‘Ruben Salazar’: The best may be off-camera

Filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez’s long-awaited documentary ‘Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle’ airs tonight on PBS.

IT’S POSSIBLE THAT “Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle” may be the first documentary to be more important for what isn’t on the screen than for what is.

The significance of documentary, airing Tuesday night, is that the filmmaker, Phillip Rodriguez, and his supporters were able to break down the barrier that Los Angeles law enforcement had built around its investigation the 44-year-old killing.

Salazar was the former Los Angeles Times columnist who in 1970, while working for the city’s Spanish language station KMEX, was killed by sheriff’s deputies during a break in a massive Chicano demonstration taking place in the city’s Hispanic Eastside.

A Los Angeles County deputy fired a deadly tear gas canister into a bar where Salazar was having a beer with his camera crew, hitting the newsman in the head and killing him instantly.

The outcry was unprecedented and the findings unsatisfactory to Latinos and law-abiding citizens. No deputy was charged, even after investigations showed law enforcement officers were negligent in firing the tear gas canister blindly and in their actions responding to an anonymous call of someone with a weapon in the bar.

It was all even more highly suspect because Salazar’s reporting on the inequities faced by Latino in Los Angeles had angered and alienated many officials and law enforcement authorities.

Rodriguez took it upon himself to undertake the definitive documentary of Salazar and what happened. A young filmmaker at the University of Southern California, he enlisted the support of the Mexican American Legal and Educational Fund and took on the establishment.

In a series of court decisions, the filmmaker won the right to have all the law enforcement files surrounding Salazar’s killing and its investigation opened to him and researchers.

That was historic, fitting of Salazar, the tough reporter who had been not an activist but middle-class. He had grown up in Texas. He was married to a non-Latina. He lived in Orange County, which was heavily white and Republican conservative at the time.

The filmmaker winning a court battle to open long-closed legal files may be the best part of the documentary because of the limitations of technology during the Age of Salazar and the expectations that the technology of today places on any filmmaker.

That’s to say that in the 1960s there weren’t people running around with camera phones, TV equipment was bulky and expensive, and what videotape there was often was reused.

For instance, you can’t watch Sandy Koufax’s perfect game of 1965, except for snippets, because no film doesn’t exists and the videotape of the game was recycled.

Similarly, there is little of Salazar on tape or film as he went about his work in Los Angeles or Vietnam or Mexico City. He was never a panelist on any of the Sunday morning network interview shows, and the limited footage from local stations has been seen repeatedly over during the years.

This wasn’t the Kennedy Assassination with local and network cameras duplicating themselves, and there were no Zapruder’s filming from some safe location in East Los Angeles.

Face it, the technology of television news of that time was still in its infancy.

There is also only so much you can do with private photographs in filling up an entire documentary.

So Rodriguez had to work with overused footage and mostly talking heads being interviewed – old guys who knew Ruben but whose ramblings put you to sleep and young journalists who didn’t know Salazar and sound more informed than they really are with second and third-hand information at best.

And the documents to which the filmmaker won access?

Well, even Shakespeare’s prose would quickly get a little tiresome if all television showed you were page after page of a manuscript.

What this means is that “Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle” is an ambitious project done by a promising filmmaker about a man who deserved better than what he got in the end and who today might have been proud of what his professional descendent was able to accomplish with what he had to work.