Catching up With “My American Girls” Director Aaron Matthews

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In honor of Independence Day in the Dominican Republic, POV is proud to share a film that highlights some of the rich diversity of the Dominican immigrant experience in New York City. My American Girls (POV 2001), by director Aaron Matthews, is now streaming in its entirety on the POV website through April 2, 2009.

My American Girls
The Ortiz family in My American Girls.

 

In vivid verité detail, My American Girls captures the joys and struggles of a year in the lives of the Ortiz family, first-generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic. This funny and touching film captures the rewards and costs of pursuing the American dream. From hard-working parents, who imagine retiring to their rural homeland, to their American-born daughters, caught between their parent’s values and their own, the film encompasses the contradictions of contemporary immigrant life.

We were fortunate to catch up with Aaron to ask him some questions about the film and what he is up to now.
POV: Do you think that My American Girls is still relevant to understanding the immigrant experience today, nearly ten years after it was made?

Aaron Matthews, director of My American GirlsAaron Matthews: As we can see from the last election, the subject of immigration continues to spark lively debate in this country. So in a general sense, it’s always useful to have films like My American Girls that put a human face on a hot-button issue. In specific, My American Girls still seems to resonate. Random people — of many different backgrounds — STILL come up to Sandra Ortiz in New York City (often in the subway) to hug her and say things like “You’re just like my mother!” All that tells me the film remains relevant and that what the Ortizes go through and what they represent is a fundamental part of the American experience. (Also, I’m told that even though Dominicans are still the largest and fastest growing immigrant group in New York, My American Girls is the only documentary that deals with the contemporary Dominican immigrant experience.)

POV: Is there anything you hope audiences come away with from the film now that is different than your goals back in 2001?

Aaron: My basic hopes for the film are the same — that audiences feel they get an engaging and honest look at one family’s struggles and successes, and that even if the Ortizes’ attitudes and experiences don’t exactly mirror those of your own family, then maybe the film provides one more incentive to reach out, to strike up a conversation with someone who has a different cultural perspective from your own.

POV: What did you learn from making My American Girls that informed your later documentary films like A Panther in Africa (POV 2004)?

Aaron: Because it was my first feature-length film, the learning curve was steep with My American Girls. So I learned a lot of technical lessons: create a map before production; shoot complete scenes that have a beginning, middle and end; record top-quality audio; in the edit, let scenes play out, so you do more showing, less telling. I also learned a lesson about what makes documentary so vital: everyday people, especially if candid and articulate, can be just as and maybe even more compelling than fictional characters.

POV: Are you still in touch with the Ortiz family?

Aaron: Yes! Our families were close before the film, and we’re all even closer now.

POV: What are you working on these days? What can we look out for from you?

Aaron: I’m working on a film about the current economic crisis, following four people in a Rust Belt town who are struggling to reinvent themselves and their dreams. Like My American Girls, the film looks at typical Americans in a typical American place grappling with the question: Where do we go from here?
Many thanks to Aaron for taking the time to fill us in. And if you’re wondering what’s happened to the Ortiz family in the eight years since the film was broadcast, we’ve caught up with them, too — read more on the website.

Catherine Jhee
Catherine Jhee
Catherine Jhee was formerly a producer with POV Interactive.