“You can make out the silhouettes of our past in the morning light,” the title card reads at the beginning of Nicholas Kovacic and Matthew Riggieri’s documentary “Agave: The Spirit of a Nation,” which made its world premiere at South by Southwest last weekend and screens again Saturday afternoon.
Combine the vague quote that touches on cultural history and naturalism and blend it with the dark images of workers starting pre-dawn days in agave harvesting, and you get a nice encapsulation of the tone and message of this 75-minute documentary.
As an spirit lover knows, over the past several years, mezcal production has skyrocketed. It lags behind tequila in popularity, but the explosion of that spirit led to a watering down, as corporations used to diffusers squeeze the last drop of juice from the plant and the distilling process introduced non-traditional ingredients like sugarcane to stretch the production and increase profit.
Mezcal, made from more than 200 varietals of agave as opposed to the single-source blue agave that fuels tequila, has traditions that extend centuries. The harvesting of agave, the artisanal production methods of harvesting, roasting and fermenting the product has long connected thousands of Mexican families to their land and to history.
As demand has increased in recent years, many of these families fight to preserve their traditional approach, hoping to protect their families’ legacies. The film traces the stories of mescal producers Carlos Camarena, Graciela Angeles Carreño of Mezcal Minero Real and Aquilino García Lopez of Mezcal Vago in Jalísco and Oaxaca, as the trio reveal their personal histories with the spirit and elucidate its importance in establishing and growing their families and businesses.
The movie, which at times uses a somewhat corny voice-over you’d expect at a museum instillation, touches briefly on mezcal and tequila’s history, glossing over periods of colonialism and the corporate tequila boom of the last few decades, but it mostly tells the general story of mezcal by focusing on the three main characters’ person stories.
We learn of Camarena returning to lead the family business at the behest of his father, of Angeles Carreño playing the role of business leader and caretaker for her family’s legacy, and of García Lopez, whose sections of the movie give the most visceral sense of the artisanal nature of the back-breaking work involved in producing mezcal the traditional way.
Questions arise about the role of global climate change on agave cultivation and the conflict of trying to keep children at home working with mezcal when greater opportunity awaits beyond their hometowns, but the true crisis that agave faces or how these families will be able to stem or fit into a more global and industrialized world never feels completely fleshed out.
While that bigger overhead view of the situation in Mexico is lacking, the passion and heart of those featured rings true. So, when García Lopez says, “People have been selling mezcal like it is only an alcohol, but in its essence, it is truly so much more,” you understand that, as she says, mezcal is part of her genetic makeup.