POV: Your film is being paired with The Barber of Birmingham, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Sin País won the Student Academy Award, is that true?
Theo Rigby, director: Yes, it did indeed. It won the Student Academy Award in the documentary category. So that was a great honor. The Academy of Motion Picture Sciences was very nice to us, treating us for a whole week, shuttling us around Hollywood. It was fabulous.
POV: In your own words, how would you describe the film?
Rigby: Sin País is about a family going through this major rupture in their life where the parents — the mother and father, after having lived in the U.S. for about 17 years, raising their family, having two U.S.-born kids — the mother and father are deported back to Guatemala, a country that they left fleeing a civil war in the ’90s. So it’s really about family. It’s about what happens to relationships when there is this dramatic rupture — trying to address larger sociopolitical immigration issues, not through experts and talk about law or politics, but really trying to see the complicated kind of infinite ripple effects of this deportation, of this rift in this family and the lives of each member, the mother, father, a 20-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, as well as a 6-year-old little girl.
POV: So there are the two parents. And the 20-year-old son was born in Guatemala, as well? He’s not a U.S. citizen, right?
Rigby: He’s not a U.S. citizen, yes. Gilbert was brought here. He came with his parents as an infant, as a one-year-old. So he’s grown up here his entire life, culturally American, and he is undocumented, as well. So when immigration raided their house one morning, he was also caught up in the immigration system along with his mother and father. The youngest two children in the Mejia family are Helen — who is now 16, which kind of blows my mind; she can drive, which is a bit scary — and Dulce, who is now seven. But they were five and 14 at the time of filming. And they were both born here in the U.S., and we have a law on the books that says if you’re born on United States soil, you are a U.S. citizen. So they’re both U.S. citizens, while Gilbert (the 20 year-old) and his parents are not. So it’s what’s called a mixed status family, which I think is something that really isn’t talked about that much, yet is so crucial to immigrant communities — that immigrants who come here and stay for any extended period of time have big families and have children that are born in the U.S. Then that becomes this really complicated dynamic of having children who are U.S. citizens and having older people in the family and possibly parents who are not, who are different varying degrees of immigration status. So addressing a mixed status family is a really important thing that Sin País tries to tackle.
POV: And it tackles it well. The ripple effect in this case is that the parents and the younger daughter have to go home to Guatemala, and Helen and her older brother, whose status is sort of up in the air as well, stay in the U.S. and try to further their educational opportunities there. How did you meet the Mejias, and what was your initial introduction to this family?
Rigby: So before embarking on Sin País, I had been working with the immigrant and undocumented communities for about five or six years, both on the Arizona-Mexico border as well as in San Francisco. So when it came time to make my thesis film in graduate school, it was and still very much is my passion. And I kind of connected with an array of people, just sent out a message saying, “Hey, I’m making a film, I’m looking for someone or a family that’s fighting a deportation case and does anybody know anyone?” And a group in Berkeley, California forwarded me some stories about the Mejia family. They had been in some newspaper stories and a few TV stories, trying to get notoriety for their case. And eventually I connected to them and actually met the whole family only two weeks before the parents were deported. So I walked into their house, and the whole family comes out around the living room. I mean their whole house was torn apart because of packing. They had to pack huge boxes and essentially — imagine moving your house, your home, your life 3,000 miles away.
I’ve done this multiple times, and people have varying degrees of understanding of what a documentary film is and why we need to make documentary films about these kinds of stories. But Elida, the mom, she got it right away. She was like, “You know what, I know this might not be for us — like, this film might not help us — but this is for everybody else.”
POV: Now was there any kind of added legal risk from filming, or did they get the impression that they were putting themselves at risk, aside from just revealing their personal lives?
Rigby: Yeah, so making films with the undocumented community is really tricky. But the Mejia family specifically, they had already been caught. And they were caught two years ago, and they went through the immigration process of two years of court, hearing after hearing after hearing. They actually had GPS ankle bracelets on that we most often give to sex offenders. So media attention actually for them at that point was good, because they were trying to get — basically the only way they could have their deportation waived was to get a private bill signed by either Senator Feinstein or Senator Boxer, the two California senators, both of whom have a policy of not doing private bills for various reasons.
POV: And are they just a drop in the bucket? Are they one of thousands or tens of thousands of these types of cases?
Rigby: Yes, it’s really mind-boggling when I try to fit in the Mejia story to what’s happening every single day in this country. Just recently, immigration customs enforcement released their last year’s numbers of deportations — they were just shy of 400,000 deportations, which was more than they have ever deported in the history of the organization. So imagine, in this certain case, these were two people who were deported, and the film really is about how the ripple effects of just these two people kind of stretch to their whole family and their community and a city, really, where they had been living for 20 years.
POV: Why did you choose to focus on the immigration issue?
Rigby: Well I’m originally a still photographer. And as a photographer you kind of go about life and go about the world and you see things. You concentrate on things and see things that maybe non-photographers might not pay attention to. And I feel like the immigration situation is very similar to that, especially being in California, but really across the country — immigrants are a part of all of our lives, every day, in so many facets and so many different ways. Yet we don’t often stop and talk to people who might not speak English as their first language, if we only speak English. We might not stop and think, “What’s that guy in the kitchen who just made my food, what’s his story, where is his family? What did he have to do to come to this country?” And oftentimes those stories are incredibly amazing, and oftentimes those people have made sacrifices that I find are hard to believe. So I feel like immigration is something that’s crucially important to our country, our communities, our society, yet it’s something that rarely gets delved into in a complex kind of way.
POV: Now you said you’re a photographer also. They’re a similar but different medium in terms of photography and video. How does your photography background affect your aesthetic?
Rigby: So actually, sometimes when people watch my films, they’re like, “Oh yeah, you’re a photographer, I can see that.” At points I don’t use all that much movement in my filmmaking. I like to compose images and have as much control over the image as possible, because when you’re a photographer, you just press the shutter, and boom, it’s that split-second that you photograph.
POV: How long was the process of making this film? How long did you film the Mejias?
Rigby: I started filming two weeks before they were deported and then followed the parents to Guatemala after they were deported in order to show both sides of the border. And then I came back and followed the two teenagers as they continued life on without their parents. And that whole process took about six months of shooting, five or six months, which is relatively fast. I mean, it was also part of a graduate program, so I actually had to finish the film in order to graduate. So I had some impending deadlines that I had to heed to. But that didn’t really hinder the story that I wanted to tell in this short film.
POV: Is there anything about the filmmaking process that completely surprised you? Maybe you went in with certain expectations of how things would unfold, but they didn’t happen that way?
Rigby: This film is very emotional. And a lot of people get very emotional watching it, and as I was going through the filming process, it was very emotional, as well. So I think maybe there is no way to prepare, but that moment when the parents were deported — when the parents go to the airport, they meet the immigration agents, the immigration agents take off the GPS ankle bracelets, they walk them on the plane or to the boarding area and the family says goodbye, Gilbert and Helen not really knowing when they’re going to see their parents again. The parents walk on the plane with their six-year-old and leave the country potentially forever. The emotional intensity of that moment for me as a filmmaker was something I could never prepare for, and was incredibly difficult. With that said, I can’t even imagine how it could feel for the family going through this.
POV: Can you give us an update on the Mejia family?
Rigby: So two days after I finished the film, the government was deciding whether or not to bring the Mejia parents back or not. And — film spoiler alert — two days after, the lawyers actually used Sin País in their legal battle. And we think the government was able to watch the film, and even though decisions from judges and governments sometimes are — you never know why things happen the way they do — they agreed to let the parents come back. So Sam and Elida were able to return to the U.S. nine months after they were deported, with a caveat that they had a temporary humanitarian parole visa. They got that humanitarian parole based on the hardship that their deportation put on Helen, the U.S. citizen, and Dulce, the six year-old. So they have a temporary visa that they have to renew time and time again, every six months or every year.
POV: Now will they be able to apply for citizenship at any point, or is it just sort of an endless cycle?
Rigby: At this point they have no way to apply for permanent residency or citizenship. It’s an endless cycle of applying and reapplying and applying and reapplying for these parole visas, and we don’t know if they’ll be accepted or denied at any point in time.
POV: What is this film thematically about for you? Not sort of the nuts and bolts of what happens on a day-to-day basis, but what this film is ultimately about for you.
Rigby: Well, I think we’re at a very interesting time in terms of immigration issues in the United States. Due to the recent downturn in our economy, some studies have said that the flow of people coming specifically from Mexico into the United States and the flow of people going out of the United States into Mexico actually might be a net zero. So this is really unprecedented in recent years; because of the recession, immigration is not the biggest issue. But what’s the immigrant policy? What are immigrant issues? What about the people who are here, the 11 million people that we know are here without papers, with mixed status families and the situation and the plethora of issues that stem from that?
And at the same time that this immigration paradigm is happening, states are adapting restrictionist anti-immigrant legislation, the most egregious example right now being in Alabama and Georgia and three other states that have some sort of legislation pending. These laws are really affecting both immigrant and nonimmigrant lives in so many ways. You know, people who maybe gave their friend a ride to work, and that friend happened to be undocumented, now that U.S. citizen giving a ride to that person can be charged with a felony. They can go to jail for many, many years. And on and on and on. So I think for an American audience — especially in this time where immigration policy might not be as important as immigrant policy, and when people are getting to vote on these immigration laws that are affecting their own states, which will happen more and more and more — I think watching Sin País to get a more holistic opinion or understanding or view of immigration policy and immigrants in our community is direly crucial.