats and fears. Every immigrant, no matter where they came from, was deemed as a threat. No more so than Mexican communities who were labelled with a number of racial slurs. It’s against this backdrop that Emily Cohen Ibañez’s documentary, Fruits of Labor, takes place.
The documentary has all the hallmarks of a coming of age drama. Except this is very much real life. Despite the coastal Californian setting, there is no white sand beaches and beautiful bodies. It’s not glossy or quirky or funny. Fifteen year old Ashley Solis finds herself working two jobs in order to financially support her family whilst feeling the pressures of being the first person in her family to graduate from high school.
Solis lives in a cramped duplex, where the paint peels and twelve people share a single bathroom. Her mother is a single parent, working seven days a week cleaning houses. Ashley works from 10pm until 6am every night, attends school and picks fruit in a nearby field. The burden of providing food, shoes, school books all seemingly falling on her young shoulders.
Throughout the film, you cannot help but worry about Ashley. She is utterly exhausted with the responsibilities she is carrying. She is constantly yawning, snuffling and falling asleep. She is at both a major turning point in her life and at breaking point. “How I wish I had a less difficult life,” she muses, “To only worry about things girls my age worry about.” Indeed, perhaps the only time we see Ashley acting like a ‘normal teenager’ is when she attends her high school prom and graduation ceremony. Even then, she is burdened by $90 entry fee costs and $200 dresses. She teeters on the brink of adulthood and yet, clearly, wants to feel like a normal child.
Where she really comes alive, however, is her Gardens for Justice project. She talks passionately about tackling food poverty, believing that no one should have to choose between medicine or feeding themselves. Despite all of her own worries, she has a real awareness of what is going on around her and has all the makings of a social activist or community outreach professional.
And her own worries are very real and potentially life changing. Ibañez shows Solis’ mother, Beatriz, listening every day to Spanish language news. And every day, there are more deportations – horror stories of mothers being separated from their children. Their downstairs neighbour is taken away, bringing the fear quite literally to their doorstep.
However, despite this plethora of content and themes to explore, it does feel like Ibañez really only scratches the surface. The film breezes too quickly through several key events and doesn’t ask enough questions. Although the focus is on Ashley, there isn’t even enough background and fleshing out of who she is. We hear her chiding her brother for asking to borrow money or lying about her age to an immigration expert to help her mother out but these scenes are so fleeting that you never can quite piece together the whole picture. Just when you think you’re getting a little more information that you can settle into and explore, it cuts to something else entirely.
There are also weird nature timelapse cutaways throughout – a flower blooming, a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis etc. These are usually accompanied by painfully generic stock music and add nothing to Ashley’s story. If anything, they take away from screen time that could be used to further examine the socio-political themes raised by Ashley’s experiences.
Ibañez teases something of a reprieve for Ashley towards the end of the documentary. But, as you see shots of her brother labouring in the fruit fields, you cannot help but wonder how this cycle of poverty and lack of opportunities will ever be truly broken.
Fruits of Labor doesn’t ask enough probing questions of its subject. There are no talking heads with Ashley’s friends, school teachers or siblings – the very people who will have and have had a huge influence on her life. There’s not even enough from Ashley herself. Too much of what unfolds seems thrown together without context, a voiceover plugging the gaps of what you might have hoped to see.
There is a very real, very poignant story in there as Ashley and her family strive to realise their own version of the American Dream. However, it is examined too clumsily and at too much distance to have any real impact.
Broadcast Premiere on October 4, 2021 on PBS’s POV