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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Married MacArthur ‘geniuses’ explore border politics and immigration


Judy Woodruff: Last year’s MacArthur Fellow recipients were among the most diverse since the foundation began presenting the so-called Genius Awards 40 years ago.

Two of the recent grantees are married Latin American filmmakers who work on US immigration and border policy.

Jeffrey Brown visited them at their California home for our ongoing Canvas art and culture series.

Speaker: My mother belongs to the Martha Washington Society.

Geoffrey Brown: A documentary that explores an unexpected slice of Mexican-American life, an annual debutante ball in the border town of Laredo, Texas.

A 2014 film called “Las Martas” was directed by Cristina Ibarra.

Cristina Ibarra, documentary filmmaker: There was something else here. It was a deep story that has played out ever since. I felt it needed to be told in a new way.

Geoffrey Brown: A sci-fi thriller set in the near future that follows a tangled web of technology, migration and the workforce. Sleep Trader 2008 directed by Alex Rivera.

Alex Rivera, director and media artist: Science fiction has always been used to talk about the fears in our society, the fears in our economy. And Sleep Dealer, I hoped, was part of that tradition.

Geoffrey Brown: Ibarra and Rivera met on a film project 25 years ago and have been making films ever since, mostly separately.

Christina Ybarra: I’m Cristina Ybarra.

Geoffrey Brown: Now the first married couple to be named a MacArthur Fellow for their individual work that same year, both have been recognized for their study of border issues and socioeconomic injustice.

Christina Ybarra: From the very beginning there was an idea, how can I help my family?

Geoffrey Brown: Ibarra grew up in the border town of El Paso, watched both Mexican and American television, but felt invisible.

Christina YbarraA: And I discovered the power of images. And I started getting this turmoil inside of me because I realized I never saw myself.

And if I could take a camera and just go and tell the stories that resonated with me growing up, then I feel like I would be a different person. So, in a way, my filmmaking is a way to get back home to talk to that young girl.

Geoffrey Brown: Rivera grew up in an immigrant family in New York. His father is from Peru.

Alex Rivera: When I started to think that I could make films, I had a question, what are you going to make films about? And that was in the mid-1990s. And here in California, there were anti-immigrant self-defense movements. There were anti-immigrant proposals at the state level.

And so I felt like, wow, these people on the news, these immigrants, these aliens, that’s me. And that’s us. So, I’m going to make films right there. I’m going to go and intervene in this conversation.

And I thought it would be a movie. On the contrary, it was life.

Geoffrey Brown: She is 49 years old, she is more involved in documentaries. He, 48, has been involved in drama and video collaborations with immigration advocacy groups.

Speaker: Most immigrants go through or some kind of purgatory on the way out of the country, a temporary detention center.

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Geoffrey Brown: In 2019, they teamed up to film an unusual hybrid, part documentary, part dramatic re-enactment called The Infiltrators together.

Speaker: One question. How can I login?

Geoffrey BrownA: Again, immigration has been the focus.

The film follows a group of undocumented activists who infiltrate a Florida detention center to draw attention to detainees awaiting deportation. It featured actors, as well as interviews with real people they play, a documentary part of the film outside the detention center, a dramatic part inside.

Alex Rivera: When you start thinking about immigration in our society and really look at immigration enforcement, there is so much that we are not supposed to see that we are not allowed to see.

Christina Ybarra: But it was a form that was born out of necessity, not necessarily out of a desire to be a feature film, but out of a desire to create a powerful story.

Geoffrey Brown: There are rules to these things, right, but there are also ways to break them creatively sometimes? It looks like what you are describing.

Alex Rivera: The creativity of this was balanced by research and just trying to confirm the facts wherever possible. And so we will have to go into uncharted territory, perhaps in terms of documentaries.

And we’ve never seen a movie work the way this one started. When we created it, we thought, “Wow, is this really weird, like taking surveillance footage of a real person walking away from the camera and into prison and turning him into an actor who is going to continue his journey?

And we don’t know if we’re going to make it, submit it, be attacked and fail. But we felt that it was interesting for us to see it.

Geoffrey Brown: They also want to challenge the status quo in the film industry and bring in new voices behind and in front of the camera.

Christina Ybarra: Staying on your path and trying to do something bold and create something like a new cinematic language is incredibly difficult.

But I see that there are opportunities to influence the system with this knowledge that we create by trying to tell our stories.

Alex Rivera: Our whole generation of Latin American filmmakers in this country was really cut off from Hollywood. This is a consequence of life in a country where our realities are not reflected in popular culture.

That was our situation, we are trying to build this culture, to build a cinema without the support of the film industry.

Geoffrey Brown: Now, in this family of twin geniuses, both directors are working on new projects: Cristina Ibarra is on a more personal documentary about her own family history in El Paso, and Alex Rivera is set to write and direct a drama called Zorro 2.0. “upgrading the masked vigilante to a modern-day undocumented hacker.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown from Pasadena, California.

Judy Woodruff: The Two Geniuses of MacArthur.

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