Natalia Almada films border crossers who were caught by the Civil Homeland Defense Group 30 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border
POV: You worked with cinematographer Chuy Chavez, whose credits include the features Me and You and Everyone We Know and Chuck & Buck. How did you arrive at the decision to work together?
Natalia Almada: I met Chuy Chavez when we were working together in Cuba on Nicole Cattell’s documentary Revolución in 2003. Being on production with Chuy was fantastic, because he was always calm, efficient and had a great sense of humor. Of course, over mojitos and so on we also became great friends. Over dinner one night, Chuy told me a story about shooting an underwater scene in Miguel Arteta’s movie Chuck & Buck. Chuy was so excited about shooting the scene underwater that he forgot that he didn’t know how to swim! At that moment I thought to myself that this was the type of person I wanted to work with. I went on to edit Revolución and was endlessly impressed with all the footage that Chuy shot, so when it came time to shoot Al Otro Lado, Chuy was the only person I really wanted to work with. I hope we’ll continue to work together.
POV: Did you have preconceptions of how the director-cinematographer relationship would work in the documentary format?
Almada: Al Otro Lado was shot over the course of three years and in very different scenarios. At times I would shoot alone, doing camera and sound, and at other times Chuy would shoot and we’d have a three- or four-person crew. Sometimes the intimacy you achieve working alone would be impossible with a crew. At other times, having a talented director of photography adds a great richness to the creative process.
My educational background is actually in photography, not in film, and my fear working with a cinematographer was not having control of the camera and not having the ability to clearly express my visual sensitivity to another person. I found working with Chuy to be not only very simple and intuitive, but also very enriching. Chuy also had a lot of patience to deal with me as a first-time director with all the inevitable insecurities and mistakes.
Natalia Almada accompanied border patrol agents during part of the film shoot for Al Otro Lado.
POV: In Al Otro Lado you filmed the border from both ends: first by accompanying the Minutemen, and then as a border crosser yourself with Magdiel and the aid of a coyote. How did you prepare for these shoots from a production standpoint, and what measures did you take to ensure the safety of yourself and your travel companions?
Almada: Although the film ends with Magdiel crossing the border, it is actually the first of the border scenes that we shot. I was at the Tribeca All Access program in New York when I got a call from Magdiel, informing me that he met a coyote who was going to cross him to the U.S. for free in exchange for a song. That was all the information I had when I got my plane ticket, packed up my camera gear and headed off to Sinaloa. I think it is nearly impossible to prepare for such a shoot. You just have to be ready for whatever comes your way. Because I had no idea how long this journey would take or what it would entail, I decided to work alone. I also didn’t feel comfortable asking someone else to make this potentially dangerous journey.
Chris Simcox of the Minutemen
In terms of safety, I first of all trusted my gut. I had a good feeling about our pollero/coyote and luckily my gut was right. I also have a wonderfully supportive father who went to the border and waited for me to come out, so if by a certain time he hadn’t heard from me he would have started a search.
My first experience on the U.S. side of the border was shooting with Chris Simcox (who later became the head of the Minutemen). Producer Kent Rogowski and I went to Arizona not really knowing what to expect. We did a long interview with Mr. Simcox in the morning and then around 5PM headed off to “patrol” the border. As we were walking through the desert shrubbery and he was pointing out the tracks of immigrants who had passed through the area, I started to think it was a joke. It seemed rather absurd in fact. I was not prepared emotionally to find a group of immigrants hiding. I was following Chris Simcox with the camera when he said, “Here they are!” While I was trying to point my camera at something I couldn’t make anything out until suddenly through the branches I saw a pair of eyes staring back at me.
For me this moment was very challenging and emotional, because for the first time I felt that pointing the camera at these people was making their experience more painful and humiliating. I knew that they felt powerless at that moment and probably assumed that I was with Chris Simcox. It was instinct that kept me shooting. Once I had the chance to interview them I was able to explain to them my purpose. I hope that in some small way their knowing that their story would be heard — or at least that someone was taking interest in their struggle — gave the terrible situation a touch of humanity.
POV: You both directed and edited Al Otro Lado. Share with us your editing approach, and the lessons learned from taking on the editing tasks of your first feature-length film.
Almada: I work as an editor on other people’s documentaries, so I had some experience editing. I actually decided to work as an editor because I felt it was the best place to learn how to make films, so in a sense editing taught me to direct.
I can’t imagine having someone else edit my films. Documentaries really come to life in the editing room as you try to find the narrative and build the characters. Editing my own film allowed me to work very intuitively. I was also very fortunate to work with Sam Pollard as a consulting editor. Every few weeks I would show Sam the work in progress and we would discuss the problems and possible solutions. Sam was a fabulous teacher to me. He was really tough, but never mean, and he helped me find the structure to tell the story I wanted to tell. He also gave me the support and encouragement that I really needed during those very difficult times in the editing room.