In his short feature, The Undocumented Day, California-based filmmaker Larry Cheuk sought to make a fiction film as real as possible. So he put his screenplay in the hands of actors who had experienced the same struggles as the film’s protagonists. Here, he describes how he developed his artistic vision for telling a unique story through seemingly mundane everyday experiences. –Michelle Chen
When I started to write my new short film, I knew I wanted to write a simple story focusing on people whose life experiences inherently possess heightened tension.
I wanted to chronicle a common experience that immigrant families across the United States go through that is seldom documented. In many ways, the film that resulted reflected not just a typical situation facing undocumented immigrants, but the actual day-to-day lives of the actors.
The character Julio is a single father who immigrated from Mexico and is a trusted employee in a maintenance department. Richard Castrillon played the principal role of Julio. His commitment was apparent as he was on set the week he was both getting married and celebrating his birthday with family visiting from out of town. Richard also works in the restaurant industry and shared that he related to this topic as he has formed connections with co-workers who are undocumented. He’s observed first hand, the lengths his co-workers have had to go through, in order to continue to work in this country.
Dominique Palafox played the role of Mayeli and, as an American-born Colombian pursuing her dream of acting, in many ways she embodied the drive of her character.
Camille Werder, who played six-year old Stephanie, possessed an innate understanding of how to get into character, and knew how to have fun between takes. She had a playful and joyful presence on set that lightened the atmosphere for everyone. In addition, her mother was just as committed to the project and expressed that their family also had friends who had been negatively impacted by immigration policies.
The words of the script were similarly shaped by the lived experiences of people close to me. A small group of supportive friends would help me read versions of the script in various forms. Each person who was a part of this process either had experience with writing, or an in-depth knowledge of the subject. For example, one friend worked in the hotel industry and had direct experience of procedures their hotel took when ICE Raids were imminent.
Collectively, we were able to brainstorm details that I would never have been able to think of by myself. For example, we needed to illustrate Julio’s undocumented status, without characters overtly saying aloud “Julio is illegal.” We decided to visually show that Julio’s identification had a different name on it that people would refer to him by.
The filming locations were also chosen to both make the film feel highly personal but also show the universal nature of the underlying themes. The more I researched, the more I could see that these raids were occurring in regular cities all across the US. So we chose locations for each scene that would convey a setting representative of Every town, USA. The goal was to make the setting of the film look nondescript. We shot in the city of El Cerrito, California because it has a nondescript look and feel as a typical neighborhood.
Though the subject of the film highlights a kind of life that many people can’t imagine, it is, at the end of the day, a human story that can hopefully spur dialogue among people unaware about this injustice that happens right in their own neighborhoods.