Rodrigo Reyes speaks on the path and pain of migrant workers, and why he believes it's more crucial than ever to humanize those at the center of this national conversation.
Where did you draw your inspiration for Lupe Under the Sun/Bajo el Sol?
Lupe came from a very interesting series of coincidences. At first I wanted to make a documentary about peach pickers in the California fields. As I was preparing for that film, I discovered that my family had a secret. The secret was that my grandpa had disappeared in the U.S. for five years. He was a migrant laborer and would go back and forth between one country and the next. But at some point he stopped coming home. Nobody knew what he was up to and nobody could find him. One morning, he suddenly shows up back home. He never explained his absence. He never told people what he was doing. I knew I had to change my movie, I had to engage with this story. What was he up to? What would bring someone to that place when they’re lost and they lose touch with their family and disappear?
At one point in the film, Lupe stops to look at a vintage American flag through a shop window. It's a pretty powerful moment. Can you expand on the collision between the American dream and Lupe’s reality as an (undocumented) farm worker?
Lots of people find themselves in that situation where the dream doesn’t really matter anymore. All that matters is that he has this incredible pain in his heart that he actually doesn’t know how to deal with. The question of his status actually makes his situation more interesting, in that you as a viewer have to realize that you could be assuming he has no documents when maybe he does. Either way, the pain is still there.
What this film does, especially for U.S. audiences, is that it resets the way we think about immigration in abstract, black and white terms, and allows us to see specific human beings. Lupe brings that human being to the forefront and puts the story of this man on a pedestal—a cinematic pedestal—and just treats him with complete respect. All the political issues are forgotten and we have to focus on his pain.
The color white is a recurring motif throughout this film. For instance, Lupe carries a white rose when visiting his lover. What does that represent?
The film uses repetition as a narrative device. At times, this means that you don’t know when you’re seeing a dream or when you’re in real life. There are several very subtle symbols that make the rhythm work and come together, but I do not actually want to offer a clear interpretation. I want folks just to go into the film and come to their own conclusions about that. I want audiences to ask themselves: what is the poetry inside this man’s heart? And if you really connect with the film you will feel a very strong emotional echo. I have found that to be true wherever the film has been shown, whether in London or in the United States and even in Mexico itself. There is something that really connects because if you’re willing to follow this man then you’ve discovered another universe. And it is the sum of all of those little details, the colors, the images and their repetitions, that bring you into his universe.
There is very little dialogue throughout the movie, which makes it quite affecting when Lupe does finally speak. The first time we really hear his voice is when he says he wants to return to Mexico. Why wait until late into the film for Lupe to break his silence?
I feel like often we over-dramatize these communities. When they end up in a film, they end up melodramatic. But Lupe is a man who doesn’t speak; he doesn’t express himself. If you ever meet a person going through the situation that Lupe is in, you realize that their depression is marked by silence. It’s the biggest trait. When I screened the film recently for the community of Merced, where it was actually shot, everyone was surprised by how authentic it felt. His silence is exactly the problem. He doesn’t have the tools to talk about emotions. So he becomes like a stone. His heart has hardened into a stone and he doesn’t know how to speak out.
In terms of the authenticity of the characters in the movie, can you speak a little about the actors in the film and why you chose them?
They are all nonprofessional actors, they are all real farmworkers. Danny, the lead, has worked in the fields his entire life. He’s been in the U.S. since the early 80s. Together with his wife, they bring something to the film that is very special because we avoid the Hollywood-ization of this story. For instance, Lupe has the body of a real worker because Danny the actor has actually been working his entire life! The same goes with his wife, Ana, who is a woman of the countryside.
This creates a unique window for us as an audience in the USA; it brings us into a world that we have no clue about. We have never seen this relationship. We have never actually spent time with these folks to understand what their lives are made up of, and what Lupe is going through. To me, it was very important that we use these nonprofessional actors because it brings us into that world in a very real way. It allows us to celebrate the stories that live all around us, within all sorts of communities that are out there but that we have ignored for so long.
You touched a little bit on the context of this immigration debate. You’re in Mexico now, what's the atmosphere over there like on the eve of our very contentious, racially-charged election. What point of view does your film add to documented or undocumented immigrants coming from Latin America to the United States?
[Editor's Note: This interview occurred just prior to the 2016 Presidential Election decision]
I’m here in Mexico presenting the film at the Morelia Film Festival, and there is a lot of apprehension as to what is going to happen in the election. Is the U.S. really going to elect a person who is so aggressive and racist and so destructive? What is going to happen to the U.S. – Mexico relationship? We have to think hard about this here in the United States.
In that sense, I want Lupe to help us reset our perspective by re-imagining the controversy around immigration. I want us to sit at the table with these folks and travel with them. I think this is very important because we’re entering a period where we have to heal our country. We are going to have to find a way to get over all the negativity. One of the ways we do that is by connecting with the pain of other people.
This is not to say that all immigrants have depression like Lupe does, but it is a big part of the experience in these communities. We should feel surprised and humbled by how much people pay to pursue the specter of the American Dream.
How do you see educators, students, and community groups utilizing this film in order to portray its message?
In the screenings that we’ve done, it’s been impressive to see how communities of color react to watching this film because this story speaks directly to their experience. The situation in the film is very common because everyone has someone in his or her family who has become a ghost and disappeared.
For educators, Lupe really helps them shed light on the very personal effects of all these systemic issues. Whether you are studying border politics or human rights, or even how to connect and work with these communities as part of social actions, you need to know how to connect with the pain of the community you are servicing in an authentic way. I feel that Lupe does this really well.
I have done several screenings where people come to me overwhelmed because their perspective on the issue has changed. Through this emotional connection, Lupe challenges our expectations about immigration and it helps reset to the conversation. The film is rich with opportunities to unpack the story and the themes in many ways.
For instance, I can easily envision an entire program on depression in immigrant communities. This is such an underestimated and devastating problem facing many different immigrant communities across the country.
Have you experienced firsthand the reality of immigrating between Mexico and the U.S.?
I was born in Mexico and I did immigrate. I grew up between Mexico and the United States since I was six years old. For me, these stories are extremely personal because they come from the overlap of my identities, from the fact that I have one foot in each country. These are the stories that I have to tell.
Drawing on that experience as an immigrant child, what would you say to other immigrant children here in Los Angeles and throughout the United States? How does your film help them come to terms with the immigrant experience?
One of the developments that has really surprised me—happily of course—is the notion of taking pride in your own story, of feeling empowered by seeing your stories on the big screen.
When Danny’s granddaughter saw the film she felt so incredibly proud of her grandfather. It was amazing. She’s very young, still in elementary school, and has not encountered the context of negativity and discrimination that is out there. But now, thanks to the film, she’s already rethinking her place in the world. She feels proud of her identity.
I guess in a nutshell, for communities of color, what Lupe says is that “Your story matters.” That is an incredibly empowering feeling.
To me, Lupe is an unusual film that presents a very unique opportunity, especially for educators who are trying to connect with the immigrant experience. This is a chance to see a story from real life that can energize our understanding. This is what makes the film so special.
Yasmeen Hussain is currently interning at GOOD DOCS. Originally from Southern California, she holds her law degree in international human rights and is passionate about Latino immigration rights. She has dedicated her career to public service.