Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is your motivation as a filmmaker? Why did you choose documentary in this case?

Alex Rivera
Alex Rivera: My motivation as a documentary filmmaker is the relentless pursuit of a life of riches, lots of screaming fans, and a Hummer. Just kidding.

I decided to become a filmmaker when I realized what an important role electronic images — TV, movies, internet, etc. — play in our lives. If you figure we sleep 8 hours a day, that leaves 16 waking hours every day. The average American spends something like 8 hours a day engaged with electronic images. That means that 50% of our waking lives are spent in the land of images. When I realized that, I realized that whoever produces those images produces a big piece of our shared reality. I wanted to make sure that voices of people like my dad — immigrants — were a part of that reality.

So for about 10 years I've been making short films and web pages about different aspects of the experience of migration.

Sometimes I've used the medium of fiction film, sometimes documentary. My first few flicks were mockumentaries that used documentary techniques to tell semi-fictions. These were fictions, disguised as documentaries, but still hoping to tell a truth. I guess this is essential to my work — the belief that things are not what they seem, and that sometimes to depict an aspect of reality you need to use fantasy.

In the case of The Sixth Section, again, I'm using somewhat of a hybrid form. The super-structure is recognizably that of a documentary. The interviews, the verité sequences, the recut home video. I wanted to use the documentary form because I thought that the story was so exceptional, and surreal, that no one would believe me if I told it through the form of fiction. Through the form of documentary I wanted to say "This a big, but invisible part of our reality. The characters in this film might be your taxi driver, your butcher, your neighbor."

But the film has fictional, or fantastical, flourishes in the digital sequences which smear together north and south. More on this below.

POV: What generally inspires your interest?

Rivera: My films are always focused on migration. Sometimes the migration of people, sometimes the migration of products. As I mentioned above, that interest began at home, with my dad. I was trying to understand my dad's life in relation to versions of "The Immigrant Experience" I'd seen on TV and in film.

But his life didn't fit.

In films like "El Norte" the immigrant is a noble victim of an overwhelming world order. On TV networks like FOX NEWS, immigrants are criminals that steal jobs. Neither of those iconic images fit my dad, who is a sorta — kinda — assimilated Peruvian, now living in a suburban house in upstate New York, very far away from the place he grew up, now very attached to Spanish-language TV. I started to think about my dad's life, and realized that immigrants have to find ways to live in multiple realities. For my dad this meant living and working in New York, speaking English by day, but reconnecting to his childhood reality and hearing Spanish through the television every night.

This state of living not here, not there — of living in a suspended animation or a virtual reality — became my "muse" or whatever. It's the thing that fascinates me. I think immigrants do this in very tangible ways. You can see it in the baseball stadium that Grupo Unión builds. The stadium is a way to be present in a place left long behind. I think the impossible longing to go home is a universal state of being. We dream of being young again and pretend that we are. When we're young, we dream of being older and pretend that we are. We all live in multiple, conflicting realities. The immigrant just does it in a more visible way. The immigrant's story is a rich point of departure for filmmaking.

POV: What inspired you to make The Sixth Section?

Rivera: To be honest, the stadium inspired me to make the film. I hope it comes across in the film — the stadium is MASSIVE. It stands in the desert in southern Mexico and has NEW YORK written over the door. Coming from New York to see this thing standing there was a truly surreal sensation. I felt like one of the apes at the beginning of the movie "2001" who sees the giant black obelisk standing in the desert. What is it? Why is it here? What does it mean?

I ended up standing in front of the stadium, with my partner Cristina Ibarra, because I wanted to cross through to the other side of the looking glass.

New York has experienced a massive Mexican immigration over the last decade. But as New Yorkers, we only see the effects here. More, better, tacos. The Virgen de Guadalupe painted on the wall. Obviously, more Mexicans. We see New York changing. But immigration is not about changes in one place. In its essence immigration changes TWO places. I wanted to see the changes that the New York/Mexico migration was producing on the other side, so Cristina and I went there. We saw the stadium. Almost three years later the history of the stadium will be shared through "The Sixth Section."

POV: What were your goals in making The Sixth Section? And what would you like to see happen with it?

Rivera: As a child I loved the movie "Star Wars" (big surprise, right?). I wanted to dress up, walk like, talk like — I wanted to be Luke Skywalker.

As an adult, I was once thinking about Luke Skywalker, and I realized that his story is not that different from my dad's — or the men in "The Sixth Section." Luke Skywalker grew up in the desert, in something like outer space poverty. He had dreams of leaving, to look for a better life. An imperial army came and killed his family. He had to flee to save his own life.

For some reason in American culture we adore iconic heroes like Luke Skywalker but we couldn't care less about the millions of people all around us who've actually lived this story, who instead of slaying Darth Vader, are here, working. Cleaning. Building. Cooking.

I hope The Sixth Section is one piece of a puzzle that can start to treat today's immigrant's stories with the sense of respect and wonder that they deserve.

In terms of what I'd like to have happen with the film, well, I hope it gets used in several "theaters of action." We're working with grassroots activists, national advocates, the press, and educators to make sure the film is used in group settings around the country and that it provokes dialogues, discussion and hopefully thought.

But to be honest, the most concrete goal I have is to get on "The O'Reilly Factor," and tell that guy off. Someone needs to ask these right wing nuts why they support "open borders" when it means the right of factories to cross borders looking for low wages, but they're totally horrified by "open borders" when it means the right of people to cross borders looking for higher wages.

POV: What was the most surprising thing to you in making The Sixth Section?

Rivera: From first seeing the stadium, to the end of the process, I was stunned over and over again. When co-producer Bernardo Ruiz and I attended one of our first meetings with Grupo Unión, the members started talking about raising $100,000 to build a well in the desert. Stunned. When we went to a party for a baptism, we saw the full size of the community of Boqueron, almost 500 people, now living in snow-covered Newburgh. Stunned again. When I realized that Grupo Unión's story was not singular, but was one of at least a thousand similar stories being lived right now all around the country, stunned yet again.

POV: What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

Rivera: Right now I'm working on a science fiction feature film about immigration. The easiest way to describe it would be as a "Blade Runner" set in Tijuana. I believe that an intense, and massive Latin American immigration will be a defining aspect of the future of America, and therefore the world. I'm really excited to use science fiction — my favorite genre — to take a stab at imaging what one version of that future might look like.

You can see clips of the film at:

This film, when we make it, will be the first (I think) feature film that really tries to imagine the future of the Third World. Strangely, the entire genre of science fiction has been devoted to imaging the future of places like Los Angeles, London and Tokyo. The Third World, in cinema, has no future.

It should.