Abby Ginzberg gave up the legal profession decades ago, but never left it behind.
A documentary filmmaker in Berkeley, Ginzberg has focused her lens on some of the best legal minds of the past 50 years. Her films have highlighted a prominent civil rights lawyers and a federal judge, as well as examining a crusading legal clinic and other advocates for social justice.
Ginzberg’s latest documentary, Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice, takes a look at Cruz Reynoso, the first Latino to sit on the California Supreme Cout.
Born into a southern Californian farm worker family with 11 children, Reynoso bucked family expectations by graduating from Pomona College and Boalt Law School. He became a fierce advocate for the rights of farm workers and the poor, and was appointed to the state’s highest court in 1981. Reynoso only held that position for six years before California voters recalled him, Chief Justice Rose Bird, and fellow justice Joseph Grodin for their liberal political views and opposition to the death penalty. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 2000, and now, at 81, teaches law at UC Davis.
The film will air on KQED Saturday, Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 11 p.m.
Berkeleyside asked Ginzberg about Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice, (her third film with the word justice in the title), as well as the role of the Berkeley Film Foundation (she serves on the board). The foundation has given out $360,000 to emerging and established filmmakers in its three years of existence.
Berkeleyside: Why did you decide to focus on Cruz Reynoso? What was it about his life that intrigued you enough to do a film on him?
Ginzberg: I wanted to tell a story that would have resonance for all kinds of people. Cruz was someone who had a lifelong commitment to social justice, who had a difficult early life, who lived a life based on hard work and commitment to education and helped the community from which he came. Cruz was known to some people, but not to many. He seemed like a really good subject for me.
I knew what I was looking for, and his life story and the historic battles he was involved in fit the story I wanted to tell. I like making films about unknown, unsung personal heroes of mine.
Another reason I was drawn to Cruz is that there’s an essence to the man, a clear-sightedness and a deep humility. It comes through in each of the sections. But they each reveal a different part of him.
He was involved in some major battles that I thought deserved attention in the film — the fight to save California Rural Legal Assistance, when Governor Reagan threatened to veto its funding; the fight against the recall of three justices in 1986, when Cruz Reynoso, Rose Bird and Joe Grodin were attacked by right-wing business interests and lost their seats, and his efforts to investigate voting rights violations in Florida following the 2000 presidential election.
What do you think is the most telling chapter?
Ginzberg: For me, I feel like who Cruz is, as a human being, is cumulative. He’s always been the same person, as Dolores Huerta says at end of the film. There’s an essence to the man, a clear-sightedness and a deep humility. It comes through in each of the sections. But they each reveal a different part of him.
You see a feistiness when he’s fighting to defend the CRLA. In the attack on the court, it becomes more personal, and it threw him and his fellow Justice Joseph Grodin for a loop. They believed in the independence of the judiciary, and didn’t think that it was going to get that hot around their own feet.
And then again you see fire in the belly in the election of 2000. He was really upset by the systematic disenfranchisement of African American voters in Florida. It got to him. Even though he was a government official taking testimony, you can feel his anger.
How did his childhood affect his outlook on life?
Ginzberg: To me, one of the really compelling aspects of Cruz’s story is the little detail, where he talks about his mom being upset with him for wanting to go on with his education – ‘My boys all read books instead of working.’ It’s pivotal point, where he decides he will go on with his education.
In general you think of parents supporting education, but in a family with 11 kids, how you get them fed is primary. That moment resonates for young Hispanic kids. Many of them today are encouraged by their parents to continue their education, but not all.
By pursuing his education and getting a law degree, he had the opportunity to help his family in bigger ways than if he had stayed a farm worker.
His message to young Latinos is, ‘You need to stay in school no matter what, because that’s what enabled me to have the opportunities and experiences that I had, and it will be the same for you.’
What do you think Cruz Reynoso should be remembered for?
Ginzberg: Here’s a man committed to the fight for justice and equality, and that’s been at the forefront of his life for over 50 years. What is admirable is that today, at 80, he is still fighting against injustice and inequity. In addition, he has opened doors for countless other Latinos who have gone on to make a difference in the world while following in his footsteps. I’d hope he’ll be remembered for a lifetime commitment to making the world a better place. In his efforts to improve things, he has sowed the seeds of justice all over.
How did you get into documentary filmmaking?
Ginzberg: I started my career as a lawyer and after 10 years decided I needed to shift gears. Although I did not know it at the time, I think I found filmmaking because I wanted a better balance between my artistic and intellectual sides.
I also found I loved the collaboration involved in filmmaking rather than the contentiousness of legal practice. So I never looked back and there has never been a day when I woke up and wished I was going to take a deposition or argue a motion. I have also been very lucky that without a game plan or any consistent employment I have been able to support myself as a filmmaker for over 25 years.
What is the role of the Berkeley Film Foundation? Can you describe the city’s community of filmmakers?
Ginzberg: The Berkeley Film Foundation is supported by the City of Berkeley, Wareham Development Company and the Saul Zaentz Company, as well as by other contributors and provides grants to filmmakers who live or work in Berkeley. This year we started to give money to student filmmakers and they can live anywhere from Richmond to Emeryville. We have been in existence for three years and have given away over $360,000.
Berkeley has a particularly vibrant community of filmmakers and some of the best documentaries are produced right here, but funding is always an issue. Among the films we have funded which have been completed, such as Better this World; The Barber of Birmingham; Between Two Worlds; and The Heretics have screened at film festivals throughout the United States and around the world and have won numerous prizes.
These films and others have gone on to make a difference way beyond Berkeley, but that might not have been possible without the support of the BFF. It has been great to be part of an organization that supports the creation of innovative films right here.
Ginzberg’s credits include:
Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson’s American Journey — profile of an African American federal judge from Berkeley who has been responsible for reforming medical care in California state prisons.
Everyday Heroes — a behind the scenes look at an AmeriCorps team working in public schools throughout Berkeley and Oakland, co-produced and co-directed with Rick Goldsmith; Advocating for Change — the story of the work done by the East Bay Community Law Center, which is based in Berkeley; Get Screened Oakland — a film about the efforts of the city of Oakland to encourage the residents to know their HIV status.