Valley stories shine at The Big Tell showcase

Evan Christensen, director of the documentary "In the Shadow of Giants," answers questions after the film screening during The Big Tell showcase at the Tower Theater in Fresno April 16, 2024. The Big Tell is sponsored by local media and arts nonprofits and provides local filmmakers with grants to produce documentaries focused on stories in the Central Valley.(Serena Bettis)

Arts-focused nonprofits support local filmmakers through The Big Tell film contest and grant program

FRESNO – As the legacy of countless agricultural strikes and labor movements continues to shape the San Joaquin Valley, one specific event from 91 years ago captivated the interest of a Tulare filmmaker.

Just as Tulare farmworkers dug into their demands for better wages and a better life in 1933, Brandon Ezequil Hernandez dug into newspaper archives and history books to tell the story of these workers in the short documentary “The Tagus Ranch Peach Strike.” Hernandez said he was inspired to share the history of what happened during the peach strike to highlight his hometown’s place in a bigger story.

“(Strikes are) just a recurring theme that happens throughout California farm towns,” Hernandez said. “My grandfather marched with Cesar Chavez; it’s really close to the heart to the people who live in California, so I’m always digging deep to find the history that’s been covered for so long.”

Hernandez’s film was one of 13 documentaries that premiered during The Big Tell showcase at Fresno’s Tower Theatre on April 16. With historical photos and old newspaper clippings set against a background of brightly colored peach graphics, Hernandez found a creative way to tell the story of those who were involved in the strike with limited resources he had available to him.

“You can’t really interview people … who were striking then,” Hernandez said. “So it’s being able to use all the pictures that you have and make something out of it, and I’m really happy where I landed.”

Founded by the Central Valley Community Foundation (CVCF) in 2017, The Big Tell is a film contest and grant program that encourages local, and often amateur, filmmakers to tell the stories of the Valley and its people’s roots.

The showcase opened with a film featuring literal roots of the Giant Sequoias, which — while not directly in the Valley — stand tall along the Trail of 100 Giants within Tulare County and serve a vital role in the Valley’s ecosystem.

The film produced by Evan Christensen, “In the Shadow of Giants,” followed environmentalist Ali Sheehey through the Long Meadow Grove area in the Sequoia National Forest east of Porterville. Sheehey spoke about the environmental impacts of the Sequoias being “managed to death” and said that people need to find a way to “live within what nature dictates” for the sake of future generations.

Ties to the land and one’s ancestry was a recurring theme through at least half of the films, which told stories about the Yokut Tribe’s connection to Tulare Lake and efforts by Fresno communities to produce organic gardens and embrace their personal link to farming.

Other films told stories about passion and entrepreneurship, highlighting the ways in which Fresno residents have created opportunities for themselves and their neighbors. One film detailed how and why Fresno City College was established as the first community college in the state, and another showed how the owner of Elite Barber Studios hopes to help young barbers hone their craft.

Big stories for the big screen

Most films in The Big Tell 2024 winter cohort followed a standard documentary format, with visuals focused on interview footage broken up with b-roll of the film’s subjects and surroundings; however, each filmmaker’s unique artistic style and vision stood out through the settings, lighting and music used, which helped convey the overall tone of the story they shared.

Any style and story is welcome in The Big Tell as long as the documentary is less than five minutes long and is set in Fresno, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced or Tulare counties.

Although CVCF founded The Big Tell, it is coordinated in large part by the Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC), which provides filmmakers with equipment rentals, one-on-one mentorship from Emmy-nominated documentarian Sascha Brown Rice and a three-month timeline to complete their films.

Filmmakers who are accepted into The Big Tell also receive a grant of $8,000 thanks to program sponsors Valley PBS, CVCF, the James B. McClatchy Foundation and the Kern Dance Alliance (KDA) Creative Corps, an organization that administers grants from the California Arts Council.

In a typical year, The Big Tell would only award 13 grants in total but the 2023 cycle saw a surplus in available funding, making it possible to award grants to 26 filmmakers divided between a fall and winter cohort.

Beyond funding and mentorship, Mark Standriff, who sits on the CMAC Board of Directors, said that the program allows “for local filmmakers to practice their art, and through their art share unique stories from across the Central Valley.”

Introducing the event, Standriff said he hoped that The Big Tell would show the audience movies that “will thrill you, that will captivate you, that will educate you and maybe challenge you to start looking at the world a little differently.”

Past films produced through The Big Tell are available to watch for free on the CMAC website. Additionally, the films shown this April will be broadcast by Valley PBS at 3 p.m. on April 28 and again at 9 p.m. on April 29.

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