Shining Light

Shining Light

Walter Dominguez and Shelley Morrison raise history’s veil with ‘Weaving the Past: Journey of Discovery’

By Jana Monji 08/14/2014

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Do you recall where you were in 2001 when three airliners plunged us into war with Afghanistan and eventually Iraq, which then led to the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison?


Incidents such as these might seem like a strange place to begin a narrative that is not about the current war, but for first-time director and writer Walter Dominguez, these events were a catalyst for some soul searching, culminating in his directorial and writing debut, “Weaving the Past: Journey of Discovery,” opening Friday at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 theater in Pasadena.


The movie actually begins in darkness with the sound of a plane, but we don’t see it. Rather, we see a disembodied hand lighting a candle and hear Dominguez saying, “They say it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but the darkness was deepening and I was losing my belief in the power of light.”


In a quick visual collage, Dominguez brings us up to speed on the events that sent him into a psychological funk: Al Gore’s loss to President George W. Bush, the events of 9/11, first Bush and then President Barack Obama sending troops overseas, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the increasingly urgent message that “the planet itself was dying.” From this macrocosm, Dominguez pulls us back to the more personal causes for his malaise. His uncles and aunts had all died, as did a few of his contemporaries, and his father had his first heart attack.


Dominguez was having a midlife crisis, but instead of buying a flashy car he began thinking about his past, and the person who during his childhood had been a kind and giving figure: His maternal grandfather, the Rev. Emilio “Tata” Hernandez, a person who, as he says, could “shine a light for others.” When Tata died in 1973, many people came to his funeral. Now Tata’s second wife was experiencing failing health at the age of 97.


Although Dominguez was born in Santa Paula in 1947, he grew up in Pasadena. In 1964, he served as student body president at John Muir High School and was active in theater productions, even going on a national tour. He was awarded a full scholarship to Occidental College and later attended USC for graduate studies in cinema. Dominguez became an assistant director, working on such films as the “The Andromeda Strain,” but had mostly left filmmaking since the 1970s. In 1973, he married Shelley Morrison, who executive produced this film and is perhaps best known for her role as Rosario on the sitcom “Will & Grace.” 


While there are many documentaries about people searching for meaning through their family’s past, what makes “Weaving the Past” so engrossing are Tata’s dramatic ties with Native Americans and Mexicans living in Mexico and US border states, in this case Texas and California. Mixing grainy archival black and white footage and old photographs with sometimes impressionistic re-enactments and more contemporary film clips, Dominguez confronts not only his personal history, but also California’s, illustrating how one charismatic person — Tata — can change the course of another person’s life.


Early on we learn that Tata was a sick, homeless alcoholic as a young man, rescued by the kindness and faith of a Norwegian minister. As the documentary progresses, we also learn that Tata had by that time lived a long and difficult life, one touched by a mysterious woman with whom he had a lifelong correspondence, and by Praxedis G. Guerrero, a respected Mexican revolutionary, writer, political organizer and outlaw.


“Weaving the Past” reminds us that slavery and exploitation didn’t end with the American Civil War and that slavery in Mexico and the exploitation of Mexicans and Native Americans benefited US society. The documentary won the Accolade Competition Award for Feature Documentary and Indie Fest awards for Feature Documentary and Editing.


The tragedies of 9/11 brought Dominguez back to filmmaking and he’s already working on other projects that touch on the history of Los Angeles and the Southwest. “Weaving the Past” is, in many ways, the beginning of that journey. 


While Friday’s premiere screenings at 7 and 10 p.m. are already sold out (tickets remain for Friday afternoon showings), Dominguez, Morrison and other members of the production team will be present for a Q&A following the 4 p.m. screening Sunday at the Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. They will lead the audience to a free tequila-tasting reception at El Portal restaurant across the street at 695 E. Green St.  after the session.


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