Migration Stories

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This weekend the Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival wrapped up here in Washington DC.  I was lucky enough to catch three films, all dealing with the theme of human migration.  They were masterfully done, beautiful, sometimes haunting, and all so relevant to the immigration debate in the U.S.  Here are reviews/summaries of them:

infinite border.jpgThe first was called The Infinite Border, by Jose Manuel Sepúlveda from Mexico.  It was about the journey of Central Americans northwards through Mexico to hop on trains on their way to the United States.  One border after another, always dodging the migra in each country.  Some get caught in Mexico, in Guatemala and deported over and over again only to try again because in the words of one young man, "what else can you do"?

Sepúlveda did a great job at capturing the heaviness of time --the time they spent waiting for the trains-- with long, slow panning shots.  And the sense of isolation and rejection at the end as the camera slowly pans across this endless dark gray wall in the desert in the Arizona desert which workers are still constructing, just drives the point home even more. 


The second was a movie by Paul Rowley called Seaview about a very surreal place in Ireland: an abandoned amusement park on the sea shore that has been converted into a sort of living prison for asylum seekers from all over the world.  You can see a trailer for it here

"Do you know what it means to leave everything you have as a human being, for you to leave your family to leave your childhood, memories and go to a country where you are a total stranger to start life over again?"

The quote above comes from a Nigerian woman who was interviewed in this movie and I thought her question just cut through all the fear and reactionary debate in this country.  No, we don't and that explains so much.

Rowley does a lot of narrative voice overs with still shots of inanimate objects, empty rooms, dusty furniture-- a bizarre juxtaposition.  And sometimes, as in the case of the Nigerian woman, you never see the person's face, only hear their voice.  The translated subtitles fade in and out in the picture with the person not under it, like they normally are.  It made their words seem less removed, less translated from speaker to audience, more a part of them.  Their words.  Their stories.  Owned by them.  It was very moving


The third film was Mi Vida Dentro (official site), also known as My Life Inside (Silverdocs site) by Mexican filmmaker Lucia Gajá.  It is the story of Rosa and it was the last film I saw because after this one I couldn't watch anymore.  I had to go home and just cry.

Rosa was 17 when she crossed the border (illegally, yes, what can you do?) into this country and at first things were good.  She met her husband, another Mexican, here, started a family, got a job babysitting.  One day she's watching her kid and another little boy in her small apartment.  The kids were both sick, sitting in the living room watching tv with runny noses.  She was in the kitchen cooking lunch.  When the boy came in clutching his throat choking on something she panicked.  She didn't know what to do so she ran to a neighbor's apartment.  The neighbor called 911 and the police came.  The officer blew hard into the boy's mouth.  Nothing.  He tried again.  Nothing.  The paramedics came.  They checked the airway found nothing and did the same thing.  The boy died.

It turned out there were paper towels blocking his airway. They accused Rosa of murder.  And just like that she was caught up in the complexities of the U.S. justice system.  She was barely twenty years old, didn't speak the language, knew nothing about the legal system of her adopted country.  She didn't stand a chance.

A woman from the Mexican consulate here says Rosa's situation is not unique.  Most of the people who immigrate here know very little about the U.S. legal system.  They don't know their rights, don't know what to do when confronted by the police.

Rosa was interrogated by an officer.  She wasn't under arrest so the officer didn't have to read her her rights.  She didn't know she could request a lawyer.  She called her husband who told her that officers had come by and taken their little girl away.  She was hysterical.  The film shows all of this on police footage.  She tried explaining that she had just wiped their noses with the paper towels.  They didn't believe her.  She asks finally "if I say I did it will you give me my daughter back?"  Yes, he said.  You will see your daughter again.

She did see her daughter --for about five minutes.  The she was charged with murder. 

That mistake of trusting that police officer and not understanding how to manuever in the U.S. legal system cost her 99 years.  99 years!  A human lifetime! 

The jury found her guilty, of course.  Even though the prosecution produced little evidence and even the boy's family did not think she was responsible for the child's death.  His uncle apologized to her at her sentencing.

What hurts so much about this story --and what I think the filmmaker did so well at conveying-- is that it's not just a case of bad luck for this one particular person.  It's bad luck compounded by that person's particular class status within the society she lives in.  An accident like this would have been tragic enough but add to the tragedy of random luck the tragedy of a grossly inequitable society filled with racism and classism and the sum is just too much.  I can't help but think that if Rosa had been someone like me (white middle class) the result would have been vastly different.  You cannot leave this movie without being outraged at the overwhelming cruelty of a system that failed and continues to fail.

Rosa's might be one of the more extreme cases but as the woman from the Mexican consulate says this is all too common.  At the end of the film there is a series of still shots of the major characters standing within different settings: the judge in his chambers; the defense attorney at the apartment complex where it all happened; the woman from the consulate's office overlooking the city; Rosa's mother in her home in Mexico; her husband in front of his home in the U.S..  And then there are more people, others who were interviewed in the film about their journey to the U.S. ("Was it worth it? Do you regret it?") and then still more people we never heard from, face after face after face.  And then there's a young girl in her jail cell.  My name is Rosa.  I'm 23 years old and I have 99 years.

Mi Vida Dentro will be playing in theaters in Mexico this fall.


P.S.  The Tucson-Citizen has a pretty amazing editorial this morning for an Arizona paper.

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This page contains a single entry by lividsnails published on June 23, 2008 12:19 PM.

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