Once relegated to shot glasses and spring break, agave-based liquor has been elevated to the top shelf. Tequila and mezcal are appreciated with the same nuance as bourbon or Scotch, but most consumers are still in the dark about how a cactus becomes an elixir and just how important it is to the communities that harvest it.
Agave: The Spirit of a Nation shows the plant to be much more than raw material. World premiering at SXSW, the documentary highlights family producers in Jalisco and Oaxaca whose lives revolve around the plant. With strikingly beautiful cinematography, the film celebrates the hard labor that goes into each margarita. Overhead drone shots contrast rows of blue agave plants against the desert landscape, with workers looking small like ants in the endless fields. Tequila's boom and bust cycles put incredible stress on the land (exports have tripled over the past five years!), with either a feast or famine of plants to harvest, and directors Nicholas Kovacic and Matthew Riggieri's loving camerawork turn the humble cactus into a sympathetic character.
But the agave is just half the story. An old saying goes, for everything good there is mezcal, and for everything bad there is mezcal. By weaving together the histories of several different producing families, the documentary shows the personal connection between the people and the plant. There's a reverence for the hard manual labor involved; the process almost seems more important than the product, which speaks to just how embedded the plant is in Mexican culture. For many Mexicans, and especially those that produce agave-based spirits, they are more than just drinks, but a part of their identity, rooted in the soil.
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