Director Marco Williams on the Making of The Undocumented

Filmmaker Marco Williams

Filmmaker Marco Williams, director of The Undocumented

Since 1998, more than two thousand dead bodies have been found in Arizona’s Sonora Desert — the remains of “border crossers” who perished en route to the United States from Mexico. In true cinéma vérité style, The Undocumented (premiering Monday, April 29, 2013 at 10pm) by acclaimed filmmaker Marco Williams, reveals the ongoing impact of immigration laws and economic policies on the very people who continue to be affected by them. By going beyond politics, the film also tells a story that is deeply personal. We recently spoke with Williams about the making of his film and the impact he hopes it will have on the national immigration debate.

What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope that my film will raise awareness of a little known issue of the immigration narrative debate in our nation.

Watch Coming to Independent Lens: The Undocumented on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

What led you to make this film?
I feel that immigration is a civil rights issue, perhaps the civil rights issue of the early 21st century. I am concerned with injustice.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
I wanted to make a film about migrant deaths. I wanted their stories to be the primary narrative. I did not want Americans to be seen as heroes. However, how can you do this, given that the dead don’t talk?

Pathologist examines a body found in the desert

Pathologist examines a body found in the desert. Photo by Matt Nager

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I believe that the most important action in making a documentary is expressing one’s curiosity. I never told anyone at the outset, “I want to make a film about….” I began by asking questions. Once I met folks like the Chief Medical Examiner or the Consular General of the Mexican Consulate of Tucson and understood what they do and how they do it, then I was able to articulate what I wished to do. So, trust — as in any relationship — is developed, not given.

Watch A Family Endures the Tragic Side of the Immigration Debate on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
I wanted to make an observational documentary. I ultimately made compromises to this vision. But there is one sequence that when filming I was certain would not make it into the film and then in editing became my absolute favorite scene. It was with a woman in Mexico whose husband crossed and has not been seen or heard from since his crossing attempt. Her grief was so profound. She epitomizes what so many family members feel and experience. But, her story was a one-off story and in the film it detracted from the other stories.

Border Patrol agents help an ailing migrant border crosser

Border Patrol agents help an ailing migrant border crosser. Photo by Matt Nager

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Marcos Hernandez, whose father is missing, shares that there are so many things that he did not get to tell his father, such as how much he loved him. He cries. His honesty is compelling.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Belief in what I have to say is what keeps me motivated. However, I am not confident that I will be able to continue to raise the money to make films on the challenging topics about America.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television allows me the best opportunity to reach the greatest number of Americans. It is an honor.

What are your three favorite films?
The Times of Harvey Milk, Killer of Sheep, Why We Fight

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Making documentaries is akin to going steady. It is not a one night stand.

Watch An Organization Reunites Undocumented Dead with Families on PBS. See more from Independent Lens.

Watch The Undocumented premiering Monday, April 29 at 10pm (check local listings).

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  • D. Harrellson

    While driving to work this morning, I listened to your interview with great interest. I live in Tucson. I’m not sure what you hope to accomplish with your documentary. Quite honestly, I don’t think you will sway anyone’s opinion or bring a more emotional response from people concerning the plight of the illegals by showing bodies instead of “just skulls and bones”. Perhaps for your next endeavor, you could make a film about what a drain the illegals are on the US. The crime rate because of them is disgusting. The tax dollars we have to spend on their welfare benefits when they get here makes me sick. We can’t even help our US citizens, but we sure bend over backwards to make sure the illegals are taken care of. I work for a prescription compan y and have to continually tell people (people who actually pay their premiums for prescription coverage) that we cannot send their needed medications until they pay their bill. I have to listen to them explain that they don’t get their check until the first of the month. I’m talking about life saving medications. But we spend a fortune so that the illegals can be healthy, have more babies, eat well and have an education, as they drive around in their SUV’s and the kids have their game boys and get free lunch in schools. I know what I’m talking about. My sister teaches in Southern California. Her stories are sickening. How about doing a film on that side of the story. Guarantee you’d get a more postive response. Dead bodies are not going to change people’s minds.

    • danrockss

      You have no compassion for humanity.

    • KRISTI


    • Jezebel Gamboa

      U are one sick ****! First of all….all that food u buy at your local markets…is because of my people! No white person will go out to the fields and get underpaid wages (which make up for your “welfare” …well above might I ad) for the hard 10 to 12 hour days of heatwrenching work they do! As far as educational systems…i worked at Hollywood high school and other schools and that has nothing to do with ur racist comments…you dont realize where you are at do you????? Its sad how u have no empathy for anyone exept yourself! Oh WOW! Pharmaceutical companies the “save” lives!? Pleeeeease…your own government kills people, your “medications are designed for human population control and merely THAT…u kill your own people! If u dont know, u should do your homework! My people have done waaaay more for this country than YOU! My father came to this country and fought his way through hard work to get me and my family ahead…and hes not a criminal and has a clean record…i mean, look at all the “u.s. Citizens” who bomb buildings and molest children, kill women, rape women…look statistically at serial killers….

    • Gerald Viera

      My daugthers both teach in southern california and I don’t hear stories like that and I’m a retired civil servant for the city of L.A..I was a bill collector and we had more problems with legals and citizen then with illegals.One day I went to collect frm a anglo couple they were home and were upset that I of Mexican decent show up at their front door to collect an overdue bill. they ask me to leave and not to step on their property again.before I left they ask for my supervisor’s phone no.I gave them the office no. and they called. the first thing they complaint was that a Mexican had come to their house to collect a Bill and they did not want a Mexicans coming to their house.and they wanted to speake to the supervisor. The gentleman on the phone says sure I’ll connect you with Mr Garcia. all the office person heard was a BUZZ sound on the other end. I think thats the type of person you are.If you saw me in my SUV you would not know if I’m LEGAL or ILLEGAL.OH! but we’re not RACIST.

    • Lluvia Gil

      Oh yeah, and I almost forgot, GO WATCH the documentary and imagine one of your parents sacrificing their lives leaving all of their family members behind to give you and your sister the best education. Now imagine, you’re waiting for (lets say) your single mom to come back from America because she’s been trying to save up money to bring you and your sister. You and your sister anticipate her return because you haven’t seen her in so long and as days go by, you don’t hear anything from her. A year passes by, and you are told she died on the way. You feel guilty because all she was ever trying to do was to give you and your sister the education she never had, but especially your sister because ever since she was little she would always talk about her dreams of becoming a teacher and being a role model to her students that admire her and see her as an example. And she wanted to buy you, her son, the things she couldn’t afford in her country like a game boy even though the money she would be earning still wasn’t enough, but she wanted to just spoil you with her very little wage anyways. She wouldn’t of had received any welfare from the government because she wouldn’t of qualified but regardless she would have worked washing dishes all night if she had to and burn her hands too due to the harsh work demand. Now you probably still have your parents, but there are still THOUSANDS of families who have lost family members only to dream for a brighter future.

  • Aaron Brown

    Pretty interesting. I wonder what options the immigrants have in Mexico or in their own countries?

  • Cecilia Sims

    As the daughter of an immigrant, I have been sympathetic with immigrants, but this is different than any other immigration; it is an invasion from next “door”. Mexico quadrupled her population within 50 years, while the US didn’t even double our’s. Should the Western Hemisphere(except Canada?) be Hispanic? What about diversity? My kids’ school (and many others) now teach only Spanish, no other foreign language! My kids are told they would be severely disadvantaged in the future if they don’t learn Spanish! This program is a very biased “sob story”! Mexico is very harsh with it’s border enforcement, and their treatment of illegals. Cover that issue; to have some fairness in reporting. All nations have borders, just as we all have lockable doors on our homes, for a reason.

    • Shannon Christen-Syed

      An “invasion”? Really. Since you are a parent as well, maybe you should not rely solely on the public school system to “educate” your children on all of the other “diverse” foreign languages available. Might I suggest Rosetta Stone?

  • chinosmujer

    I just watched The Undocumented. I bawled like a baby!!! Thanks a milllion for this documentary!!!!


    This is a powerful documentary that gets across to people who see humanity in others and those who can be in the same position. Every person strives to self-actualize and it can be in different forms. God bless the maker of the documentary and i hope the reform becomes a reality.
    God bless America.

  • Sonia

    Thank you for bringing the plight of immigrants to the screen. You are a true humanitarian.

  • Sonia

    Thank you for bringing the plight of immigrants to the screen. You are a great humanitarian. This is a reality that many will never understand because they can’t even fanthom it.

  • danrockss

    This video made me sad.I know that the Mexicans feed us.Do slave work for little pay here in NY in desert heat conditions on the muck lands of Elba NY.Where the soil is black so it’s very very hot.I am glad some one documented this.How much money does it cost to patrol the borders?

  • I Alvarado

    Other than Native Americans, which Americans do not have a lineage that did not begin in another country? We have all descended from somewhere other than the U.S. those before us came seeking a better life. It is unconscionable that we are deliberately orchestrating the deaths of those wishing for a better life and are willing to do the most menial and least desirable jobs available. Lets divert our resources to assisting them in becoming productive and contributing members of our society.

  • jskdn

    “I feel that immigration is a civil rights issue, perhaps the civil rights issue of the early 21st century. I am concerned with injustice.”

    Please elaborate. How are you defining “civil rights” and how that applies to laws regarding immigration and the right of countries to enact and enforce them?

    • Erika Lynette Milton

      I think it relates to civil rights because of the parallels with slavery. Traditionally, Africans were brought here to do farm work and undesirable labor, went unpaid and were considered 3/5 ths of a person in order to restrict the right to vote and equality. In the same way, these individuals are being offered tiny wages to do similar work, while not being offered a path to citizenship. It is unfair exploitation. The companies should be held to a higher standard. instead of punishing poor, hungry, desperate, people looking for work, we should consider the people who profit from then having no legal way to unionize, ask for higher wages or lodge complaints about unlawful working conditions. Overall though I am glad this horror has been brought to light and hope to see immigration reform pass.

      • jskdn

        So laws that limit immigration are the same in your mind as kidnapping people, putting them in chains and bringing them to another country to sell and own as property?

        Most people in this country want immigration limited and legal. Their right to have a country where that wish is honored is incompatible with some supposed right of people to simply choose to come here illegally and stay.

        • Alice

          I think what the filmmaker is conveying, essentially, is that we need to look at this from a humanistic perspective, and work backward as to how to solve it. The reality is that there are people starving in Mexico, who must feed themselves and their families, and who want to do whatever they can to ensure a better life for their kids, so their kids don’t spend their adult lives starving. There are jobs in the U.S., many very low-paying and dangerous, and those of us in the U.S. benefit from the labor of those desperate enough to take that work, and we benefit financially from the low wages and lack of benefits and labor protections they endure. That’s why our food costs are so low, as one example. They are only doing what you or I would do, in the same situation.

  • S.Deschams

    The film accomplishes to shed light on an immigrants journey to America and final destination. This brutal film depicts many deaths of immigrants, but most of all it accomplishes to shed light on people who try to help identify these poor victims and return them back to their families. Furthermore, the film begs to ask the question: “Why are they willing to risk their own life’s to cross over to America?” I found this film to be interesting and difficult to watch at the same time because no one deserves to die, let alone not have a proper burial.

  • vyoung

    I also live in Tucson and saw the full show last night – despite living here for the past 30 years, this was the most comprehensive report I’ve seen/heard about this ongoing tragedy. I didn’t really know the extent of the escalation in the number of deaths in the past 10 years. Much of the news focuses on drug smuggling or other illegal activities around the border, so it was good to see a human face on the people who die trying to cross the desert. I agree with the medical examiner’s statement about Americans depending on workers like these for cheap manual labor and needing to realize the impact of this economic reality. I also have a cousin who was an undocumented worker in CA/AZ for many years – he was adopted and not able to cross legally with the rest of his family when they moved back to the U.S. He did not drive around in an SUV nor was he a ‘drain’ on our economy – he did attend and graduate from public high school, and he also worked hard at a job (that most people born in the U.S. would never take) for 10 years. Luckily just last year he was finally able to become a US citizen.

  • Nancy J. Goodenow Radon

    I was glued to the TV last night and this program really touched me. The amount of hate and violence in the world is horrible right now. We tend to classify everyone by the worst of their kind. We forget the worst of our own kind. This is a difficult topic and especially where I live…the population is largely Mexican and Native American. The reasons behind these people escaping their country is so sad in many instances. It is not all drug runners and tunnels under the border. It is a 4 day walk across a desert where many die, men, women and children. How many people escaped Europe – not too far back, many of our own ancesters. We have to come to some understanding and stop the horrible hatred. The hatred has grown on both sides. How can this be helped? Yes, there are those that are angry also and take advantage of everything they can. Yes there are “whites” that do the same and all the other races too. It is a hot topic in our country right now and the solutions are just so difficult. I have to think back of all those races coming to this country, including my Grandmother and her family in the 1800’s from Sweden, Great Grandmother from Wales, and yes even some from Germany and Scotland. I am 72 so I know I will not be around for so many years. My Grandchildren, I pray, will be and I can only hope there will still a viable world left. Perhaps more people should chose to work towards the good rather than the hatred.

  • Espy Victorino

    Mr. Harrellson: I understand what you are saying. Visas for farm workers would one solution. The United States does not have the responsibility for Mexico’s population. First of all, people should not have a lot of children that they can not support The same is true for Americans, quit sponging off the working taxpayers. Anybody could have a better life with only one or two children. The welfare is overwhelmed with all the spongers – even the military that have over 4 and on food stamps ?? Even the U.S.
    Army can not support them !!!

  • Lluvia Gil

    Mr. Harrellson, it’s beyond idiotic that you use the term “illegals” like some type of thing. You are not any much more superior than “illegals” as you might say. Just keep your mouth quiet because honestly you’re full of pure hatred for ignorant reasons. Your whole summary of why undocumented people seem to sicken you is pure ignorance. Read some of the responses you’ve gotten on here, which are pretty good ones like sighing ‘s. By the way, your sister shouldn’t even be a teacher if that’s how she feels for her students no matter if they are brown, illegal, white, purple, pink, or whatever. Everybody is a human being.

  • Alan Howard

    If one wanted to give assistance to the Hernandez family featured in the documentary. How could one go about that?