Ashley has precious few hours between arriving home from high school and taking the bus to her job at a strawberry processing facility where she works from 10 PM to 6 AM. She goes home, sleeps for as long as she can, and then heads to school only for the cycle to start all over again.
Emily Cohen Ibañez’s Fruits of Labor (2021) is a documentary, yes, but more importantly it’s a compassionate look into the life of a teenage girl who has been given immense responsibility. Threat and injustice loom in the background, but Ibañez’s focus is domestic life, thus filling in the gaps of many farmworkers’ stories — what happens when they’re not working?
The power of the film is in its tender exploration of Ashley’s life who — when not working — studies to complete her high school degree, spends time with her family, and hangs out with her boyfriend. She takes on two roles in life, acting both as a caregiver and a normal teenage girl. Ibañez masterfully balances the richness of Ashley’s life, inviting audiences in to understand immigrant farmworker communities through her, rather than something more strictly informational.
Everyone in Ashley’s family has an important role to play, but none more important than Ashley herself. Near the end of the film, Ashley celebrates her birthday with her siblings. The moment is filled with laughter, but also serious conversation about the family’s money and her role in her family as a provider. Ibañez captures the scene with poignancy, letting the conversation flow naturally — the serious and lighthearted, deeply intertwined.
The juxtaposition remains throughout the film. Ashley’s love-filled relationship with her mother Beatriz is one of the documentary’s highlights, but is not without its own hardship. In the film’s Q&A, Ashley spoke to the inclusion of her mother — an undocumented person — and her mother’s story as a safety concern. Even Ashley felt discomfort in sharing her life on screen, saying, “I had a fear in myself because I knew I was finally exposing myself in a way, but I knew that it was important because it was needed in my community.” Narratives are radical acts of truth and Ibañez’s work shines in her careful attention to detail, so that Ashley and her family are real people rather than just documentary subjects.
Fruits of Labor is activism and the film doesn’t shy away from the “activist” label in choosing to center an adolescent girl’s story. Personal stories and experience are one of the best paths to action, because narratives take big ideas and make them digestible. Ibañez excels at playing with scope in the film, both staying singularly focused on Ashley and her life at home, while also addressing systemic injustices.
To say this documentary is an important film would be an understatement. It’s not just important, it’s necessary. In giving voice to a young girl, Ibañez provides a new lens with which to look at injustice — of all kinds. “You can’t disentangle environmental justice from, for example, housing insecurity, food insecurity, racism. All these things are a part of what we need if we are going to have a successful environmental justice movement,” said Ibañez during the film’s Q&A. Her documentary exists at the intersection of these issues — a delicate coming-of-age and a story to inspire change and truth.