Ask the Filmmaker

Marcelina in Ohio asks: Alex, I saw your film last night and I thought it was fantastic! I found your film to be honest, compassionate and straight-forward. I live in Cincinnati, OH where the Latin population is a booming by the second. I'm a filmmaker who is just getting started. What advice can you give to someone who is green, but full of passion for the documentary format?

Alex Rivera: First off, thanks for the comments and the question. There's lots of thoughts I'd like to share, but I think I'll just focus on the most important one here...

For me, the key lesson was learning to participate in a "dialogue" of documentary. When we make art we often think it comes from us as individuals. We think of artmaking as a private, personal process of finding "My voice, my vision." But I've found that it's much more productive to think of my filmmaking in relation to a community of filmmakers, and an ongoing dialogue within film. Meaning, I try to watch other documentaries, understand a little of the "lay of the land," and make films from there. Sometimes I find inspiration in other filmmakers' work that I admire. More frequently I feel dissatisfied, and find inspiration that way. In the case of the topic that interests me -- immigration -- when I was watching films about immigration I felt that too often the films were hopeless, and left me with a sense of the immigrant being a victim. Coming from an immigrant family I knew that was only one part of the story. So I decided to look for a story that would participate in the documentary dialogue around immigration -- and say something new.

I think that's actually the key to being a successful filmmaker. There are countless people who can shoot well, edit well, and produce well. But there are very few who can say something new through film. I know I face many challenges, and could improve in many ways as a filmmaker. But I think what I've done consistently, which has helped me find some kind of limited success, is that I always try to say something new.

So to wrap up -- make films from your heart, tell stories that are important to you. But do it after you've done a bit of research, and found out who else has made films about that topic. Then look for holes -- find unexplored areas -- and go there. Don't be afraid to be the weird one, the one who says something no one else will. That's the first step to standing out from the pack, and making something that will have an impact.

Other than that, all I can say is don't take "no" for an answer from anyone. The technology is cheap enough now that it can be bought or borrowed. There's millions of urgent stories that need to be told.

Get started!

Paul in Massachusetts asks: First of all, so much thanks, I can't tell you. Being inside the tent and coming into the stadium was memorable and inspiring. I guess my questions would be, what were the deepest things you learned from making the film and how did it most move you as a person?

Rivera: Wow. That's a great and challenging question.

I guess the deepest thing I learned while making the film was exactly how twisted and contorted the world is becoming. There is no "here" and no "there." In the era of Globalization not only do factories move around, but small towns all around the world are splitting in half to survive. One half goes to the First World, while the other half stays in the Third. When I was filming in the town of Boqueron, which is half in Mexico, and half in America, there would be times when I forgot where I was. The language, the food, the social relationships -- most of the details that make up the texture of life -- cross fluidly from the Mexican half of the town to the American half and back again. There is no "here" and no "there." Spending time in this transnational community made me see America's immigration policy -- the deportations, the wall between America and Mexico, the border patrol -- as a futile attempt to maintain order, to keep everyone in "their place." This has become impossible. The economics of communities around the world like Boqueron are so dire, and people can travel and communicate so easily, that there's no way to stop this process now. There's no "here" and no "there" and there shouldn't be.

As for how it moved me as a person, I was most moved as I gradually came to understand -- and this will sound cheesy -- the meaning of community.

The guys in Grupo Union are connected to each other by bonds of friendship, marriage, family, work, and now by the bond of the group. These are relationships that are as old as the men themselves. It made me realize something I lack in my life as an American: continuity. I come from a small family. I went to high school in upstate New York where I made friends and then lost them when I went to college. I went to college in Massachusetts where I made friends and lost most of them when I came to New York. My extended family is scattered between Texas, New York, Florida, and Peru.

The work of Grupo Union is enabled by the intense trust they have in each other because they're all childhood friends. Most of them have known each other for the 30-odd years of their lives. This trust is what lets them take $20 hard-earned dollars out of their pockets every week, to put in the collection.

I've never really liked the word "community." I think the way we use it in America, it has little meaning; "The Latino Community" or "The Progressive Community." Spending time in the transnational town of Boqueron helped me understand what "community" can really mean. And it's something that I -- and probably most Americans -- rarely have.

And when I saw in Group Union the radical potential of community -- their ability to turn those social bonds into economic and political strength -- I started to realize that maybe the texture of our isolated American lives is not just a freak accident. I've come to think that the isolation we live in here in America serves the interests of power -- the more isolated we are, the less organized we are, and the less we can fight back, take control of our lives, our schools, our governments, etc.

So real, lived, daily "community" has come to mean something radical to me -- something that creates possibilities for emotional, personal, and even political strength. I'm trying to imagine ways to build this kind of community into my own life.

Rene in California asks: Watching your show really inspired me to get involved in one way or another with the Union. I was wondering if you would be so kind to send me the Union's address so I may contact them and contribute to their organization.

Rivera: Thank you so much for writing and for wanting to help. It really stuns and inspires both me and the group that so many people have written in.

I've discussed this with the group, and for the short term, they think the best solution would be to send a check to me, which I'll pass on to them.

I know it might sound fishy, but this is really the best solution that they could come up with for the short term. My information is:

Second Generation/Grupo Union
611 Broadway #616
New York, NY 10012

100% of this money will go to the group, and your name will be added to their ledger.

Thanks from me and from them, again!