Final Reflection & Plans for the Project
Filmmaking and Documentary.
We began the summer with a set of goals and principles, and a very open horizon in terms of what we wanted to come out of the project. It all depends on how much footage you get and how it all fits together. We often are asked where we think the project is going and what we will do with it; I’ll do my best to articulate some plans.
The film is not linear, but rather will be a wheel-and-spokes exploration of life in the colonias, addressing a wide range of topics, expressed through the lives of a wide range of people. In addition, it is from the mouths and hearts of residents. There are no “talking heads” in the video in the sense of experts or officials, and this was a deliberate move, not one of neglect; we were extremely fortunate to be advised and supported by many such people. While there is great value in getting perspectives outside of a community, we decided to focus our energy and time on collecting narratives and testimonies directly from people who were living the issues we wanted to explore – lack of water and land rights, health issues, building homes and families, and organizing communities.
Our hope is that many different versions of this raw material will emerge over the course of the next year. Primarily, we will be putting together a feature-length film of one or two hours that will attempt to cover the gamut of life in the colonias on both sides of the border, while still framing the stories as unique (namely, we are not aiming to portray a necessarily complete or representative understanding of colonias through our project). Additionally, as you have already seen, we have a few short videos up already and have a few more in the works. The final goal at least for the feature-length film is for it to be 100% bilingual, subtitled into either English or Spanish throughout.
Once we have a set of short videos and a completed version of the long video (on schedule for late April of next year), we will move into distribution: Everything will be available online and free, first and foremost, and we will also distribute DVDs to be used as an educational tools for any institution or organization interested in the issues we’re addressing – the border, land rights, water rights, Latino immigrant communities, self-sufficiency, etc. From there, we hope to transform the project into a number of different forms: Audio short stories for radio, transcriptions into articles for written media, curriculum for community organizing, etc. Bold goals, I know, but we may as well aim high, and it is very important to us to do everything that we can manage to make the material accessible, in language, in form, and in length.
This process of editing and distributing will remain inherently collaborative. We have two trips planned to return to the El Paso area to either discuss or screen various versions of the project privately with our community partners, and will respect their decisions and ideas about how they are being represented, and what the film should be used for. This, again, is highly non-traditional for a film and in my very minimal formal instruction in documentary, is strongly advised against (I talk about this decision at length in our documentary ethics blog post).
With each interviewee, I believe that our collaborative approach transformed the experience. After the nervousness of watching us set up large camera equipment on tripods with all the wires and microphones, and the hilariously awkward moment of asking them to thread a small mic wire up through their shirt to clip into their collar, we would have a very serious conversation about the release form, which was first regarded with suspicion. There was always a particular moment when uncertainty was transformed into respect, and I swear you could watch it happen in their eyes, in a firm nod of their head, in the relaxing of their shoulders. It was a discussion of equals. I can’t imagine trying to do this work without having gained and prioritized the trust of the individuals working with us, and can’t imagine proceeding from here without their continued contribution, support, and validation.
No amount of planning or predicting could prepare us for the wonderful people we met in both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. An eclectic group of people, to be sure, with a couple of common and powerful traits: Above all, generosity – people opened their lives and pasts to us, however painful or difficult, and we were always offered more food and gifts than we could accept. The overwhelming spirit of everyone we met was one of giving. As with any community, there were hardship of many kinds, ranging from poverty to political discrimination to open violence; in spite of all this, I am more inclined to characterize the people we’ve met by their resilience and refusal to give into despair, rather than that which has befallen them.
That said, mixed with my admiration is a feeling of being daunted myself by the continuous lack of justice for hard-working and loving people. A thread that runs through these stories is that regardless of which side of the border you are standing on, we are deeply engulfed in a period of human ‘civilization’ in which our well-being is slowly (or perhaps quickly) being eroded by the “pretense that everything has a price, or in other words, that money is the highest of all values” – including communities and their heritage, including a child’s health when the landfill in their backyard overflows, including democracy. I am not Catholic, and so I do not use the word “sin” very often – but I could not help but deeply agree with Father Bill when he said that he felt the Zaragoza’s greatest sin was their pre-meditated, unyielding, physical and spiritual destruction of a vibrant community for the sake of their own financial gain.
The disregard for human life and well-being in favor of monetary profit has become such a common encounter that I feel like a broken record for even bothering to point it out. Often, my acknowledgment of this type of situation is responded to with apathy, justifications, and/or a speech about the dangers of socialism; respectfully, I have to say I am frustrated by and ashamed of these reactions, and believe strongly that we need to change our definition of progress.
I said earlier, with much deliberateness, that “our” well-being is being eroded by the current status quo. I chose to do this project, and express openly the failures of our system to promote human well-being, not in order to “help” anyone or encourage the audience to feel some sort of pity or compassion – but because I genuinely believe that this way of living is not good for anyone. We will not be able to build a good or healthy future on this base which depends on exploitation of our resources and of many, many people, only for the material gain of a few, and I do not think that our current definition of development is a particularly happy or peaceful way of existing. In other words, I do not think of this work as particularly selfless or “charitable”; it is a difficult, collaborative, common endeavor by everyone involved to build a better place to exist in.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to be involved in such a project, and want to thank everyone who has been supportive (and critical) of our work throughout the process. We could never have done this alone.