SXSW: Documenting The Immigrant Experience

AUSTIN — At Casa Marianella, immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Africa and the Middle East live together temporarily as they struggle to answer the question: What now?

They’ve come to this house in East Austin fleeing places with no futures. For the moment, their lives are less dire, though their futures seem equally uncertain.

Their experiences are captured in “They Live Here, Now,” Jason Outenreath‘s hybrid film that blends documentary and narrative storytelling. Ahead of its world premiere Sunday afternoon, I sat down with him to talk about the people he encountered at Casa Marianella and his unconventional approach to telling their story:

Tell me what it’s like hanging out at Casa Marianella.

It’s a place of immense diversity – people from all over the world. It made me realize how broad the immigration crisis really was – affecting people not just from Mexico and Central America but a huge number of people from Africa, the Middle East. Even just spending one day there left a deep impression on me.

The film drops the viewer into the house without much explanation of where we are and who we’re watching. It doesn’t take long to figure it out, of course – why did you go with this stripped-down approach?

I really wanted to strip the film of any overt political messaging. It’s still there, definitely – it’s about immigration, right? And I have my beliefs about how human beings deserve to be treated. But at the same time I don’t feel like people are convinced by political arguments. … I feel like people are much more convinced by human relationships than by statistics or politics. I really wanted to reach as many people as possible – instead of saying, “This is the way you should believe,” I wanted to change that narrative to, “Just meet this person. Just listen to what they have to say.”

Were you surprised with how willingly people shared their stories?

People fell broadly into two categories. There were people who didn’t want to be filmed at the house, and I definitely respected that. … And then there were also people on the other side who didn’t feel heard and wanted to be heard. Those were primarily the people I filmed with. But there was also a third category, which was people who maybe weren’t that comfortable with me filming at first but then saw that I was in it for the long haul. I spent most of a year just hanging out at the house and learning and talking with people. And so I managed to just form relationships with those people as well who were more skeptical, but then were like, “Hey, I’d also like to share my story with you.”

Intertwined with the people who are sharing their stories is this fictional story of a 16-year-old girl living in the house. She’s from Mexico and occasionally we hear about how she wound up there. Why did you decide to add a fictional component to an otherwise straight-forward documentary?

There were aspects of the immigration process from my interactions that I’ve had with immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border that I wanted to weave in. But there were also ethical reasons. There were parts of the Casa Marianella experience that were just essential to the house, such as conversations with lawyers and those first moments after an immigrant first arrives that are just impossible to really film ethically without putting someone’s legal status or safety at risk.

So is it fair to say she’s a composite character of other people’s experiences that you’ve witnessed?

Definitely. It may even go further than that. As a documentary filmmaker, I’m very interested in asking what constitutes social reality? What is real? The fictional storyline would’ve been impossible to film without the reality of the house around her.

How did spending time at Casa Marianella affect your understanding of the immigrant experience?

I think Casa Marianella really made me realize how broad and complicated immigration was. I think a lot of people see it as this monolithic experience of people, primarily from Central American and the United States, when in reality people are coming from all over the world. And that idea didn’t really sink in for me until I started interacting with people at Casa Marianella. … There’s the misconception that a lot of Americans have that people are just dying to come to this country, when the reality is a lot of people are coming out of just pure desperation. They would much rather be with their families in their home country where they were born and where they were raised. And I think a lot of people underestimate the level of desperation that it takes to drive someone from their home.

“They Live Here, Now” screens again Monday and Wednesday.