Theo Rigby is a self-described “big gringo with a beard,” and he concedes that the privilege with which he was born sets him far apart from the subjects of his films. Yet his rich, multifaceted documentary about a family entangled in the immigration system has helped elucidate the crisis of detention and deportation—an everyday reality for hundreds of thousands of households—for the broader public. As the filmmaker of the widely acclaimed Sin País, Rigby used his project to make the journey that the law denied to the family, the Mejias: he filmed the deported parents in Guatemala, the country they had left after surviving a civil war two decades ago, and he followed their children, who were allowed to remain in the US but who struggled to cope with the trauma of indefinite separation from their mother and father. The film has helped shape the political discourse around the consequences of harsh deportation policies, and has become even more relevant today as the debate around immigration reform grows more tense in the lead-up to the national elections.
CultureStrike editor Michelle Chen recently caught up with Rigby as he prepared to embark on his next project, an interactive media community called Immigrant Nation, and asked him to turn his lens to his development as a filmmaker and the role artists play in political movements.
Michelle Chen: How did the idea for the film come to you? How did you find the Mejia family?
Theo Rigby: Before making Sin País, I had been telling stories with immigrant and undocumented communities for about five years, both on the US-Mexico border and in San Francisco. I’d met many people whose families had been torn apart by deportation, but hadn’t worked directly with anyone in this extremely difficult situation.
In late 2009, I was in graduate school toying around with a few different topics for my thesis film. I kept coming back to what I was, and remain, incredibly passionate about—so I put out a message to the immigrant-rights community that I was looking for a person, or family that was fighting a deportation case. A friend forwarded me a story about the Mejias that had run in the local Marin County newspaper. I contacted an activist that was working with the Mejia family to get a California Senator (Diane Feinstein) to write a private bill that would stay Sam and Elida’s deportation, and eventually got in touch with Gilbert Mejia. A day later I walked into the Mejias’ house, strewn with boxes in preparation for Sam and Elida’s potential deportation, sat in the living room with the entire family, and pitched the idea of making what was to be Sin País.
What had been your experience with the local immigrant community before? How did you go about engaging them in your project and getting people to open up to you, as a film student from outside their community?
I’m not Latino, an immigrant, or undocumented. I’m a big gringo with a beard who was born in the US and has the immense privilege of holding a valid US passport. I speak Spanish conversationally, but often get lost in the rapid speech of someone who is really excited to tell me something. I guess I should feel like an outsider to the communities I work with, but I really don’t. Part of this may be because as a documentary storyteller I’ve been an “outsider” to communities throughout my whole life, and I don’t really feel like I’m an “insider” to any community. But with that said, immigrant communities are incredibly welcoming and have traditions that make guests and “outsiders” feel like family. I immediately felt close to the Mejia family as we shared the incredibly painful moment of the family being separated. They now semi-jokingly call me “Tio Téo”, or Uncle Theo.
When I pitched the idea of Sin País to the Mejia family, just two weeks before Sam and Elida Mejia were set to be deported, I was very clear about what would be entailed in the filming, and about my intent for the project—I wanted to show the infinitely difficult ramifications of deportations and family separation that aren’t seen on TV and often remain unspoken and unseen. The Mejias understood where I was coming from and immediately wanted to participate—Elida said even if this film didn’t directly help them, it would help those in the future who are going through the same thing. It would show people that have never met an undocumented person that they are good people, part of the community, and have families who have grown up here.
I’m infrequently asked how I get people to tell their intimate and emotionally difficult stories to me—”How did you get them to say that???” It’s often hard to answer that question, and I feel like I don’t really make people say anything. I just let people talk, I listen, and I simply care about what they have to say. The formal process of conducting an interview also helps with this, as the physical act of conducting an interview conveys importance, intentionality, and worth. People who are normally marginalized by society in many ways don’t often get asked, “What do you think about the world?” I feel incredibly lucky to have fallen into this role of filmmaker where I have the privilege to ask such things.
Before starting Sin País, I had been working with immigrant and undocumented communities for a while. I photographed a mixed-status family for many years on the Arizona border before starting and directing a digital storytelling program for undocumented youth in San Francisco called Beyond Borders. After creating work in a somewhat traditional photographer/subject dynamic in Arizona, I wanted to create a fun, dynamic, and safe space where undocumented youth could create and share their own stories. We connected to youth through educators and community organizers and managed to form an amazing group of youth. We gave each student a camera and matched every student with an amazing photo mentor from the local community. The mentors were Latino and non-Latino, young and old, and we created a creative environment for the youth to express themselves using images, sound, and story. The result was an incredibly powerful experience for the youth, as well as [for the] mentors. As I look back on the Beyond Borders program, it was an elemental experience for me in so many ways, and I draw off of that experience every day.
Like many immigrant families, the Mejias are “mixed status.” Do you see their stories, or their combination of stories in one household, as emblematic of the issues that you tried to explore in this film?
Over the years I have met and worked with many mixed-status families and I think these families often epitomize the arbitrary nature of US immigration law. Siblings that are less than a year apart in age, one documented, the other not, one brought to the US as an infant, the other born on US soil, have immensely different opportunities and obstacles in life. This sounds a bit abstract in text—but when you are having a conversation with a brother and a sister who are in this situation, both talented and passionate about life, but one with unlimited opportunity and the other with a persistent fear of being arrested and deported—it hits you. The mixed-status family is not the dominant stereotype of what “undocumented” is thought to be, and I think mixed-status families encounter a lot of the complexities of immigration issues that often are given short shrift in the media.
The issue of immigration reform, and the movement around it, have evolved quite a bit since you first began filming this. Do you think the film speaks to any of the issues we’re seeing in the news lately: the deferred action program granting reprieve for immigrant youth, for example, or the federal Secure Communities program, immigrant detention, etc.?
Sin País takes an intentionally soft approach to legal and political issues, as well as the immigration detention system. I depend on viewers that watch Sin País to make the connection between the Mejias’ story and the immigration issues of today that are of the utmost importance. I think we need to see intimate and powerful documentaries that get at the intricacies of things like S-Comm, the booming immigrant detention business, and now [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. A lot of documentaries use the conventional “expert” to convey facts about all of these things and are full of talking heads—I believe intimate portraits of real people experiencing the ramifications of these current political and legal paradigms are essential. The futures of DREAM, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, DACA, and the lives of millions hang in the balance in a year when non-white births have become the majority of births in the US. This is a crucially important time in our history and I think we need to see many more smart films and media that touch on immigration issues in a complex and human way.
Gilbert, and sometimes Helen, often come to Bay Area screenings of Sin País and do the Q&A after the film with me. The film has definitely given Gilbert (now 21) a platform to speak publicly about his plight and to advocate for immigrant rights and the DREAM Act. He has blossomed as a public speaker, and by default, come out about his immigration status and story. His development as a public speaker has essentially paralleled the growth of the Undocumented and Unafraid movement. I hope that the film has taken on a bit of a new meaning for DREAMers who watch Sin País today, see Gilbert speaking out, and now have the ability to join an organized movement of young and vocal undocumented students that are changing the face of what “undocumented” means to the US public.
As the scenes unfold, the individuals really tell their own stories. Did you deliberately refrain from using more explicit narrative and instead foreground the voices of the children and parents?
I wanted the Mejia family to tell their own story in their own words. From the outset I knew that I wouldn’t use a narrator (sometimes called “voice of God” narration) or interview any experts to talk about immigration issues. The story of the immense trauma that the Mejias were going through was more than enough to carry a compelling short film. However, I did make a lot of narrative decisions in the editing room. This quickly became the most challenging part of making Sin País. I shot a lot of footage—about thirty hours of media that eventually became a twenty-minute film. With these thirty hours I could have made numerous films, and because of the intensely emotional nature of the Mejias’ experience, I could have made the saddest movie ever. Not only would no one have wanted to watch this film, but also it wouldn’t have been true to the character of the Mejias, who despite inconsolable grief, would still find time to laugh and rejoice. No matter what situation the family was in—Sam would always (and still does) give me a deadpan sarcastic glance and try to get me to eat carne asada… [and] I don’t eat meat. I made narrative choices as I cut the film to create an emotional flow that takes the viewer through the emotional roller coaster of their lives—from tears to laughter.
How would you describe your style as a documentary maker? The way some of the scenes are filmed, it seems like your background as a still photographer kind of shines through. How did you approach your subjects visually, and what techniques did you use to enhance their storytelling?
My background as a still photographer has definitely shaped my style as a filmmaker. I come from the tradition of still-image-making, where I would spend literally hours in the darkroom making one single image. As a filmmaker, I shoot 24 images every second. This sometimes results in a feeling of a lack of control—it’s like the camera went rogue. To counter this, I don’t move my video camera much and very deliberately choose to change framing. I love shooting from moving vehicles, but I don’t use the pan, tilt, or zoom very often in my filmmaking. I have worked with cinematographers that use the “whip-pan” and fast zooms to accentuate what is happening in the scene, but I choose to steady my camera and frame as if I were shooting a still photograph. Maybe this is my feeble attempt to try and preserve the still image as much as possible—an all but futile attempt to tame the ephemeral moving image that I love so much.
It’s sort of a bittersweet ending because while the family is in the end reunified, they’re extremely constrained in terms of their options for securing legal status (not to mention that they’re cut off from their family in Guatemala). Do you think this was a happy ending?
I’m not sure there is ever a purely happy ending for families that come from another country to make their lives in this country. There is always family left behind, sometimes family in the midst of difficult transitions, and for the Mejias, always the memories of how a country treated them like criminals (Sam and Elida wore electronic GPS ankle bracelets for nine months). In the time since Sin País was finished, the Mejias have had other family members spend time in immigration detention centers, while others have gotten US citizenship and residency. Recently, Elida’s mother and father came to the US and Gilbert was able to hug his grandparents for the first time since he was an infant. While this is amazing in some ways, his grandparents cannot work their land as they have for almost a century, and some pieces of life in Guatemala are lost. For families like the Mejias, with joy often comes sadness.
Tell us about your new project, Immigrant Nation. Does it build on Sin País, and what stories are you hoping to spotlight now?
Over the last eight years of working with immigrant communities, I’ve met countless people who have powerful immigration stories but don’t have a public outlet to share their experiences. I realized that there really isn’t an accessible place for us to share our immigrant stories with friends and family, or a dynamic way to see how our familial stories fit into the historical immigration trends to the US. With this in mind, Immigrant Nation will be an online platform, intrinsically tied to social media (Facebook, Twitter), where you can create and share your immigrant story, tag your friends and family in your story, then see how your story fits into the last 200 years of immigration to the US. My hope is that this project will give voice to the traditionally disenfranchised community of recent immigrants, and for people whose families have lived in the US for generations, it will provide a moment of reflection about who we are and where we come from. I will also shoot and direct a series of eight short films to go along with the online storytelling platform, each of which will delve into personal stories across the country and follow people who are confronting complex issues with immigration in their own lives, families, and communities.
Last question: what’s the role of artists and filmmakers like yourself in the immigration debate? Are there messages that you can get across through a cultural medium that might otherwise get lost in the heated political discourse?
Artists are the bearers of culture, society, and community like no political figure could ever be. We make work that utilizes all of our creative power, knowledge, emotions, and life experience—which results in portraying immigration issues in the utmost, most personal way. Immigration is always a third or fourth-tier news subject—in order of importance to the press, immigration stories come after whatever war the US is waging at the time, dire domestic economic issues, and the politician/celebrity scandal du jour. It’s left up to us to reflect the reality of life as we see it, and hope that in the process, we might just change the world.
To learn more, go to sinpaisfilm.com.