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América: Discussion Guide

Letter From the Filmmakers

We didn’t set out to make América, or even go looking for a story like it.

Rather, it was born out of a chance meeting.We were working in Puerto Vallarta on a different project that was going nowhere fast when we met Diego at a mutual friend’s birthday party. As anyone who has met him can attest, his small frame belies his outsized and gregarious personality. He regaled us with stories about his work as a circus artist and his love for Alejandro Jodorowsky. He ended up crashing with us that night.

It was the first of many such nights. As we slinked around Vallarta for a few more months, trying to make something of our other project, Diego was our constant companion. And when one day he announced that he had to return home to Colima to care for his grandmother, we followed him not as a subject but as a friend.

There we met América for the first time and were taken by the secret language Diego seemed to share with her. Though at that point it wasn’t clear where their story was headed, or that there was a story at all, we immediately felt their dynamic was more compelling than whatever else we were working on. With our friendship with Diego as the foundation, we ended up following the family for the next three years, with Erick intermittently living with them to film.

To be sure, it wasn’t hard to be intrigued by Diego and his brothers—this hangout crew of artists who juggled circus, marijuana and a search for deeper meaning alongside the responsibilities of adulthood. They were our fellow creatives and age peers. Like them, we also had aging family members, some with the early, devastating flashes of dementia. Unlike them, we were far from home. To see other young men at similar points in their lives commit themselves full-time to caregiving was inspiring.

Still, the situation presented entirely new challenges for us as filmmakers. Though more people are living with dementia than ever before, their stories remain underrepresented on screen, in part because they are difficult stories to tell, perhaps especially for documentarians. A common misconception is that those with dementia cease to be themselves as they lose their memory. Though for us, as for Diego, América’s personhood was never in question, in place of one-time consent to a long-term project, we sought to renew participation with her each time we filmed.

It was also important for us to remain alert to América’s desires and needs when filming. On the rare occasion that she seemed bothered by the camera, we stopped. Then in editing, we had to determine what was essential to portray honestly the immense physical and emotional demands of care, whilst respecting her dignity and privacy. This determination wasn’t always easy, and ultimately audiences will decide whether they think we got it right.

Throughout the process, we were guided by Diego’s examples—for him, América’s vulnerability and dependence never negated her humanity. Beyond the confines of dementia, every day presented new opportunities for joy, laughter, beauty and love. In this spirit, we wanted the film to emphasize all that América had to give, rather than what she required.

Nearly everyone deals with a care situation at some point in their lives—whether it be for a parent, grandparent, other family member or themselves. But few will be celebrated in a documentary film for their efforts. Though the brothers deserve enormous credit for the energy and tenderness they brought to América, there are countless millions whose work as caregivers goes unseen and undervalued.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine work more essential to human life than caregiving, and yet this labor is commonly unpaid or underpaid. It is also work typically performed by women, especially immigrant women and women of color, who are sometimes imagined to be “natural” caregivers. We reject this sexist, racist premise! The brothers demonstrate that anyone—even twenty-something circus artists—can find value and dignity in care work.

The question is whether society can reflect that value. The fall of real wages in recent decades has made it difficult to support a family on a single income, forcing traditional caregivers to seek work outside the home. Family and friends who step in sacrifice their own wellbeing to do so, and paid caregivers toil for low wages without basic workplace protections. As can be seen in the film, care work is real work, it’s hard work and it deserves the same social recognition and entitlements afforded to other types of labor.

But rather than meet the growing need for care with greater assistance for families and care workers, governments have enacted steep cutbacks in public services. Today, high quality care is available only to those who can afford to pay for it, and vulnerable populations are left with few options.

We believe everyone is entitled to high-quality care, regardless of income, and we stand with the movements of care workers, mothers, elderly people and people with disabilities fighting for universal and comprehensive care coverage that expands options for people needing care and their families and provides a living wage for care workers.

América is the story of three brothers who come together to care for their grandmother. Though in its domestic intimacy it may seem far removed from the politics of care, it was a yawning lack of social support that brought them together in the first place, and that also birthed the stressors that tore them apart. As viewers watch Diego and his brothers struggle to give the best care possible to América, we hope they will be inspired to imagine a society that regards caregiving as the essential life-giving work that it is.

—Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside, Filmmakers, América

About the authors

Faith Rogow

Faith Rogow, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Corwin, 2012) and past president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. She has written discussion guides and lesson plans for more than 250 independent films.