Marcos and Elizabeth Perez in Mexico.

“Marcos” Director David Sutherland: ‘I want you to see up close what a family goes through with deportation’

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April 15, 2019
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by Catherine Trautwein Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

(Leer en Español)

In FRONTLINE’s documentary Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, veteran filmmaker David Sutherland explores what happens when a family is divided by borders. By zeroing in on one couple, the film — shot over more than three years — provides an intimate look at a complicated immigration system that affects millions of people.

Sutherland’s film follows US Marine veteran Elizabeth Perez and her husband Marcos, a Mexican citizen who was deported in 2010. The couple married after Marcos’ deportation and have mostly lived apart since then. At the start of filming, the couple had two boys; since then, their family has grown to include two girls.

In a conversation with FRONTLINE, Sutherland went beyond the boundaries of the film to discuss scenes he felt “lucky” to have caught, alternate titles of the film, and the documentary’s far-from fairytale ending.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you find Elizabeth and Marcos, and why did you choose them for your film?

I actually had chosen a couple of other subjects. Marcos Doesn’t Live Here [Anymore] was originally called Dreamers, and then it became Semper Fidelis when I chose Elizabeth – meaning “always faithful,” to her husband or to the military and the country. Stories evolve.

I was looking for somebody to show up close, something about immigration. I went to [the] annual meeting [of the National Domestic Workers Alliance] in Washington. While I was there, I get a call. My son had a friend that worked at La Raza. He told me about this woman in Ohio who he thought I would get along with, Veronica Dahlberg, who ran HOLA. [Her group] is like a last resort. If you’re ready to leave town because ICE is after you or you have to turn yourself in to ICE, they’ll go with you, they’ll help you get an immigration lawyer. They register people to vote, they go to Congress. They’ll do everything.

They’re in about four or five towns in Ohio. I started to meet a lot of these people that were in this group, they were undocumented.

I would come back and forth. I had been out there about four times for a couple of weeks each time, and Veronica would usually have somebody pick me up. Elizabeth Perez picked me up as a favor — she wasn’t looking to be in the film. She picked me up and was taking me to the airport. It was three hours ahead of time and we started to talk about her husband, her case, just in general, and we got along. I started to think about doing a film about her, maybe doing a parallel action story about deportation.

The film became more about the cost of deportation. And then I started to get into: Since [Marcos] Skypes so much, why not follow both of them? So I developed a story more in Mexico, too, following his life. That was a major change in the thrust of this story.

How long did you shoot for?

I think the first shoot was around January 2014. As it went on and I started to see what I was getting out of the story, I wanted to do it. I’m also getting older. I started to go through retirement money. So the question was how am I going to finish it? The timeline was sometimes dictated [by] not having the money to shoot.

Sometimes we would go out there for almost a month. In [my previous film], The Farmer’s Wife, I would stay for two months — this story didn’t lend itself to that. Because the changes would come, or sometimes there’d be no change. But then there were scenes that happened that you get lucky on.

As you filmed, did you find other people going through situations similar to Elizabeth and Marcos?

The reason I knew it was a common story [was] when I used to go to these HOLA meetings and I was scouting for subjects, I would meet tons of these possible subjects, go to their houses; we would go to events with HOLA together in a van. When you talk about what’s going on around us, or being at people’s houses — and “So-and-so’s been deported,” or is hiding out or has been caught by ICE — but some of these people are getting scooped up. In this film, I really, really knew so many of these people that have been deported that it’s so scary.

I’ve seen two people become citizens. In that sense when you ask me about deportation, the story got stronger and stronger for me the longer I would go back to Ohio, not just around Elizabeth, about how it was getting worse and worse and people that had been there a long time were being scooped up.

That’s why when I look at the film, if you sat next to me, I might whisper in your ear, do you see her, do you see him, that’s Ellie, that’s Rosa, that’s Manuel. It blows my mind every time I watch the film.

What do you want viewers to walk away with?

I’m not looking to tell you that Marcos necessarily should be one of the first ones to be brought back. And I’m not saying he shouldn’t be. [Elizabeth] did a lot of work for the country. And I’m not trying to tell you that Elizabeth, even though she served this country, that necessarily, that you have to decide to bring [Marcos] back. Even in the short time we’ve had stuff up on Facebook, I’ve had a few comments like, “Why him?” The bottom line is I want you to go through the experience of witnessing a family dealing with deportation and what it does to the family. They get more and more depressed.

They’re good people but they’re imperfect people. And most of us are. I just want you to see what they’re going through. I want you to see up close what a family goes through with deportation.

And then there’s another topic, it’s a big issue in this film: Will they remember how to live together? Because they haven’t lived together very long. That is very common and often people get divorced. But she’s very devoted. She’s going to get him back and they’re going to stay together. You hear it a number of times although the years keep going by.

I never thought the ending would get that dark, where I leave you off. It’s not necessarily the ending — but I never thought that it was going to end up there, when I went to the Yucatan, that they [there’d] be fighting. But that’s the price, and I know they’re still hoping to get together.

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