Maya Montanez Smukler (MMS): So what is La Boda about and why did you call your film “the wedding”?
Hannah Weyer (HW): La Boda is a documentary about the migrant life in America seen through the eyes of Elizabeth Luis, a 22-year-old Mexican-American. The title of the film means “the wedding,” which is the central event in the film. When I first met Elizabeth I didn’t know she was going to be getting married. About six months into the project, she told me the news and I saw her wedding as a way to highlight the universal rite of passage that all viewers could relate to, regardless of their own specific cultural backgrounds.
It also gave me a way to approach the subject of migrant life from a cultural rather than political standpoint, thereby giving viewers a window onto migrant life unlike one that maybe they’d seen before. I know, for me, in researching this project I only found stories or news articles that reduced the migrant population to a political cause or problem. I wanted to provide other images and stories that would counter these portrayals.
MMS: Elizabeth appears very comfortable and natural in front of the camera, not to mention extremely candid and articulate about her experiences. Did you have to work with her to get her to that place or did you two just click and develop a trusting relationship whose integrity is preserved on screen?
HW: No, I didn’t have to work with Elizabeth per se — she is, and always was, extremely comfortable with the camera on. She’s a very funny, smart, charismatic 22-year-old and was very capable of embracing the process of videotaping and recording her life with me. I did ‘work’ with her in the sense that I always let her know before an interview what it was I was doing, what my intentions were. For example, I asked her to show me her yearbook and said that maybe we could talk about some of her memories around school. Through looking at the photos and messages in the yearbook, her memory was jogged and she shared a great deal.
Sometimes, when questions I would ask would make her feel immodest or embarrassed or self-conscious — I would tell her that I felt her story and her voice could open up a world for people who were ignorant to her culture and way of life. Sometimes, she would say “okay, I’ll go for it. I’ll answer that question.” And sometimes, she’d say, ” I don’t want to talk about it” and we’d move on and do something else or I’d put the camera away and we’d just hang out.
MMS: Elizabeth had had a very unusual life when compared to most young people living in America today…
HW: Yes. It’s interesting because Elizabeth and I have become very close and we share a lot of similar personality traits. Because of this, it’s easy to forget how different her life has been from mine. When I was five, I remember kindergarten, jello and games with my mom. When she was five, Elizabeth was in the fields with her family, bringing water to her parents and older siblings. When Elizabeth was ten, she earned her first paycheck picking bell peppers and laying grapes to make raisins. In the Luis family, as well as other migrant families, the idea of collective income pooling is an economic must. Each member of the family, regardless of age, works and turns over the paycheck to Juanita, Elizabeth’s mother. This is how the family has managed not only to stay afloat, but slowly move out of economic crisis.
I see Elizabeth as an incredible courageous person. Not only did she shoulder great responsibility at an early age, she also became the first member of the family to graduate from high school. Given the fact that she’s crossed state lines 46 times in her life, had to readjust to new curriculum, new teachers, new students every year, deal with the stigma of begin a migrant — she still managed to graduate from high school and that takes guts. To hang in there and not drop out, which is what so many migrant kids do.
MMS: What stereotypes or impressions did you hold before you made this movie and what did you learn in the process?
HW: Before making La Boda, I thought that the word migrant implied that a person was an immigrant and was not likely living in the U.S. with papers. What I learned during the making of the film was that there are an estimated 13 million migrant workers who are U.S. citizens. Of the 50 states, a full 42 host migrant workers for months at a time each year. These are the people who harvest the nation’s farm crops and they are very much a part of our social and cultural tapestry.
MMS: You actually lived with the Luis family and because of that were privy to so many more family dynamics and interactions. Personal talks with family members, the disagreement between Elizabeth and her mom over wedding favors. Those are extraordinary moments that you can’t plan for, but stumble over without warning. How did you manage the logistics? Did you have any additional crew and were there times where taping was inappropriate?
HW: Yes, there were times when taping I felt inappropriate and there were moments when I’d feel really uncomfortable. But it was less about shooting and more about shifting my role in the family dynamic — sometimes I was there as a guest, friend, surrogate sister, and sometimes I was there as a filmmaker. The lines would get blurred and it would be a matter of clarifying roles.
Ultimately, I wanted the viewer to experience firsthand what I experienced when I visited the Luis family and their community. This led me to choose a specific method of working in which I filmed without a crew, using only a small, handheld hi-8 camera with a mounted microphone. This way of working gave me intimate access to the day to day of the Luis family’s life and helped to create a special bond of trust between Elizabeth and myself. For example, Elizabeth and I often did interviews in the spur of the moment, sometimes late at night while her sisters slept in the beds next to us. Because of a trust we shared, I believe Elizabeth felt more comfortable talking about her personal and insightful thoughts about family and culture.
MMS: You are working on a second documentary, a companion piece to La Boda called La Escuela. Will we get any updates on Elizabeth and Artemio?
HW: Yes, but I’m not sure yet what role their new life as a married couple is going to have on La Escuela. The main character in La Escuela is Elizabeth’s younger sister. Basically, the film follows Liliana through the course of her freshman year of high school. During this time, she changes schools three times as she and her family move between states, following the rotation of crops. As Liliana simultaneously navigates the difficult terrains of high school, puberty and migrant life, her story opens a revealing window through which to view the complex issues surrounding migrant education.