Beyond the borders
– Hugo Chaparro Valderrama
Laboratorios Frankenstein ©
The journey became the subject and film the tool to record her images and her memory. A visual tour set in motion by Gisela Sanders Alcántara when she plunged forward, camera in hand, pursuing the path of her family´s imprint back in Mexico in Yo soy Alcantara (2004). At the time she didn´t know that six years later she would prolong her journey through other families, in other landscapes, with other cameras, trying to decipher some of the questions that arose from the generational, geographical and cultural dilemmas that over time built a bridge between her story and the story of the immigrants that star in her latest documentary, New Children/New York (2010).
Filmed in the boundless geography of New York—in Bushwick, to be more precise, a neighborhood with different hues of Latin-American immigration—the camera is in the hands of students that participate in a youth filmmaking workshop. They inadvertently find themselves filming poignant autobiographical short films, the way an eye would witness and discover a crossway between their paths. It is no coincidence that their workshop takes place at Make the Road New York, an organization dedicated to defending Latinos and, by extension, all New Yorkers whose rights have been violated. Its name was inspired by the legendary verse by Antonio Machado: Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar (Wanderer, there is no road. You make the road by walking.)
A Dominican—Desiree (15)—and two Ecuadorians—Patricia (19) and Fausto (22)—have been chosen from the group to be featured in the documentary, in order to illustrate the work achieved during the workshop and to emphasize how each of them assumes his or her family history with a common point of departure as they ask themselves what is their origin, how did they get to New York and where do they fit in in the city.
At their side, the presence of Gisela and Lauren Mucciolo, producer of New Children/New York, completes the ensemble depicting an interesting racial multiplicity that is perhaps impossible for the camera to encompass but is nonetheless implicit in moments that give the young students visual credit when they are gathered at Make the Road, or in the subway on their way to the premier of their films.
Film has become a portable art thanks to the technology that has provided us with feather-weight cameras; and video is now presented as a strategic solution to be enriched with the visual aspects of film. In New Children/New York they have a chance meeting to serve the illusions that have become real, offering a testimony that functions as a mirror to millions of immigrants in a moment of persecution and racism on the borders of this country.
The adventure these students set out on allows a reconstruction of the past for it to be understood or, in some cases, endured—in melancholic and, since we´re already in Machado´s shadow, lyrical terms despite incontestable sorrow when Patricia explains the title of her short film resulting from the workshop, Toronjil con doce esencias (Toronjil with twelve essences), film evokes the aromas that kept her company as she traveled to be reunited with her family and they drank toronjil to calm their nerves and ease the uncertainty of good-byes; when Fausto watches the video letter that Patricia brings back from Ecuador and discovers in it his parents´ faces, Fausto stands there with the gaze of someone that observes his past in the distance; or Desiree, in the company of her mother, remembers his murdered father and discovers that his death was the motive behind them moving to New York.
Suggesting in a very stimulating way more questions than answers, the process of New Children/New York allows us to suspect that the students attending the workshop found themselves struggling in the quicksand of family secrets and their explanations, asking themselves, thanks to the vigor palpable in the images they had shot, why they found themselves there and what had happened in their lives up until now when a Mexican whose name was Gisela Sanders Alcantara entered the scene and gathered them at Make the Road.
When we go beyond the geographic borders, we discover the generational borders. Fausto as well as Desiree experience, registered in a different way, an idiomatic limbo—for Fausto and his family it becomes evident through the progressive amnesia of Quechua, a language spoken by the village elders; for Desiree, in the rhythm of the vertiginous English that her mother is not able to comprehend. Patricia´s story is proof of her father´s sacrifice as it put his children´s future ahead of his family´s unity, condemning them to a never-ending nostalgia as a result of his decision to go back to Ecuador to try to legalize his status in the US and was denied re-entry for several years.
Biographical circumstances that have been brought to the screen thanks to the documentary, their lives revealed before our eyes, alongside the making of of the documentary, transpires with the gradual construction of the documentary that alternates Gisela’s encounters with the students with the opinions and reflections they have on their work that enrich the world of the characters when they unfold between those who are on this side of the screen and those who are on the other side, in front of the camera, being filmed with a certain distance that could perhaps allow them to better understand themselves, a new kind of clarity they did not know before they were introduced to the mechanisms of film.
Who were these young students living in New York before appearing with their visual registers on the screen? Two Ecuadorians and a Dominican girl lost in the crowd and rescued by the camera. Immigrants that sketch out their self-portraits through these short films, capturing decisive moments in their biographies when they were looking for a little direction in their lives, narrated by the documentary that provides a preamble at the end on what the future holds for them: Desiree was accepted to Pratt Institute to study visual arts; Fausto finished paying the money he owed the people that helped him cross the border and is still illegally in the country; Patricia returned to Ecuador and is committed to working in the small communities in her country.
A documentary that makes the most of the teachings acquired over time, describing the general circumstances of immigrants through the experience and destiny of these three young students, in a way, they have in them a little of all of us; what Patricia points out in the premier of the film New Children/New York is accomplished, she explains her vision of what a film can be: a tool that is both inspiring and therapeutic. A trade that contributes to drawing the borders and encourages us to cross them with the creative freedom that defines the work of Gisela Sanders Alcántara and her prolonged voyage through film.