'Agave: The Spirit of a Nation': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Nate Pesce
Rich in atmosphere, but less informative that it could have been.

Nicholas Kovacic and Matthew Riggieri team for their third booze-centric doc.

Having worked together previously on documentaries about craft beer and wine, Nicholas Kovacic and Matthew Riggieri head south of the border for Agave: The Spirit of a Nation. Given the recent increase in attention to tequila's smoky cousin mezcal — both spirits are made from agave plants — the choice will be welcomed in theory by those of us who take cocktail hour seriously. But despite finding some engaging experts to follow around in the field, the doc digs less deeply than it could have, offering little on the education side and at times feeling slightly like a well-produced promo film. Though of interest once it gets to video, it leaves the door open for a deeper investigation.

While tequila is supposed to be made only from a single variety of the plant, the blue agave (it's often adulterated — more on that later), mezcal makers choose from over a hundred different varieties. These can take anywhere from six to 10 years to mature or, for wild varieties, up to 30 years. Given the long delay between planting and harvest, the crop interacts poorly with a fickle marketplace. One farmer complains about a boom/bust cycle that has existed for a century, in which high prices draw new producers into the field, most of whom lose interest when the newly plentiful plants cause prices to drop.

Riggieri and Kovacic focus their attention on families that have worked with agave for generations, but have avoided industrialized processes and are well positioned now to market artisanal brands. The earthiest of the bunch is grizzled Aquilino García López, who hand-packs mud around his stills and weighs their copper tops down with rocks. When his daughter, a nurse, fell in love with an American patient and married him, that young man started a company to import the family's products; today, Aquilino can only meet between 30 and 50 percent of the demand for his batches of Mezcal Vago.

On the tequila side, Carlos Camarena is a third-generation tequila-maker who, after going away to college, was told by his father it was time to take over the business. Dad wanted to get back out in the fields and get his hands dirty.

The film spends plenty of time watching hands get dirty. It observes all sorts of chores, from the harvest of agave plants — workers here use traditional tools to remove spiky leaves from the plant's giant pineapple-like heart — to crushing and distilling and labeling the bottles. A romantic, thickly accented narration by actor Damian Alcazar speaks to the process and to agave's variable place in the life of Mexicans: Though the influence of Spanish colonizers caused tequila to be viewed as low-class by some — the stuff fueling bar fights in 1950s Westerns — agave remains central to social life in the villages that produce it. As Real Minero's Graciela Angeles Carreño puts it, "People have been selling mezcal like it is only an alcohol, but in its essence it's truly so much more."

Tequila, made with steamed agave and smoother than mezcal, caught on with foreigners long ago. In their rush to exploit its popularity, big booze producers homogenized the product and started using stuff like sugarcane to round out recipes when the price of blue agave rose. As it progresses, the doc becomes evangelistic in its hope that mezcal can avoid the same fate. Each of its three interviewees hopes that an educated consumer will be willing to pay more for products with character, and that on the production side, small farmers will be able to hold their own against the big conglomerates. To that end, they should really be sending out samples to distribute at Agave: The Spirit of a Nation screenings: One sip of a great mezcal would be enough to drive their message home.

Production company: Digital Cave
Directors: Nicholas Kovacic, Matthew Riggieri
Producers: Matthew Riggieri, Nicholas Kovacic, Paola Villanueva Bidault
Executive producers: Steve Reynolds, Enrique Santos
Directors of photography: Ernesto Pardo, Nathan Pesce
Editors: Clementina Mantenelli, Nicholas Kovacic
Composer: Caleb Stine
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Sales: Submarine

In Spanish, English
79 minutes