Documentaries with a point of view

Production Journal

POV: Can you talk about the special effects and experimental techniques that you used (the time-lapse drive to Mexico, the animation, etc.) and how you achieved these? Did you do others that didn’t work? Were you inspired by anyone for these?

Alex Rivera: I knew that this story — which was meant to destroy a lot of assumptions around immigration — should also challenge the form of the “immigrant film.” Films that deal with the working class are usually raw and immediate, frequently hand-held and as “unmediated” as possible. I wanted to do something different.

I wanted to use a visual strategy to communicate several things. First, and all throughout, I wanted to communicate a sense of respect and wonder. I decided to use the black backdrop for the interviews both as a way to say quickly “this person is in the group” and as a way of visually saying “this person is an expert, and is telling a story which is part of history.”

I also wanted to use the openness of digital video to put the viewer in a strange and surreal “place” where two realities — the north and the south — blend together seamlessly.

Through making the film, Co-Producer Bernardo Ruiz and I would travel to Boqueron, and run into people we’d met in Newburgh. In Newburgh, people from Boqueron would all of a sudden show up. The story of Grupo Unión takes place in a unique place — one which is neither here nor there. The town of Boqueron is not so much a single place, as it is a “zone” which exists partly in America and partly in Mexico. The difficult thing for a documentarian working in this zone, is that the camera is always on one side or another. You’re either here or there, but the story is not as simple as the visual world would make it seem. I wanted to use digital video to visualize this zone.

Wall wipe sequence

Even though I knew I would use digital effects to tell parts of the story, I wasn’t sure exactly how until I started editing. In the edit room, strange things happen to your mind. You spend hours and hours and hours watching and rewatching the footage, looking for connections between disparate images and sounds. The repetition puts you in a weird mindset where things start to blur. You start to see connections. I started to see connections between a certain landscape shot in Newburgh and another shot in Boqueron. The shot of an adobe wall in Mexico and a brick wall in New York. The community of Boqueron crosses the border when it wants to, quickly. Systems are set up to facilitate this. In the edit room, I could cross the border with a click of the mouse. Back and forth, back and forth. I tried to let this process make me dizzy, make me dream, and make me see the visual parallels between here and there.

U.S. currency morphs into Mexican currency

Once I saw the connection, a technical process began. I worked with an amazing friend of mine — the best friend a freaky digital filmmaker could hope to have — graphic designer Chris Kairalla. Chris and I both work in After Effects, which is a program that lets you work fluidly with digital video. We used After Effects to smear together the video from north and south.