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  • Writer's picturesimonbalderas

The Road to Buffalo

Thankfully Indigenous voices are gaining more representation in film and

television with projects like Reservation Dogs, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and

even Yalitza Aparicio’s Roma, which offered a rare view of the Indigenous

Mexican experience. Up until recently, I have always felt as though I have been

on the outside looking in. Knowing that I am a Native American, yet having

completely lost my cultural connection.

I remember watching the 3rd season of CBC’s Anne with an E with my daughter.

Indigenous characters were introduced, along with a storyline about residential

schools. This immediately struck a chord within me knowing that my grandfather

attended one of those so-called schools and came out unable to read or write. His

assimilation into American society stripped him of his Native Apache language

and culture. Such schools achieved the intentions of its creators resulting in

generations of Native American descendants, like me, who have lost their cultural

connection altogether. My grandfather ended up in California working alongside

many immigrants in migrant camps picking fruits and vegetables. He ultimately

ended up at Limoneira, a migrant camp in Santa Paula, California. My mother and

father met and married there and had eight children of their own. My mother was

raised amongst mostly Mexican immigrants and, if anything, assimilated into that

culture. When she met my Spanish father, who was residing in Santa Paula, they

married young and moved to the neighboring town of Ojai in the mid 60’s. They

had the intention of raising their family in a place with good schools and with the

hope that my siblings and I would have a better chance to achieve the American

dream that many of their peers were seeking. My father worked as a janitor at a

private school, allowing me and my siblings free tuition and a good education. My

father, who was ambitious, went to night school and eventually became a real

estate broker in Santa Paula serving the hispanic community. Six of my brothers

and sisters have the first college degrees from both sides of our families, something

that my father takes pride in.

I spent my adolescence living on the fringe of a middle class neighborhood

in the 80’s and developed an interest in film at a young age and went to film school

when I graduated high school. When I was a young child, our family had no money

to spare and if my siblings and I ever wanted anything extra, we had to pick up

odd jobs here and there. The short films and photography projects I made were

dependent on ingenuity and compromise. Little did I know that those were the

hallmarks of independent filmmaking. I never felt restricted and my parents

encouraged me to be resourceful. At first I worked within the confines of what

was available, like using simple 8mm film cameras and still cameras that I could

get second hand. If I needed money for film and developing, I would deliver

newspapers, mow lawns, go door to door washing cars, etc. I did what I needed to

do. Eventually I became a highschool photographer and had an endless supply of

film rolls and free developing. Using old cameras and makeshift equipment led me

into college where I learned to get people excited about the story we were making.

I didn’t care that I had to live for 4 years in my car in order to buy film stock and

rent gear, this was old hat to me. My brothers and sisters and I lived in a very small

house and I was just happy to have my own space and I felt cozy in my VW van. I

recall many nights sneaking into the university pool to swim laps, then stare up at

the stars dreaming of the creative projects that I was working on and ones that I

wanted to create. Honestly, film was a medium I felt compelled to work in, but

what I was most interested in was composition and storytelling. I loved

photography just as much and had already spent hundreds of hours in the darkroom

when I was in grammar school. My brother's private highschool was always open

and no one was ever in there, so I took advantage. I remember watching images

fade in on the white photo paper while swirling the pan filled with developer.

When the images appeared they came to life for me, the experience was magical

and I was the magician. I would make up stories behind these images and write. I

filled up dozens of notebooks, without any real regard to protect them in any way. I

would make them, throw them in a drawer and make some more. I just felt an inner

need to get these things out. I had the same experience with photography, I didn’t

make them for anyone. It simply was a way I entertained myself.

While in college things did get a bit more serious for me. I made two award

winning short films and by then, had an understanding about the theory and

aesthetics behind filmmaking, but most importantly that it was a business. As a

result of the success of these short films, I was fortunate to gain several job offers

and decided on a job as film editor where I edited 6 documentaries for the

Discovery Channel and A&E. I am thankful and very fortunate to have started my

career as an editor. As an editor, I came to understand that where a story is

assembled in collaboration with the director is where the most authentic elements

of storytelling emerge.

My interest in storytelling has always been an obvious factor in my life, but

little do people know that it was a compensation for the void of my own life. It’s

the part of my family history that ended when my grandfather was stripped of his

own heritage. This has had its ramifications generations down the line. Growing

up, I always knew my grandfather could not read or write. I just never knew why.

He spoke about the “Indian School” from time to time and it was an obvious

source of pain for him, so I never pressed. When my mother explained the facts of

our past to me, it sadly created a void in my own life that I have always sought to

fill. I made my first feature Little Heart in 1997 at age 26 about a young Mexican

man who was living illegally in the United States in an attempt to go to school and

fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor. Much of his story is told in correspondence

with his sister who lived with an uncle in Mexico City. I filmed in the orange and

lemon groves of Ojai and Lemonaria, a migrant camp in California, where my

parents grew up and met. After I premiered it in Santa Barbara, I didn't know how

to market the film and it never went anywhere. To this day it sits in reels on a shelf

in my office. I felt that I had failed and it hit me hard when I shelved it. At first, I

lifelessly took numerous assignments as an editor. Eventually, over the years, I

edited and directed hundreds of commercials, over 50 documentaries, produced

and directed countless industrial projects of all shapes and sizes, several narrative

shorts and features. I gained skills as a 3-D artist, gaffer, director of photography,

producer, writer and have mastered many key creative positions on a film set.

When I met my now wife, Lori Bisaccia, in my 40’s, I had emerged renewed

having just finished producing and directing a 26 episode documentary series for

PBS called “Inspiration”. I was filming a short film called Sister in a meadow in

Ojai starring two of my daughters. It was the first time since film school that I had

truly done something for the mere pleasure of creating. I was shut down

momentarily by a Ranger for filming without a permit. Luckily I knew his mom

and sister (Lori) and he reluctantly let me finish filming that day. Lori recalls,

“Simon sent me a message saying that he owed me a lunch or dinner. I was

intrigued as to why. He then told me that he was a filmmaker and was right in the

middle of filming a movie in the meadow in Ojai, with the full cast and crew, when

they were stopped by a very upset Ranger. I immediately knew he was talking

about my brother (who was in charge of the meadow).’ We lived our lives in this

small town with many of the same friends and experiences. Lori describes her

idyllic childhood as filled with happiness, make believe, travel and immersion into

different cultures due to her father’s teaching of Anthropology and Survival, “My

Father was an amazing role model to myself and many others. His support and

interest in peoples of all walks of life were passed down to me. I consider this one

of my greatest gifts from him. He had a keen, respectful and loving interest in

Native American culture. He attended and hosted Pow Wows, made arrowheads,

moccasins, and other indigenous crafts specific to the Chumash who once thrived

in what is now Ventura County.”

Meeting Lori at midlife was a blessing to me in ways that gave me both

balance and support. Previously we lived our lives with other partners, had

children, had many hard and life changing experiences, some very traumatic.

These experiences have given us important life lessons which help us to have a

multi faceted, empathetic and sympathetic way of dealing with people and

situations. When I sent Lori a rough cut of the film that I was shooting in the

meadow, before we went to lunch I didn’t realize that she agonized a bit hoping

that it wasn’t amature. Lori recalls, “I accepted the “thank you” invitation from

Simon and he sent me a rough version of the movie and saved it for later. I was

worried! What if it wasn’t good? What would I say? I started to watch it. I

couldn’t believe it! I was so amazed at how beautiful it was! I immediately fell in

love with him from the beauty of his work. I thought, “Who is this person? What

an incredible gift he has. What an absolute amazing vision and cinematic artistry.

Over the years, I have realized that everything Simon does is a work of art. He can

make anything look amazingly beautiful.”

Lori and I married in 2015. Since then, Lori helped me revive my

production company Wondermouse Inc. in order to produce our own content

instead of constantly working for other producers and production companies as a

freelance director of photography, editor, writer or producer. Lori has been

involved in many facets of the business including set design, casting and

producing. The incredible partnership I have with Lori has enabled me to write my

own feature screenplays, shorts and documentary projects. We strive to be humble

in our work and have taken on a multitude of projects both big and small. I still do

occasionally freelance as a director of photography on various projects such as

Heartland 2019, a feature film about the events of Standing Rock and the injustices

of the Dakota Pipeline starring Mariel Hemmingway, Frances Fisher, David

Arquette and William Mapother. Kiss the Ground 2020, A feature documentary on

Netflix narrated by Woody Harrelson about a solution to climate change and

Common Ground 2021, a sequel feature documentary about Indigenous agriculture

and carbon farming, just wrapped principal photography in August 2021.

The common goal of producing narrative feature projects Lori and I have

had is not absent from the realities of making a living for ourselves, hence my

occasional freelance on large productions in various genres. In addition, Lori has

been instrumental in seeking projects that we can produce in our own community.

I never expected that we would find what we have been looking for all along right

in our own backyard.

While working on a community project, Lori was setting up interviews for a

community series our company was hired to produce. She was referred to Buffy

Castillo, a successful business woman in the area who created a wellness center

called the Pharm as a gift to the community. Buffy agreed to be filmed in an

interview for the community project, but ultimately wanted to speak to us about a

documentary project of her own. Buffy explained that she was Native American

(Luiseño) and was interested in producing a documentary about her family after

experiencing an injustice in the tragic death of her mother at the hands of a heroin

addict. Intrigued, we began meeting with Buffy learning about her story. The more

she explained, the more I couldn’t help but soak up the pride she had for her Native

American background and the incorporation and importance of a rooted family

history. Within a few meetings it was clear to me that her story warranted a rich

narrative to be told in a lyrical and poetic fashion. The void I have always felt

about my own history began to allow for personal connections in my own life and

the seed of my own native background began to be nurtured as I peeled back the

layers in her life’s story. Buffy agreed to the narrative approach and I began

writing. Lori would continue to have weekly meetings with Buffy gathering facts

and answering questions in which I would weave together into a rich accounting

followed by a reading and further collaboration. The Lockdown of Covid had a

silver lining in that it allowed us the time to write. Together Lori, Buffy and I

crafted a feature screenplay we titled Buffalo, a name that Buffy's family would

call her. Collectively we created a beautiful screenplay with different individual

goals. For Buffy, her hope is to bring attention to unique Native American voices

that are not just the stereotypical “feathers and arrows”. She will also be donating

all of her proceeds to her Luiseno Tribe. She states, “My people need to be seen

and heard and this is my way of shining a spotlight on the very culture that created

who I am and how I view the world. Ultimately, I would love to see people follow

in my footsteps. Hold onto your culture and share your blessings with your

ancestors." For Lori, it's carrying the lessons and legacy of her father, respecting

and honoring Indigenous peoples in the most meaningful way. For me, it has

opened up a door for me allowing me to connect the dots and find meaning in my

own life and has set me on a journey of discovering my own Native American

heritage. I am so thankful for meeting Buffy who has enriched my life beyond

measure. In her words, “When I met Simon, I learned about his disconnection with

his own Native American ancestry. It was something he was passionate about

learning more about. The discussions and dialogue that we share are causing me to

want to help him grow and learn about our culture. Something that I have always

had knowledge and access to. I have been given a gift. I know that I can not only

help him find HIS way, but other Indigenous people who might be in the same

situation as Simon. I am hoping this film will help me to celebrate the amazing

childhood I experienced with my Native American relatives and also to show other

people who feel lost or disconnected from their people like Simon does. I'm

hoping to bring awareness to the idea that Native Americans are not just in history

books. We are alive and well and living in all facets of life! Yes...some on

reservations...but we are also in all walks of life! Simon, Lori and I have all

realized that we were brought together by outside forces. We think our ancestors

are happily bringing us together. We are believers in things happening for a reason

and we believe in signs.

But most of all, we believe that we can elevate and lift up others with our stories.”


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