In California’s Central Valley, tucked between the county jail and the shooting range, 100 Mexican-American farmworking families live, love and strive at the Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center. Until every December, that is, when they’re asked to leave.
The Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center is home to 100 Mexican-American families whose careers are dedicated to tending California’s economic engine: agriculture. Yet, due to an antiquated set of policies, families must uproot their lives every December, move out of their apartments, remove their children from school, and travel 2,000 miles back to Mexico for at least three months. Despite U.S. citizenship and decades of contributions, this annual forced migration obstructs families’ ability to participate fully as citizens.
Como Vivimos is, on hand, a sociological analysis of state power and of the construction of second-class citizenship through bureaucratic machinery. But more centrally, the film’s point-of-view is grounded in the experiences of resident families. Through a year in the life of Artesi II, we’ll observe as families cultivate an alternative sense of belonging through ritual and community.
Georgia State University Summer Research Grant (2020, 2021)
This is a film about belonging and citizenship. It asks what it means to belong, who belonging is permitted to, and how people negotiate the systems and situations that draw boundaries around their sense of belonging. Where are their resiliencies and resistances?
First constructed in 1965 on the heels of the Bracero program, California’s Migrant Family Housing Centers were designed to serve those who traveled yearly from Mexico to the United States for agricultural work. Today, 24 such Centers are scattered across the 450 miles of Central Valley land on which are grown 2/3 of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. Operated by the Office of Migrant Services (OMS), a program of the State’s Department of Housing and Community Development, each Center is a gated apartment complex of two- three- and four-bedroom apartments that provides temporary, subsidized housing to families who work this land every year.
But in order to be able to access this affordable housing option, families must remain migratory. When the harvest season ends in late fall or early winter, the centers close for residence. At that point, families are required by state regulations to vacate their apartments and live “outside a 50-mile radius of the centers for at least 3 months” during the off-season in order to be eligible to move back into the centers the following year.
In the Artesi II housing center where Como Vivimos takes place, the centers are open for residence for nine months each year, from March 15 through December 15. This means that by December 15, families must pack up all their belongings and move to a location at least 50 miles away for a period of at least three months. A short-term lease in a nearby town on a farmworking salary is a difficult find in California’s housing shortage. Most families choose a more feasible though no more convenient alternative; they retire their belongings to storage, park their cars in a friend’s lot, pull their children out of school, and return to Mexico for the off-season. The 100 families living in the Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center in French Camp hail largely from Michoacán and return there each year. Though the Centers were originally intended to house migratory families only temporarily, may of the families living in Artesi II have been repeating this same cycle for years, if not generations.
Saratoga Springs, New York is a white and affluent town of 28,000 whose tourist economies are maintained by the labor of people who migrate to the US annually. “How to Tell a True Immigrant Story” is a poetic and participatory metanarrative that weaves together experiences of members of the Latinx immigrant community in Saratoga Springs as they respond to increased ICE activity and anti-immigrant sentiment after the 2016 presidential election. The film aims to expand understanding of experiences otherwise reduced to politically expedient constructs while marshaling the surveillance logic of 360 video to interrogate ways that documentary itself has potential to operate, like a border protection interview, to “make accessible” (Trinh T. Minh-ha) those who are otherwise marked other.
Ten years ago, Ele Martinez crossed the border from his hometown of La Sabana in Oaxaca, Mexico, into Texas and made his way up to upstate New York where his uncle lived among a small but thriving community of indigenous Triqui people. Since the 2016 elections, the Triqui community in Saratoga has declined significantly.
In this short film (07:00) produced and exhibited in 360º video, Ele reflects upon the disruptions of literal and figurative border-crossings and the ways in which his roots continue to inform the new life he is successfully building for himself in the U.S.
Reflecting Ele’s experiences of holding multiple histories, locations and communities across locations at once, the film includes “flat” HD video shot and shared by Jake DeNicola and Bernardo Rios while filming with Ele in Oaxaca.
In 2005, filmmaker Deb Rudman released a film documenting Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s (PHS) City Harvest program.
Through this program, inmates of the Philadelphia Prison System receive training in gardening and basic landscaping along with valuable life-skills. 250,000 seedlings are then transplanted and grown in 140 urban farms and gardens throughout the city, as well as in the prison’s onsite garden.
In 2015, Deb decided to begin shooting new material to commemorate 10 years of growth and to illustrate the remarkable expansion of the City Harvest program throughout Philadelphia, growth that is an inspiring testament to the power of city-wide, nonprofit collaborations; social service support; educational programming and entrepreneurial support.
As part of the Termite TV Collective alongside Debbie, I wanted to support the effort to edit this bounty of material that Debbie was collecting of City Harvest’s expansion. I integrated the project into my Digital Editing course at Georgia State University. Students in the course worked alone or in small teams as assistant editors to log and organize all the material. We held in-depth conversations about the themes of the film; relevant background contexts; and structural options. From these conversations, students developed insightful rough cuts of scenes to which Debbie gave feedback in video chats and Google docs.
One student from this class, Petra Goettel, was then brought on to work over summer 2019 to finish the edits. Petra’s contributions took the film from a collection of tightly-edited scenes to a full film with beginning, middle, and end; thematic throughlines; smooth transitions; and emotionally engaging content.
We are editing this film now and aim for release in January 2020. All participating students will be credited as Assistant Editors.
An ongoing collaboration with immigrant rights organizer in Stockton, California, Luis Magaña, to preserve the stories of Bracero farmworkers in the San Joaquin Delta region while investigating the ways in which Bracero histories inform today’s policies and experiences of immigration.
In 2013, I was living in San Francisco and obsessed with an astounding mural which honored the lives of people who risked or lost their lives crossing the US-Mexico border. In San Francisco’s gluttonous building boom, this mural was being covered brick-by-brick day after day, (re) erasing the stories that the mural had helped bring to light.
My research into the provenance of the mural led me to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the youth advocacy group, 67 Sueños (67 Dreams). Together we wanted to preserve the spirit of the mural if not the mural itself, to publicly honor a history of emigration from Central America and Mexico to the US and some of the struggle contained therein.
Our team, which included my filmmaking partner, Andrew Bateman, partnered with Luis Magaña in 2013 on a California Humanities “Community Stories” grant to record video oral histories with Bracero farmworkers living in and near Stockton, California, a port city about 70 miles east of Oakland and deep in the fertile lands of the Central Valley.
Our oral history project resulted in several outcomes. Firstly, the Bracero oral histories were so successfully executed that Luis screens these short films in classroom and community events as a way of demonstrating. Secondly, the youth activist-participants of 67 Sueños received training in media production as they served as production apprentices. The youth also took what they were learning from the oral histories and partnered with a muralist to create a traveling mural, “Abuelito Fue Bracero” (Grandpa was a Bracero) that illustrates Bracero histories and contributions.
Between 2013 and 2016, we continued to work with Luis to extend the work and values that undergird the mural: preserving farmworker histories both as a means of honoring the contributions of people whose sacrifices have contributed to the standard of living in this country; while also opening space for dialogue about ways these histories inform, influence and help us make sense of our current moment. This kind of historical context can help to dispel the myth of meritocracy, framing current economic struggles within the broader landscape of US-Mexico relations.
An example of a documentary piece that emerged from our ongoing collaboration follows:
Documentary (DOC) 150: Introduction to Documentary Storymaking is the first course in the five-course consortial LVAIC Documentary Minor. In the Fall 2018 section of the course, 16 students enrolled from the three institutions in the consortium: Muhlenberg College, Lehigh University, and Lafayette College.
The students ranged from sophomores to seniors. Some were serious students of media production with plans to complete the Minor in Documentary Storymaking, while others are housed in distant disciplines and are hoping for a fun, (maybe easy) creative elective.
I designed DOC 150 to build on my interests in decolonizing documentary practices and on an earlier community-based documentary production class designed by Aggie, which included a partnership with Allentown nonprofit, Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild (POWER) Lehigh Valley (then POWER Northeast).
This year, I partnered DOC 150 with community nonprofit, the Allentown Coalition for Economic Dignity (ACED), a subcommittee of POWER Lehigh Valley. A storytelling partnership with DOC 150 was a mission-fit for ACED. As an organization of researchers, organizers, and educators, ACED aims to ensure that the steps taken to address community development are representative of community desires. ACED does this by creating opportunities for community dialogue, soliciting community input, and delivering that input to city officials to push for strategies and solutions that will serve the community and will address rather than exacerbate racial and economic inequities (ACED, n.d.).
The course’s partnership with ACED was made stronger through the support of a Mellon Community Engagement grant from Muhlenberg College, which allowed for the hiring of a teaching assistant, Drew Swedberg, and classroom support from Assessment and Outreach Librarian at Muhlenberg College, Jess Denke. Jess and Drew are also lead organizers of ACED and thus served as powerful bridges between community and classroom.
Over the course of the semester, DOC 150 became a space through which students could enact documentary principles toward supporting ACED’s work to lift up community voices and inform policy decisions. Students dove into this work with great enthusiasm, even though half the class lived as far away as Easton. We started the semester studying critical pedagogy, documentary histories, documentary authority, and documentary risks. We discussed the differences between a charity and justice framework and analyzed the differences between storytelling that reinforces the myth of the individual and storytelling that instead draws our attention to systems and structures that shape the individual. We guided students in thinking about their own “location” (Coles, 1997) relative to the issues and to the communities with which they would be engaging.
Their first assignments asked students to document each other to practice listening, interviewing, and making story selections. We watched these short, edited profiles as a class so that students could experience and reflect upon how it feels to have one’s story in someone else’s hands and available to the public. Next, students worked in small teams to produce short profiles of a person, organization, or issue that demonstrated the ways in which issues of development were intersecting with their own lives. For example, students made pieces about a nonprofit at which they had volunteered and about the ways that their own universities were gobbling up neighborhoods in expansion efforts. In this way, we were hoping to disrupt the facile documentary impulse to “make a film on/about the ‘others’” (Minh-ha, 1991, p. 60) and, instead, to foster in students a sense of themselves as cohabitants of the same ecosystem with regards to the issues even if affected by the issues differentially.
With a foundation in questions of vulnerability and responsibility, we moved into studying those specific issues facing Allentown’s urban core. In addition to readings, screenings, and conversations with community representatives, students engaged with the issues by way of a video editing exercise. The class’s teaching assistant, Drew, had shot several interviews with community members and organizers in Allentown reflecting on how the City’s development efforts were affecting long-term residents. Students were tasked with editing together interviews with visual material (what is customarily called “BRoll”) into a two to three minute short video that could have a beginning, middle, and end; engage audiences with the issues; and add to the dialogue without reinforcing myths or stereotypes. Students worked in small groups of two or three, each team editing from the same collection of recorded video material. We watched all the edits as a class to understand how the same video can be shaped differently in different hands. Drew and I then selected one version that most successfully met the project criteria to open a public forum hosted by ACED at the public library.
Acclimating to the issues and community perspectives by way of pre-existing / already-shot video material allowed us to work out some of the student’s questions or confusions in the safe space of the classroom, before entering into the community. In editing these interviews, students inquired into the highest priorities for ACED, data and informational contexts for further framing the issues, and relationships between images, interviews, narrative structure, and audience. In one conversation, for example, we wondered what information to include in the videos if the primary audience for the short films were City officials versus community members, two constituencies with different needs and perspectives. Due to the inquiry-based model of classroom discussions and the diligence with which students worked, the winning video that screened at the ACED public event was inspiring and generated robust community dialogue. This helped to reinforce our relationship with ACED, securing their confidence in the students’ thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
For their final projects, students worked in teams of four to pursue stories of relevance to ACED’s efforts. Story possibilities were gathered by Drew, who surveyed community leaders for ideas. Four stories were produced: a profile of an intentional, mixed-income housing community; a profile of ACED itself; a profile of young bikers who enact their freedom and vision for the city through city-wide rides; and a profile of a community activist who aims to protect the social fabric of neighborhoods she has known nearly all her life. Students were guided throughout every step of their process. They did preliminary interviews without cameras in order to gather information and start forming relationships of trust with people who would be featured in their documentaries. They wrote reflections after each conversation or shoot and the course instructors would comment on their reflections and questions. Students also practiced being accountable to each other in that they were responsible for evaluating team members’ participation and contributions.
Due to a grant from the Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium (LVEHC), we were able to support a public forum at the end of the fall 2018 semester to include a screening of student works. The December 13th event included a viewing of the four student films, spoken word poetry, step performances, and community testimonials and political action. After each performance or screening, an ACED organizer would introduce an issue or effort, point the audience to a place in the room where they could take an action—sign a petition, register their personal perspective, send a postcard to City Council, etc. It was an evening that brought together a wide array of perspectives, leveraged those perspectives into action, and met ACED’s mission of complicating the stories told about development. City officials, members of the Allentown Police Department, organizers, educators, and Muhlenberg College faculty and staff attended the event, forging coalition and inviting new stakeholders into ACED’s mission to lift up community voices and push Allentown towards development efforts that are dialogical rather than destructive. The films produced through this collaboration will be available for viewing on the newly released LVEHC Digital Archive.
In 2013, London’s Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF), in partnership with the British Museum, launched the first-ever US tour of the Cylinder of Cyrus the Great. This cylinder is a clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform in which King Cyrus the Great in 539 BC celebrated his victory over Nabonidus to take control over Babylon. Inscribing a tablet with a victory statement was a common practice at the time, something like an inaugural address, but what set Cyrus’s tablet apart from rulers before him was that he promised a more benevolent rule in which people would be free to worship as they pleased.
Throughout the 20th century, the Cylinder has held a contested space in the Iranian self-narrative, located somewhere between the “first human rights charter” and a nationalistic relic. The executive director of IHF at that time, Haleh Anvari, had a bold idea to bring the Cylinder out of its venerable and academic museum context and to use the tour as a way of shining a light on the vast experiences and perspectives of the Iranian diaspora, as reflected in the Cylinder.
For my part, I wanted to explore the cylinder as serving dual purposes in developing certain national and/or pesronal mythologies.
While making this film, I was preoccupied by two images. One of which I discovered while browsing through the unique community library and public experiment, the Prelinger Library. The library is primarily a collection of 19th and 20th century historical ephemera, periodicals, maps, and books much of which is in the public domain. The library specializes in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.
In 1979 at the height of revolution & one month before the king of Iran fell, activist students stormed the US embassy to expose US intervention in Iranian affairs. Those working in the embassy tried to protect the classified documents housed there by shredding everything.
You can see a scene of this recreated in the 2012 US produced film, ARGO, directed by Ben Affleck of all people.
These shredded documents, it is said, were then pieced back together by carpet weavers or young people and published for the world to understand how the US was interfering in Iranian affairs.
I was intrigued by this image and others like it of reassembled, re-constructed State Department documents. I was interested in the factual history here, the machinations of the US authorities to steer the revolution toward something amenable to US interests. But I was also intrigued by the image as visual metaphor, an invitation to read between the lines
And I saw here some visual symmetry between these paper shards stitched into cohesive sentences of political machinery, and the Cylinder itself. See the parallels below.
Two incomplete documents stitched into complete (or seemingly complete) narratives. You can see the symmetry really well if you flip the cylinder image vertically.
So this was my departure point. How do these two “artifacts” speak to one another? What resonances are there between these two moments: the moment in which the students of 1979 discovered themselves and their country through the probing eyes of the US state, and this current moment in which our community is being asked to see ourselves through the Cylinder, held up as a symbol of the best in Iranian values. What are the various narratives that impose themselves on the Iranian nation-state, by what political or sociopolitical interests are these narratives motivated, and how do they ultimately shape how we see ourselves as political subjects? These are the questions behind the film that I contributed to 7Sides.
The 7Sides film is more than a collection. It is one film spoken through 7 different voices. It’s a film whose language is best understood as a whole. The collection in whole is thought-provoking, sometimes elegiac, sometimes scathingly critical and always necessary conversation led by leading scholar-artists in the Iranian American community.
Inheritance (2012, 27min) is an autobiographical journey that began from the question: what personal or interpersonal wounds do we bear as political subjects? Through conversations and observations in my childhood home, I guide the viewer through an excavation of the detritus that settled around (or cushioned?) our splintering family as we navigated the uneven terrains of Revolution, divorce, and eventually, self-imposed exile.
The film’s inquiries unfold through a collage of images, forms, voices and eras. Archival images of the polls in which millions of Iranians voted for an Islamic Republic pipe in through a television set in the U.S., thirty years later. Images of an absent father swirl amidst fragments of historical memory. The quotidian clangings of the kitchen collide against the shrieks of a political system in turmoil.
Inheritance embraces the personal as political and attempts to unearth that path through which the dissolution of the nation-state imposed itself upon the devastation of the domestic state.
Inheritance could not be possible without a rich lineage of women’s autobiographical storytelling which actively creates space for new stories and new modes of expression to emerge, stories and modes that have otherwise been occluded in the historical records. While making Inheritance, I was influenced by the films of Rea Tajiri, Mona Hatoum, and Chantal Akerman, filmmakers who infused their works with self as a means of outlining the contours of political subjectivity.
Though Inheritance appears rather personal, it is actually a film concerned with structures of power and how these structures affect people’s lives. This is a concern that undergirds all my work.
I am the co-producer of this feature-length documentary which will have its US national release in October 2021.
This beautiful film is directed by Oscar Molina as part of a transmedia project called Mi Casa My Home which centers its attention on stories of migrants who, from within their host country and financed by their remittances, construct their dream homes in their country of origin. Many of these houses stand incomplete, some derelict, and many stand uninhabited for years, large-scale containers of the deferred dream of returning and a visual testament to an illusory economic viability. The film is currently in post-production. Please see here for more information about completion timelines and exhibitions.