Joe De la Fuente never aspired to be a documentary filmmaker. “It’s not something you say you’re going to do when you grow up,” he insists. Like most successful people, however, De la Fuente recognizes the importance of seizing an opportunity when it presents itself, and it has taken him from commercial media producer to the director’s chair. With over 20 years in marketing and advertising, De la Fuente knows how to convey a message to an audience. It is a skill that makes him perfectly suited to direct a documentary feature.
De la Fuente is the founder of JR Media Company in Dallas, and produces commercials and promotional videos, but recently, he has moved onto larger projects, including developing television shows and feature-length documentaries. That includes The Gringo Schindler, an upcoming documentary he is directing about undocumented immigrants and Dallas activist Ralph Isenberg.
The Gringo Schindler tells the stories of several immigrant families seeking assistance from The Isenberg Center for Immigration Empowerment (ICIE), an advocacy group founded by Isenberg. The film’s title, in fact, is a name for Isenberg coined by an immigrant he assisted. ICIE has been a resort of last hope for hundreds of immigrants in recent years. Most are facing a dire situation like a deportation, even though they often qualify for legal residency in the United States.
Most Americans are unaware of just how difficult and unfair the immigration process can be, and immigrants trying to navigate the bureaucracy alone often run into problems. The Gringo Schindler puts faces to the issue of immigration, presenting a personal side rarely seen by the public. De la Fuente knew it was important to be as honest as possible with the subject matter and the individuals involved, in order for the viewer to gain a proper understanding of the issue. “Documentaries basically stem from the word ‘document,’ so it has to be extremely accurate,” he said. “Otherwise you lose credibility. I’m a firm believer that everything I write about or film in a documentary has to be really accurate.”
To that end, The Gringo Schindler presented some unique challenges. It is nearly impossible to capture an immigrant’s full story on film, so many of the details were provided in interviews. In order to drive home the true impact of the stories, De la Fuente chose to dramatize some elements of their story. “Some documentaries tend to be boring. I thought wouldn’t it be nice to dramatize some things and then say ‘these are dramatized.’ So essentially, we’re coming up with a docudrama. Some of the real stuff, however, has turned out to be very entertaining. So the entertainment factor is important, but not as important as content.”
De la Fuentes’ work in commercial video production may seem like an unlikely avenue to directing a documentary feature, but it provided him with the experience and technical knowledge to make the transition. He believes there are fundamental principles of production that apply to both mediums. “Nothing starts without a script,” he said. “You see these commercials on television and they look pretty, but they don’t get the results. Everything begins in your primary target market and audience. You can see a film with unbelievable cinematography, yet it puts you to sleep. Also, you can have a fantastically written script, but the cinematography is all over the place, and you have an actor that looks at the camera, that is just not believable. You need the tools. To me, that is success 101.”
De la Fuente also stresses the importance of technical competency and a reliable crew. “You have to have the right equipment. Get with the best people. The only way to get a good job done is to never assume everyone knows what they’re doing. I’ve been burned by camera guys telling me ‘Yeah, we’ll get it done, I have everything,’ and they show up with a single camera. You have to have a backup plan.”
Over the years, De la Fuente has learned to adapt and recognize emerging trends. Rather than limiting himself to a single industry niche, the services he offers through JR Media Company are diverse. De la Fuente provides voice-over services and created an in-house studio to produce different productions, including a talk show in which he features business owners providing “ask the expert” advice. He has even trademarked a mobile app, Mouponz, that allows companies to send coupons to smartphones.
After he completes The Gringo Schindler, De la Fuente has several major projects planned. He is developing a crime-based reality show for television, and has another documentary which he hopes will “make history.” The documentary will serve as a springboard for a major motion picture, making his transition from commercial director to feature film director complete.