If you tune into PBS's P.O.V. on Thursday (as you should), you will see Short Cuts, a collection of short films, including 3 animated shorts from StoryCorps and the Academy Award-nominated The Barber of Birmingham. You will also see a film that hits close to home: Sin País, the story of the Mejia family, a mixed-immigration status family in San Francisco, trying to stay together after the parents are deported back to Guatemala. The film started as a thesis project at Stanford and has already won a Student Academy Award. The young director of the film, Theo Rigby, lives in San Francisco. In July, Theo, who is, not surprisingly a really nice guy, invited me to his studio in Dogpatch to discuss the film and what drew him to explore the human side of the immigration debate.
When Theo entered Stanford's film program in 2008, he was already interested in the lives of immigrants. As a documentary photographer, he had traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border and immersed himself in the culture, learning about mixed-status families and the liminal lives they lead there. Theo became deeply involved in the stories of the people he was photographing, even helping one woman and her daughter raise money to get out of jail when they were caught by Border Patrol. His connection with that family went from being scientific to personal and Theo says: "After that whole experience, all these immigration issues that we read about and see in the news, kind of like talking point issues, became super real."
So when Theo decided to move his focus from still photography to documentary film, the choice to focus on immigration was an easy one. He put the call out that he was looking for a family to do a documentary with and found the subjects of his film Sin País at what turned out to be a very fortuitous time (for the film, not for the family). "I actually met the Mejia family in the middle of October 2009, two weeks before Sam and Elida were set to be deported," he told me. "Basically they had been in the local news... and I got in touch with them through an activist they were working with to get their story out. I called Gilbert [the 19-year-old son] and he's like 'Yeah, sounds cool, come over and talk to my family and we'll see.' So I walked into their house and we all sat down in the living room in a circle, Gilbert and Helen, who was then 14, Sam and Elida the parents and Dulce who was 5 years old. And I don't remember what I said exactly but I pitched them the film that became Sin País."
Theo made it clear that if he told their story, he wanted to be fully involved and tell it as honestly as possible. He also wanted to go to Guatemala, if Sam and Elida were deported, to show both sides of the border. The family got behind the idea immediately, not just to get their own story out but because they hoped to put a human face on the experience of being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S.
The trust they put in Theo ultimately paid off. He followed the family through one of the greatest challenges they had ever faced, all the way to Guatemala, becoming part of their lives. The result was Sin País, which manages to illuminate a small corner of a huge national issue, following a family that would otherwise be only a statistic and, for me at least, make you wonder what kind of secret stories your neighbors might living with.
Sin País filmmaker, Theo Rigby.
When I asked Theo how he managed to tell such an affecting and personal story about the experience of being an undocumented Latino immigrant in this country, especially seeing as he's a white guy born in the United States (maybe an unnecessarily hard hitting question, but I was curious), he answered: "I think a lot of it has to do with intent. If I am very clear and honest about my intent and what I want to do, I can't tell you what movie I am going to make because that happens in editing, that happens in life, it happens in five million factors, but I can tell you where I am coming from and how I feel about and what I want for the world and what I want for you and your family... And I need to be continually curious and asking questions and always learning... When it comes down to it, it's a collaboration, too."
It's because of this honesty and curiosity that Sin País is able to tell a human story about a very difficult situation without ever becoming sentimental or manipulative. In under 20 minutes, this is a huge feat.