David Sutherland takes his time to tell a story, both in the years he spends with his subject, the amount of footage he shoots, and the ultimate running time — which always feels earned.  His film Country Boys took seven years to bring to fruition as Sutherland returned again and again to the hills of Appalachian Kentucky to crystallize the coming of age ordeal faced by his two teenage subjects. It aired in 2006 and went on to become one of the most widely viewed programs on PBS that year. And his 1998 PBS film The Farmer’s Wife, a three-part, 6.5 hour film that cataloged the trials of a poor Nebraskan farm family, was hailed as “one of the extraordinary television events of the decade,” and drew in 18 million viewers.

Sutherland’s previous film for Independent Lens and FRONTLINE was the powerful Kind-Hearted Woman, and now he’s back with a new co-presentation, for the powerful film Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

The Baltimore Sun‘s David Zurawik wrote of Sutherland and Marcos:

That extreme politicization of the national conversation about immigration is part of what makes director David Sutherland’s ‘Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ such a special documentary. The director so tightly and sensitively focuses on one family, that 10 minutes into the two-hour film, no matter what your politics are, you will likely find yourself rooting for Elizabeth Perez, a mother of two young children at the start of the film and former Marine sergeant living in Cleveland, to find a way to be reunited with her husband, Marcos, who has been deported to Mexico. If you are not familiar with Sutherland, you should know that he made what I consider one of America’s 10 greatest documentaries with ‘The Farmer’s Wife,’ a six-hour 1998 production for Frontline.

I spoke with David on the phone from his homebase in Boston, where he talked about how he first connected with Elizabeth and Marcos and their family, on how the story evolved, on serendipity, on what he learned about immigration, and how the Perez children adapted and changed.

On how he honed in on Elizabeth and Marcos’ story in particular, with so many other stories of immigration and deportation:

David Sutherland: I was always interested in immigration as a topic. I had a lot of interns who were Latino and my older sister had lived in Mexico for five years as a painter; I used to go visit her in the summer when I was in college. So that’s how I became interested in the topic.

As to how I found Elizabeth and why her? One of my son’s best friends used to work for the National Council of La Raza [now UnidosUS] in DC, so while I was there he connected me with Veronica Dahlberg[the founder and executive director of HOLA Ohio, a grassroots organization.] We got along extremely well, and I went to Ohio several times and she took me everywhere — through her, I witnessed a deportation and went to vigils for people who’d died in the desert, some of the undocumented workers’ spouses who were trying to come back. Through her I met Elizabeth – we instantly hit it off and when I heard her story I decided that was the story I wanted to tell. It became a film about deportation, rather than immigration.

On the kids in the movie:

We see the kids change — they’re very young at the start, but as they get older they become very aware of what’s happening — you don’t think they know but they do. Rocky, the younger one, was so resistant to moving to Mexico and learning Spanish but you see, even just 8-9 months later, his Spanish becomes amazing, he’s got the accent and everything.

Marcos told me that scene had such an impact on him, seeing what the kids were going through while he was in Mexico.
Son Pele looks through a yellow wall. 

On the fates of other people seen in the film:

There are so many scenes with meetings of these people, many of whom later ended up being deported. So to watch the film now,  it’s mindblowing how many of them are gone, even from the marches. You wouldn’t know it but that’s really what’s happening.

On keeping in touch with Elizabeth and Marcos, and what they thought of the film:

I mostly email with Marcos. He wrote a beautiful note to me and my co-producer. He was very emotional and thought the film very accurate about them. But I’m always nervous about that. I showed it to Elizabeth, Veronica and the lawyer David Leopold. I am always uptight when I show it [to the subjects]. But apparently, Marcos watched it four times in a row, so that tells you something. The major thing he said aside from liking it was he found it accurate.“I want people to feel like they’re living in their skin, in an accurate way. I pride myself as a portraitist.”

Both Elizabeth and Marcos found their emotions and all that were very accurately depicted. And for me, I’m looking for mood, and I want people to feel like they’re living in their skin, in an accurate way. I pride myself on being a portraitist. And then the issues come out naturally. So if they found it accurate, even some of the scenes that are more painful or difficult, and were fine with it, then I’m happy.

The film is not an advocacy piece — they’re imperfect people. Anyone you’re going to follow like this, they’re not perfect, but they wouldn’t be interesting if they were and you wouldn’t care about them if they were — if you care about them enough to ask that question at the end, “what happens next,” even if you’re pro or anti-immigration, it means you were living in their skin, that you were concerned about them. If you’re still talking about them or worried about them and want to know more, it means you took a good look at a family going through deportation and understand.

Would you have any interest in doing a follow-up epilogue film with the family after that next period?

It’s a very good question. I never did a follow-up to The Farmer’s Wife. Usually, with all the longer-form documentaries, afterwards I often become friends. But that’s it for me.

On what he learned about immigration and deportation, and what else surprised him:

I didn’t realize how bad the pay was in the Yucatán for Marcos, too. He would make like $60 for 55 hours of work. If he found work. Also when he was living in Mexico City it was very dangerous — we had bodyguards. And we needed them.

Then there are ironies that you can’t escape. Like when they’re walking in Mexico City, they’re walking by the pictures of the 43 kids who were kidnapped and missing. Elizabeth talks about that throughout the film. She wants her kids to be safe. She’s telling the kids they have to pay attention, it’s ironic that they’re talking about that right when they walk past those pictures, and they’re like, what are those pictures — and it’s exactly on her fears. Ironies like that you can’t stage.

On his next film project:

I can say that I have a topic, and it’s not a secret, but I haven’t developed it enough to talk about it. I will tell you that it will be more than likely in some rural place — it usually is. People living on the margins. I seem to be drawn there. My wife always says, “Let’s go here or there” — and I have traveled a lot in my life — but I seem to always be drawn to these areas with people with a lot of social issues. And I like to follow them. And I think that’s what I was meant to be.

For an update on Elizabeth and Marcos’ lives and situation, read this note from Elizabeth herself.