POV: Tell us about Maquilapolis and how you came to make the film.
Vicky Funari: Maquilapolis tells the story of the human costs of globalization; specifically, it focuses on factory workers in Tijuana. Tijuana is home to hundreds of maquiladoras, which are the multinational-owned factories that are all along the U.S.-Mexico border. We worked with a group of factory workers, taught them to use cameras and worked together for five years developing stories about what they were going through as factory workers. They faced things like human rights abuses, danger from toxic chemicals — both in the factory and in the environments all around the factories — and complete lack of infrastructure in the neighborhoods where they lived. This particular group of women that we worked with were all involved in trying to improve their situation. They’re what’s called promotoras, which means community advocate. This film followed the stories of the work that they were doing to improve their lives.
Sergio De La Torre: The film brings together filmmakers, factory workers and activists from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s actually more than just a film, it’s a project that involves working with factory workers directly in the process of making a film. From the very beginning of the film, we worked with 14 factory workers and we trained them on how to use video cameras.
These workers were part of a nonprofit in Tijuana called Factor X, which is an organization that recruited factory workers who had the potential to become activists. Factor X brought 14 factory workers a year to their office, which had a cafeteria, a child care center, a classroom and also provided therapy for some of the workers. Every weekend for a whole year, the organization would train these workers on issues like human rights, labor rights and domestic violence.
When Vicky and I found out about Factor X and their process with the factory workers, we wanted to borrow and mimic what they were doing. So we worked with Factor X, using some of their already-established resources to develop the film, which not only included the stories, but also the structure of collaborating with the workers.
Funari: The factory workers had fascinating stories, and they were also women who were going through a training process and at a point of discovery in their lives. They were beginning to learn about what their rights were, and they would suddenly realize that what they were going through was not okay and that there was a potential solution to their problems. They were all in the middle of a blossoming as women, as human beings and as activists. We realized working with them would be an amazing way to get at telling the story of the maquiladoras.
POV: What are some of the themes of Maquilapolis?
Funari: From the very beginning, the themes that Sergio and I wanted to work with had to do with the human costs of globalization and the creative responses that we saw among people who live in Tijuana. We didn’t want to tell a dark story of victimization because that’s not what we saw. We saw people figuring things out on a daily basis and coming up with these really clever solutions. If you don’t have a house, you need a house, and right across the border there are people throwing away garage doors, and an industry suddenly develops where all these garage doors get taken across the border and sold for $25 a piece. All of a sudden you have a house with four walls made out of garage doors.
On the one hand, should anyone have to live in a house made of garage doors? No. But on the other hand, what an incredible solution to a problem. One of the themes we wanted to focus on was the ways that people find really creative solutions to the crazy situations they find themselves in. Visually we wanted to work with the idea of units, which ties into the idea that the global economy breaks everything and everyone down into units. The working processes going on inside factories are all based on everything being broken down into units that can be plugged together and assembled. The women themselves become units of production. Yet the way that they have to shape their lives in the face of a complete lack of infrastructure and lack of money then becomes this odd reflection of this idea of units, and you can see it in the way that they build their houses, putting everything together from these little tiny pieces of castoff materials, like garage doors. We wanted to find ways to represent all of that visually, and that’s where a lot of the energy in the film comes from.
POV: How did making the film change you?
Funari: I think I went into this project a more cynical person than I am coming out of the project. It’s ironic because I saw a much darker world than I expected to see in the process. The women who were in the film and who were working in these factories are really living on this edge of barely surviving next to the most developed nation on earth. Mexico is not technically a third-world nation; there’s no reason why Carmen, Lourdes or Vianey have to be living in shacks with no electricity and no water. There’s no reason why that infrastructure can’t be there and why they have to be getting paid these terrible wages. So we would go out to spend a day with one of the women and come back completely depressed and barely able to move.
Yet, there they were, living their lives. And at the same time, they were not just living their lives and taking care of themselves and their kids; on top of those things they were choosing to become activists, choosing to try to work for a solution and work for change. I couldn’t help but be inspired by seeing the fact that someone who’s putting up with more than I could ever imagine myself putting up with is doing it, and then doing more. Seeing that gives me hope and makes me feel that there might be a way through this. So that’s why I feel like I’m less cynical — despite all the cruddy things that are happening in the world right now — as a result of this film. It makes me think that if Vianey can do it and Carmen can do it and Lourdes can do it, then maybe we’ll find our way.
De La Torre: Unlike Vicky, I’m still cynical, I’m not sure I have hope. (Laughs.) But through making this film I think I understand my mom better. My mom was widowed when I was seven, and so she was a single parent and worked a lot when I was growing up. I remember going with my mom to meetings and doing everyday things like paying bills or picking things up. During filming I felt very close to the kids of the factory workers. I remember going home to just a mother and not a father.
POV: Have you been using the film as an outreach tool? How has it been useful? What do you want organizations and viewers to take away from seeing Maquilapolis?
Funari: Right now, we’re fundraising for a one- or two-year outreach campaign for Maquilapolis. We’re going to be taking the film all along the U.S.-Mexico border and showing it to workers and communities on both sides of the border. Hopefully, some of the promotoras will be traveling with us to do that. We also have a number of different outreach organizations that we’re partnering with: they’re organizations that work with environmental justice, labor rights, and women’s rights, which are all issues that the film deals with. We’re also developing programs for each person so they’ll be able to use the film to further the work that they’re already doing. We’re trying to use the film to bring about some dialogue and some change.
De La Torre: To expand on that, from the beginning we’ve been working on an outreach campaign that would take the film to different communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, especially communities that have no access to movie theaters. We are working with nonprofits along the U.S.-Mexico border to develop study guides and other outreach materials based on their own campaigns. We’re also bringing the workers with us to the presentations, and we also have an ideal of mobile cinema — bringing a screen, a projector, speakers, workers in the film and chairs to these communities that can’t otherwise see the film.
When we started working on the documentary, we knew that we would have different audiences, including an American audience and a Mexican audience. Within the American audience, because of the way the film is structured, I think it can be educational not only for audiences in universities or colleges, but also in community centers, libraries and cultural centers. The film deals with the costs of hyper-consumption and allows the viewers to understand where their goods are coming from, making a connection between themselves, their TV and the factory work in Mexico.
In terms of audience on the other side of the border, we had in mind factory workers, communities of people that are on the production side. I hope seeing the film can make them understand what their role was, how important it is for them to understand what they’re doing and how they do participate in the world economy, and that they do have rights not only as workers but as humans. I hope the film makes them understand that they have rights to a decent house, a decent job and a decent living.