Filmmaker Mikaela Shwer discusses the making of the film, Don't Tell Anyone.
POV: Can you describe Don't Tell Anyone for someone who might not have seen it?
Mikaela Shwer: Our film follows Angy Rivera as she tells the story of her parallel experiences of coming out of being undocumented, as well as revealing sexual assault occurred to her when she was young. These are both circumstances that she was told not to talk about from a very young age. And we follow Angy's journey as she becomes an activist for undocumented rights. She's the first and only undocumented advice columnist. She has "Ask Angy." And she also has a YouTube channel that's really popular. So she's come out about these experiences in a very public way.
POV: Can you talk about how you found Angy, how you met her?
Mikaela Shwer: I saw an article about Angy in New York magazine. And it was right after Obama in 2012 had announced the Deferred Action program, deferred action for childhood arrivals. There was a small article in there about her advice column. And I just found her very intriguing. I thought I was just going to do a small story about her advice column. And I had lunch with her and the story just kind of grew.
POV: How did you build trust with Angy, with the undocumented youth community and with her family?
Mikaela Shwer:Well Angy says that I stalked her. Angy had already been talking with the press a little bit. But again, I think the press were really coming in, getting their questions done and leaving. And so she was a little confused as to why I was sticking around. I think over the years they understood that I was trying to make something a little bit more personal and not come in as a news story, which she would give you. You know, she will talk to everyone, but I think her understanding that I wanted to get to know her and not just have her be an issue or have her be you know a poster girl for this.
POV: Can you talk about some struggles that undocumented youth face throughout their education experiences?
Mikaela Shwer: I think it's a very common experience for all undocumented youth that around your junior or senior year in high school is really when you actually understand what being undocumented means and the roadblocks that that now has for your future. Angy was you know getting great grades. She was in clubs. She was doing everything right that she thought she was supposed to do. And it's a huge weight that comes crashing down when you actually realize that your goals for the future are now you know inhibited because you are now not eligible for financial aid.
You know 65,000 kids graduate from high school, undocumented students graduate from high school every year and only about 5% to 7% go on to college. The main reason for that is that they can't afford it. It's an extremely frustrating time for people. And again, if you can't talk to anybody....and so, you have nobody to talk to about it, counselors and teachers in the past haven't really been educated themselves about this. And so Angy didn't have any resources to help her. That's something she's absolutely helping to change. And I think teachers have a better understanding of what can happen and there's more scholarships now available due to the work that undocumented students are doing.
But it's a very tough time. I mean if you really have all these dreams and aspirations and goals and then one day your counselor really tells you that's not possible. I think it's a huge reason that the movement started, is that these kids want the opportunities that they've worked so hard for.
POV: Don't Tell Anyone focuses on the youth aspect of being undocumented, but in the film we also see this generational thread with the presence of Maria, Angy's mom. Maria sort of represents many immigrant stories and she also presents her fears for Angy. Talk about their relationship and how you saw them grow together throughout the film.
Mikaela Shwer:When Angy started to be involved, so that was in 2010, there also really wasn't a precedent for what would happen to people that came out and were telling their stories. And so I think a lot of the older generation was extremely fearful and especially in a mixed status family where something happens, Maria and Angy get deported but her three siblings are here. So it separates the family. And I think as the movement started to grow and things actually started to be accomplished, I think that you know Angy's speaking out allowed Maria to really see the good that she was doing and good things that were coming from it. Angy received donations and scholarships that kept her in school.
And I think Maria really just became extremely proud of all the work that Angy was doing. And you know decided to ease up a little bit. I mean when I started filming, she was still a little bit cautious in talking with me. But you know we built a relationship. She had started to talk to the press a little bit, and I think Maria has now seen she's an example as Angy is. You know as parents can support their kids more and come out about their stories as well, cause their stories are also very unique to their children's stories.
POV: Give us a little insight into Maria's background and what brought her here.
Mikaela Shwer: : Maria became a single mother at a young age in Colombia, in rural Colombia and she was kicked out of the house. There was violence and poverty in Colombia and she just felt a very large urge to get a better life set for her daughter. She knew a few people in New York, and so she had a small community here, but it's been a really big struggle here as well, just to set up a life for her family. But she understands even everything they go through here is much better than the life she left behind. And so I don't think she has any regrets in any way. Her daughter's getting a great education. Her other kids are doing to also have a much better life here. So I think it was a really hard decision for her. She was an only child and so she was never really able to see her mother again. Her mother got sick and they you know said goodbye to her on a webcam. It wasn't an easy decision by any means, but she felt it was an important one.
POV: Don't Tell Anyone does a great job of addressing the little things that we might not think of. In Angy's column, she's writing to people who are having trouble in their relationships coming out to the person they love. Talk about some of the small problems undocumented people have.
Mikaela Shwer: Yeah and that's been one of her most popular topics. She did a YouTube video entitled Dating While Undocumented. And that resonated with a lot of people because I think it's probably something that every undocumented youth has likely gone through. You know you start dating someone and it's a big secret that you have. And you're worried about people judging you, you're worried about what they'll think and if it'll change their perspective of you. She talks with a lot of people about depression. A lot of people write into her in terms of when they find out they're not eligible or people in Alabama that feel very isolated. You know New York has been great because there is a really big community here. But there's people all over the country that still feel very isolated and don't really feel like they have anyone to talk to.
POV: We see that wonderful community of undocumented youth in New York City come together for these poetry sessions. Poetry and art play a large role in the film. Can you talk about that role for both Angy and the community in terms of self-expression.
Mikaela Shwer: I was blown away by their, they call them UndocuMics. And that was actually the first shoot I ever did with this entire community. And it was just incredible to hear the spoken word, poetry, dancing, music. It's incredible to hear youth of you know, 18, 20, 21, 25 and the power that is behind their words.
POV: The film takes an emotional turn when Angy reveals to the world, and to your camera about being abused as a young child.
Mikaela Shwer: Angy's actually as much as she is this big activist with a really big voice, I think she actually you know is a very personal person. So I think anything she decides to share, she's knows the weight of that, but is also very conflicted as you know within our film that she then become eligible for a visa and everyone around her is so happy for her. And when it's not really something to be celebrated. Now she really feels that her visa is tied to this occurrence of sexual assault and not all the hard work that she's been doing.
POV: How do you think gaining her U-visa through that has affected Angy's sense of identity as activist?
Mikaela Shwer: It'll be interesting. I think she doesn't know yet to be honest. She is now documented and she lives her life in that way. There are still a lot of struggles. She still actually doesn't have financial aid. So not much has actually changed for her so far. You know she's still in school, so that's still always been her biggest struggle. But she will be able to work more I think she's always just been more concerned in terms of what would happen for her mother. There was about six months when we didn't know if Maria would get the same visa, and I guess I always felt that Angy wasn't really able to really think through her own visa until she knew what was going to happen with her mother. But I think knowing that her mother has the visa and that they'll both be safe from deportation is a huge relief. But I think she'll continue. I think she'll always continue to be part of the undocumented community. I think that over time her activism will change. And it does naturally anyways. I think that there's always new people coming into the movement.
POV: Talk about the title, Don't Tell Anyone. Why that title?
Mikaela Shwer: So we chose No Le Digas a Nadie, Don't Tell Anyone because just felt it really embodied you know a dual silence that we were presenting in our film. Many undocumented youths grow up with this kind of "don't tell anybody." You know it's very, very common, even just about being undocumented. And then to add to that, the sexual assault that happened, it's another thing, especially in Latino communities that it's just very common to not talk about it. And it's, it's something we heard in talking to so many people in terms of my mom told me not to talk about this. We just felt that you know it really embodied the spirit of you know really coming out and sharing your story and how important that was.
POV: What would you like audiences to get out of the film?
Mikaela Shwer: I think I would like audiences to take away really the human aspect of it. I think that understanding that it's a complicated issue and that each person's story within the immigration issue is unique and special and that it can't be talked about in this way that we forget that there's people at the bottom of the issue. And so the hope is really that if you've come away caring for Angy and what's happening with her, that you'll care a little bit more about the issue when it comes, comes around next time.