Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, March 2007. ¡Sí, Se Puede!: (Yes, We Can!) by Brian Liloia. Pages 52 – 55.
Beginner Filmmakers Take the Plunge Creating A Meaningful Short Doc Exploring the Debate of Illegal Immigration in the US
During my senior year at The College of New Jersey, I got my first real taste of producing a documentary film. I had always been interested in documentary and thought I had a good understanding of the necessary elements for creating one. But there is so much more than meets the eye behind producing a documentary. The amount of effort and minute detail that goes on behind the scenes is extraordinary. I came to appreciate this small fact when I and a group of four other students set out to produce a short film regarding the theme of undocumented immigration within the United States.
Let’s rewind time back to February of 2006. When the time came to form groups and choose a topic for a project in my documentary production course, the issue of illegal immigration was present in the media, but not as “in your face” as it had become over the next few months. My partner Brittany, who was working in a Charlie Brown’s restaurant at the time, pitched the idea of talking to some of the undocumented immigrants who were working in the kitchen and to capture their stories. I liked this idea. Up until then, I couldn’t settle on a realistic topic that could be easily accomplished within the few short months available to us. So, why not? This seemed like a fine idea, and certainly worth the attention. So, it was settled. All we had to do was convince some of the restaurant workers to participate.
Brittany was very friendly with the restaurant crew, and we did not have too much trouble convincing our first soon-to-be subject to participate in the project. Carlos seemed unsure and a bit confused as to what it would entail, but he nevertheless agreed. Our group was probably just as clueless at the time, as our perception of the documentary was never quite clear. Yes, we wanted to tell Carlos’ story, hoping it would somehow illuminate the plight of the modern undocumented Mexican immigrant. But that was all we knew. How it would actually pan out, we had no idea.
We were all very much beginners. I had experience producing several short films for my other courses, from shooting to directing to editing, and even acting. I had created one previous documentary, but it was somewhat experimental in nature, and nothing like what we were now embarking on. My four other team members had almost non-existent filmmaking experience, other than Rob, who had worked as a camera operator for some other projects. Collectively, we were not very advanced. I knew that I would have to take charge and lead the group for the most part, due to the simple fact that I had a greater understanding of the filmmaking process, even though I’m certainly not the aggressive leader type, if a leader at all. But somehow, our group developed an excellent working chemistry, and we all pulled our weight. Luckily, Jocelyn and Kelsey were both bilingual, and they became our translators and interviewers. Brittany acted as producer, a kind of middleman between our group and the Charlie Brown’s restaurant and our subjects, always arranging times to shoot and keeping things organized. And Rob settled in as the other cameraman. Our group of five proved to be a determined bunch, and this was our most valuable asset.
Our attempts to lure in some of the other restaurant workers were unsuccessful, and we stuck with Carlos as our main subject for the time being. We started off simply capturing Carlos in his working environment. Initial shooting was slow and difficult, because getting access into the restaurant was tedious and dependent upon who was managing the restaurant that day. We typically started shooting only in the evenings, when the less strict of the managers was overseeing the restaurant. We used my own Canon GL-2, which I had recently purchased, and another Canon XL1, which had to be signed out from the school’s equipment reserve. The Canon GL-2 became our main camera simply because it was always available, and I became the main camera operator due to my greater camera experience. Our sound was completely dependent upon the single camera-mounted Rode shotgun microphone we were using. Unfortunately, we had no other options for capturing audio, and to this day it is the sound quality that bothers me most after constantly re-watching the final film.
Within a few weeks of actual production, we were finally able to sit Carlos down for our first official interview. Unfortunately, it was extremely hurried. One night after his work shift, we set up the interview in a back room of the hotel to which the restaurant was connected. We sat him down, and shot some questions at him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was very nervous and his answers were extremely short and terse, and certainly not what we had expected. We were unsatisfied with the results, and hoped this was not a trend that would continue through the project. We needed another interview. Not just that, we needed to get him at the right time, and relax him a bit before interviewing. So it was not any one party’s fault, I had learned. This was the first of many valuable lessons.
Throughout the upcoming weeks of shooting, I had come to believe that the course of our production was led by sheer chance. At some point early in the game, we learned of an ACLU panel discussion on the topic of immigration that was set to take place one evening on campus. We all left class early that night, and recorded the discussion.
Afterwards, we learned of an upcoming DREAM Act rally that would be taking place in Trenton. (The DREAM Act is a proposed bill that would remove responsibility for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children by their parents without their own consensual decision, and gives states the right to determine who will qualify for in-state college tuition.) Although the DREAM Act was not directly related to the theme we had in mind for our project, we decided to attend the rally anyway. After some problems trying to schedule an additional interview with Carlos, and issues with the restaurant management, we were open to any possible leads. We later attended the rally, and we were able to capture some useful footage, and talk with some folks that gave us yet more leads. It was exciting yet simultaneously daunting to know that the possibilities for our project were quickly expanding. Again, there was another valuable lesson that I learned after this rally: opportunities will arise that you might have never considered, but you must be prepared to act upon some of these, whether or not they will be beneficial in the long run.
About that same time as the DREAM Act rally in Trenton, the immigration debate started heating up in the media. Suddenly, the issue became a headline topic. More and more layers behind the seemingly simple topic of immigration were revealed. How would our team approach some of these important topics? Suddenly, there were a million directions we could pursue, and only telling the story of Carlos seemed too simplistic.
We eventually met Carlos’ brother Salvador, who worked more sporadically at the same Charlie Brown’s, in addition to another restaurant elsewhere. Like Carlos, Salvador was extremely friendly and personable. Unlike Carlos, Salvador had a much greater understanding of the immigration debate, and had strong beliefs regarding the issue. Not only that, but he could talk… and talk. We hooked him into our project, and we requested to do an interview with him and document his activities at the restaurant. With the introduction of Salvador, our project had become much more fleshed out. With two potential subjects, the possibilities had greatly expanded. Salvador came to fulfill an essential role in the film, and he ended up filling the position of the main subject.
Later on, we attended a major rally in Philadelphia, where thousands of immigrants had gathered . It was an exhausting affair trying to cover the sheer amount of action that day, and afterwards I was concerned that we may have missed something amidst all of the activity. We had only procured two small interviews with members from an immigrant workers’ support committee, and I was concerned that this may have been a blunder.
Anyway, we eventually sat down with Salvador for a lengthy interview, which went extremely well. Not to mention, we were able to sit with Carlos for a second interview, and the results were much more successful this go round. Jocelyn and Kelsey worked on translating their interview responses into English in preparation for post-production.
But there was still something missing, despite our progress thus far. Sure, we had a few interviews, and some usable rally and panel discussion footage, amongst some other potentially useful material, but our team knew that we needed to see firsthand Carlos and Salvador’s living situations. We had been requesting to visit their homes for some time now, but it proved to be quite a challenge to make it actually happen. It was very unclear where Carlos was living, but we knew Salvador lived somewhere in Princeton. (As we later learned after the project had wrapped, Carlos was actually living in a Lowe’s home improvement store. Unfortunately, I never learned the specifics about how he ended up there.) The first time we were scheduled to visit them, they would not answer their phones. We could not procure their addresses, so we had arranged to call them the proposed day of the visit so we could meet them. We never found out why they didn’t answer, but we knew they were very uncomfortable with us seeing their homes. We assured them that they should not be ashamed, and that showing people their living conditions would be for the better. After a few weeks and some more talking, we finally set up another time to meet at Salvador’s home in Princeton. That day of shooting proved to be immensely successful. It was the final element that would tie the documentary together, and end the production phase of the project.
Before sitting down to begin post-production, I thought the editing would be a daunting process. All said and done, we had about three weeks to complete the task. I had been logging and capturing footage throughout the production period so I would not be swamped with the tedious task at the very end. My approach to editing the documentary was somewhat atypical, but the workflow I developed somehow held up. Since I myself am not very well-versed in Spanish, I depended upon Jocelyn and Kelsey’s written translations to sift through the interview footage with Carlos and Salvador. My handle of the language isn’t completely nonexistent, so I was able to match up most of the footage with the translated text on my own. I went through the interview documents and highlighted particular statements I felt best suited the aim of the project, and used these key elements to construct a loose framework for the “story”. I knew exactly how I wanted to start the documentary, and once I had those first few shots on the timeline, I was no longer intimidated by the task at hand. Somehow, what once seemed like completely random action, rally and panel footage came together to support a cohesive narrative. I edited the documentary in nearly chronological order, using specific interview segments to support an overall framework, and after a while something began to take shape. If anything, the most challenging aspect of editing was creating and matching up the subtitles to Carlos and Salvador’s speech. It was extremely tedious, and took a long time to perfect. I did it all within Final Cut Pro using the plain old text tool. Anyway, our group continually reviewed the footage as the project was being edited, and finally we were satisfied with what we had. I found some surprisingly appropriate copyright-free music and still images through online resources, and included some brief segments from the evening news that we somehow luckily (and randomly) taped one night. We settled on ¡Sí, Se Puede! as our title for the film after hearing the phrase being chanted ad infinitum at the rallies we attended. Again, as if by sheer chance, everything seemed to mesh, and post-production wrapped with a final, fourteen-minute short documentary born out of our tens of dozens of hours of work.
The final film documents Carlos and Salvador’s experiences working in the United States, hoping to be able to support their families back home in Mexico. Set against the immigration reform debate at that time, ¡Sí, Se Puede! makes clear the simple desires of undocumented workers, and the conditions they face in trying to achieve their goals.
¡Si, Se Puede! proved to be pretty successful, earning one festival screening at the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival (in Massachusetts), and distribution in the Journal of Short Film, a grassroots, quarterly DVD publication that features various shorts from around the world.
Unfortunately, we were not able to submit our film to very many festivals due to the costs, but we did what we could. Thankfully, the film has gained a small bit of attention on the web, and it has had a couple other minor screenings and distribution opportunities since last year.
Overall, the entire experience had been extremely rewarding. Working with my group members, and gaining the trust and friendship of Salvador and Carlos was very fulfilling. We all formed a great bond with them, and it was sad knowing I might never see them again once the project had wrapped. There were many lessons to be learned spending time with Salvador and Carlos, and the documentary production proved, in more ways than one, to be an enlightening learning experience, and it is something that I will not easily forget. On top of that, knowing that our short film has earned even a small level of attention has been very satisfying, and this project has proven to be one of the most significant and rewarding of all the adventures I’ve had during my college career.
Brian Liloia is 22 years old and graduated from The College of New Jersey with a degree in Interactive Multimedia. Most interested by the possibilities of DIY filmmaking, he plans to produce video and documentary work when he moves to an ecovillage community in Missouri this spring. He hopes to raise awareness about the importance of ecological and cultural sustainability through film, while living a self-sufficient, and eco-friendly lifestyle himself. Visit www.small-scale.net and