Family reunion: Documentary filmmaker focuses on immigrant project
WORTHINGTON — Even though he’d filmed until late Sunday night, Luis Argueta was up before the sun Monday morning, hoping to get a shot he’d envisioned as part of his documentary. The early wake-up call was worth it, as he found a few geese on a small pond he’d scouted earlier.
“The geese waited until the sun had broken over the clouds, and then they took off,” he described. “I needed a scene of birds flying, because one of the mothers said that her son’s dream is to have his brother fly here.”
Argueta and his film crew were in Worthington for just a few days, filling in the gaps and wrapping up filming for their latest documentary. The working title for the film is “Abuelos y Nietos Juntos: Two Generations Together,” focusing on a local project that connects American-born children of Guatemalan heritage with their extended families back in Mexico.
Argueta is himself a native of Guatemala, now a U.S. citizen living in New York City. His film, “The Silence of Neto,” is the only film by a Guatemalan filmmaker submitted into the Academy Awards competition. He first came to Worthington for a showing of a more recent documentary, “abUSed: The Postville Raid,” about the effects of immigration policies on children, families and communities, at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
“I did over 160 presentations with ‘abUSed’ at colleges and universities,” he explained. “It was a tour — Omaha, Iowa, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls — and one of the places was the Worthington community college.”
In the audience was Lisa Kremer, who had recently traveled to Guatemala. After the presentation she approached Argueta, and they talked about places they had both visited, as well as Worthington’s growing population of Guatemalan immigrants, and struck up a friendship.
On a subsequent trip to the Central American country, Kremer met with some of the families of Guatemalans now living in Worthington and conceived the idea of taking children there to visit their grandparents and other relatives.
“We had stayed in contact,” explained Kremer, “so I told Luis, ‘I’m thinking about this idea,’ and he said, ‘I think that’s an excellent idea, and if you do, I want to film it.’”
The effort was initially called Abuelos y Nietos Juntos (Grandparents & Grandchildren Together), but more recently was shortened to Familias Juntos (Families Together).
In July 2013, 14 American-born youths, accompanied by 10 chaperones, journeyed to Guatemala, where they met up with their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and in a couple cases, siblings. The family reunions were captured on film by Argueta and his crew. Further footage was shot in Worthington, with the final scenes filmed this past week.
“In documentaries, I work pretty much by gathering material and then trying to find the story in that,” explained Argueta. “It’s the tough way to do it, but what I always look for is a beginning and an end. If I find those, I feel much more comfortable. I found the beginning, and on our fourth trip, I found the ending.”
Argueta estimates that he has about 200 hours of footage that must be pared down into documentary form. He has already created a first cut of the film, which is approximately 35 minutes long. The finished product will be about that same length.
A brochure describes the film thusly: “‘Abuelos y Netos Juntos: Two Generations Together’ tells the story of the transformational journey of a group of U.S. citizen children who travel 3,000 miles, from Minnesota to Guatemala, to visit their parents’ homeland and meet their grandparents for the first time. After being separated for nearly two decades, these families are able to share stories, strengthen cultural traditions and make memories. The documentary seeks to contribute to the conversation on family reunification, strengthen the resolve to achieve immigration reform in the U.S. and contribute to a more dignified view of immigrants in Guatemala and other countries.”
Initial funding for the project was provided by a “guardian angel who put up a lot of the seed money,” Argueta explained. A campaign on Kickstarter — a crowd funding website through which people seek financial support for independent projects — resulted in a $38,000 infusion of capital.
“I invested all my time and some money, and we’ve gotten a lot of in-kind help and the families put in work and money,” Argueta said. “There is a core group of organizations that work on immigrant struggles and rights — private, corporate and religious organizations — that were very encouraging and gave credibility to the project.”
Kremer also credits the immigrant families in Worthington “who have a lot to lose in telling their stories.” She related how they came together as a group to discuss the film, weighing all the pros and cons before coming to a consensus to participate in it.
“They collectively came to the decision, saying ‘We have faith in God and feel the stories of immigrants need to be told,’” she said. “It was their decision to do it.”
With all the footage he needed now in the can, Argueta is back in New York, ready to dive into all the necessary production tasks to come up with a finished documentary. The process includes editing, adding music, color correction, sound design and mixing the sound and music, he explained. Argueta also anticipates that the title of the film will change to something shorter and more succinct.
“We’re on schedule, but the schedule is very tight,” he said. “Something that was necessary was to set a date for the premiere. Lisa and I looked at the calendar and set the line in the sand.”
The premiere is scheduled for June 20 at the Worthington Events Center. While Argueta works on completing the film, Kremer has been tasked with making all the premiere preparations and finding sponsors for it.
They recently received word that Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera will be in Worthington for the premiere, and other dignitaries are also expected to take part. In addition to the actual showing of the film, Kremer hopes there will be some sort of forum to discuss immigration issues.
“We need a lot of connections to make that happen,” she said, “and we’d be interested in hearing from people who would want to be part of that.”
After the film is debuted, Argueta said the film will be given as much exposure as possible through international film festivals and college tours such as he did for “abUSed.” He also emphasizes that it will be an educational tool.
“One of the first steps is to create an educational guide, a user guide, with a set of questions at three levels — middle school, high school, college,” he said. “Another big step is to create the Spanish-speaker version, not subtitled. For a film to be effective among people who have low literacy, we must dub it, and that’s the version I want to premiere in Guatemala.”
Argueta hopes that the film inspires its viewers to “deal with the tough questions” that surround the issue of immigration.
“I grew up in a country where I felt fear from the time I was born. That’s why I left,” he reflected. “... These 14 U.S. citizen children represent 4.5 million U.S. citizen children who live in mixed-status families and live in constant fear of separation. That’s not damage we’re doing to immigrants. That’s damage we’re doing to this country.”
For more information about the premiere, advance tickets and Familias Juntas, go to www.familiasjuntas.com.