Miguel Andrade as baby Sansón in Rodrigo Reyes' documentary 'Sansón and Me.' (Courtesy Cinema Guild)
Sansón Noe Andrade, who came to the U.S. from Mexico without documents as an adolescent, is currently serving a life sentence without parole in a California prison for his role in a drive-by shooting.
Given that information, you may be surprised to hear that Sansón and Me, the new film by Rodrigo Reyes, isn’t a social-issue documentary.
Andrade wasn’t victimized by institutional injustice. His four felony convictions didn’t involve police corruption or fabricated evidence, prosecutorial misconduct or legal-defense malpractice. Sansón and Me (opening Friday, March 17 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco) is neither an exposé of the criminal justice system nor a righteous remit in support of an innocent man.
Nor, for that matter, is this unusual, layered and unexpectedly enthralling film a dirge of Third World poverty and suffering laced with somewhere-over-the-border dreams (short-circuited, inevitably, by prejudice and lack of opportunity). Odd as it may sound, Sansón and Me is simply a story. And, in my view, one without a moral.
This won’t strike you as odd if you’re primarily drawn to documentaries with a stranger-than-fiction quality. Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man are exemplars of this popular subcategory. The story’s the thing, the whole thing and nothing but the thing; you don’t need a moral or even a message to be satisfied.
Despite the murder that sent its protagonist to jail, Sansón and Me isn’t a sensational saga. Nor does it have the plot turns and jaw-dropping reveals (OK, there’s one) that give a doc that coveted word-of-mouth buzz. It is an ordinary story, the kind that’s rarely told, which is precisely why Reyes deserves props for going to extraordinary lengths to recount it.
Let the record show how much skill and cleverness it takes to hold an audience’s interest with a commonplace biography. Reyes deserves praise above all for taking an invisible man (if confined prisoners aren’t the Forgotten Men and Women of the 21st century, who is?) and giving him a voice.
The Mexican-born, California-based director (whose previous films include the ambitious 2020 docufiction 499) was working his day job as a criminal interpreter when he met Andrade. Perhaps because Andrade had no previous record, and his participation in the crime seemed out of character, Reyes was moved to initiate a correspondence when Andrade’s trial concluded and he went to prison. After a time, as their friendship developed, Reyes asked if he’d be willing to collaborate on a film about his life.
Sansón agreed, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation refused to allow on-camera interviews. So throughout Sansón and Me, the title character is invisible, except for a couple photographs.
Sansón and Reyes wrote dozens of letters to each other over several years, which the filmmaker uses to construct the film’s relationship between subject and filmmaker, as well as its narrative spine. But an actor reads Sansón’s lines, and his childhood in Mexico is poignantly enacted by his sister, brother-in-law, nephews and nieces living in Mexico.
Reyes cast Sansón’s family out of necessity and convenience, but it has unexpected side effects. They talk about gaining a better understanding, through the making of the film, of the sibling who left for America many years earlier. Meanwhile, the shoot itself complicates the family dynamic as neighbors and townspeople gather to witness the mystique and “glamour” of moviemaking. (We are briefly reminded of life before social media, when a local celebrity was a “viral” celebrity.)
The behind-the-scenes sequences, juxtaposed with the enacted scenes of Sansón’s childhood, are edited and folded into the larger movie with impeccable clarity. We always know where we are, and at the same time Reyes is inviting us (if we are so interested) to contemplate when life is a movie, and when it isn’t. That is, he reminds us that a documentary is a representation of reality, as opposed to reality.
Sansón and Me never goes full meta, but Reyes repeatedly notes various ethical issues in passing. The starkest example is that the filmmaker always possesses the power (that’s the real meaning of “final cut,” you know, but even the verbal declarations “action” and “cut” don’t get put to a vote), but there’s really no debate when your subject and ostensible collaborator is in a prison cell.
Yet there were periods when Sansón didn’t answer Reyes’ letters, and the filmmaker desperately needed his subject in order to move the film forward. The unspoken subtext — and I’m not judging Reyes or his motives, or raising the nasty specter of exploitation — is that grants from funders come with strings and expectations, and few things rattle a filmmaker more than being ghosted by their protagonist.
Back in Mexico, we learn that Sansón’s childhood in Tecomán was stable and happy (his father was a fisherman) until the sudden death of a parent. His world splintered and Sansón was unable to stay on his modest path. The film does not frame this period as an apologia or explanation for the later deeds that led to Sansón’s imprisonment; Reyes has zero interest in knee-jerk sociology or dime-store psychology other than to hint that patterns have a way of repeating.
So I don’t detect a moral we should take from Reyes’ sensitive and deeply felt film. We are not riled to rail against an entity or person, or really to take any action. Sansón himself says in one of his letters, “My life is like a ballad that has already been sung.”
Sansón and Me is a gutsy offering, especially with so many opportunists and bigots venting daily about borders. It is refreshing — and challenging — to be left without pat answers or emotional catharsis, and trusted to examine one’s expectations and biases. Eighty-three minutes in the company of Sansón and Reyes, contemplating larger issues than crime and punishment, is an invaluable experience.
‘Sansón and Me’ opens Friday, March 17, at the Roxie Theatre, with Rodrigo Reyes present after the Friday evening and Saturday afternoon screenings. Details here. The film will also air later this year on PBS’s ‘Independent Lens.’
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