Filming Documentary TV in Mexico

Shooting a scene on the backroads of the dusty Pacific coast town of Bucerias, Nayarit, Mexico

The young sales girl looked nervous, and I tried to reassure her that she would be perfect. We were in a Mexican fruit market on the dusty side of Bucerias that nobody visited.

The tourists all went to the big mercado on the water, where they bought trinkets like straw hats and carved wooden crocodiles and knock-off designer handbags and sunglasses. But I loathed it because no actual Mexicans shopped there. This place was real, however. And it was the neighborhood place to go shopping for the people who lived in small concrete block houses with metal bars on the windows and who had stray dogs wandering outside who shared the same bloodline.

I wanted video of a real Mexican fruit market with a real Mexican girl, and that request was uncomfortable for her, explained my fixer, Carlos. “People here don’t like big cameras, man,” he said.

Shrugging it off, I told Carlos to give her money for some papayas and mangoes, and asked him to say that we were from a big American TV company and not the local news, and were not going to use her name or get her in trouble.

“It’s ok for now,” he told me. “But we should go soon.”

The girl slowly arranged some fruit on a shelf, looking sad. We filmed her and quickly left the dessicated part of the city.

One of the many outstanding luxury properties I filmed when in the coastal communities surrounding Bucerias, Mexico

It was an encounter that I would mentally revisit many times. Later that year, I would read statistics showing that Mexican journalists, especially those with cameras, are among the most targeted in public assassinations by powerful drug cartels. Furthermore, the local people who are quoted in newspapers or shown on TV are often killed to send a message to the community. Nobody talks here.

I was not a journalist that day. I was simply shooting documentary video of a girl arranging fruit for a show about luxury beach properties. But how was she to know? I had wondered why she had been so uncomfortable. How could I not realize they sold drugs under the overpass nearby? That migrant women from Guatemala and Honduras were trafficked in the neighborhood hotels? That shootings happened in nearby Puerto Vallarta on a weekly basis, and were rarely investigated by anybody with a badge. Those things I would also learn in time.

Had I painted a target on my American back in my effort to capture some pastoral rendition of a small beach town for cable TV?

The week before, Carlos had been pulled over by the cops and interrogated until a flimsy piece of printer paper with a government film permit shut them up and had us on our way.

Did the cartels know our particular brand of feel-good television was innocent enough to let slide? Maybe they didn’t care.

“One of my friends from high school disappeared last year, and they found him in a barrel,” Carlos later told me.

Below: The beautiful old town portion of Bucerias at dusk, a safe and attractive place for tourists to enjoy dinner and a bike ride