By Pilar Dirickson Garrett
New York-based Mexican filmmaker Andrea Córdoba recently took home the top prize at Brooklyn Film Festival, the Grand Chameleon Award for Best Film, as well as winning in the category of Best Documentary for her debut film Sanctuary. TropicalFRONT’s Pilar Dirickson Garrett sat down with Córdoba to talk about her project, the experience of making her first feature-length documentary, and the complexity of telling a story familiar to far too many undocumented immigrants in this country.
Sanctuary tells the story of Amanda Morales, the Guatemalan mother of three U.S.-born children who walked into a church in New York City not knowing when she would step outside again. Morales was the first immigrant since President Trump took office to claim sanctuary in New York, publicly resisting her deportation within a space that ICE recognized as protected. Sanctuary gains rare and intimate access to Amanda and her family as they fight to remain together and adapt to daily life inside of a church.
This is your first feature film, can you tell me more about how this project came about? How did you first come into contact with Amanda?
So, basically, I was doing my Master's degree at SVA [School of Visual Arts], they have a social documentary program, and I had to find a thesis film. It was right around the time that Trump had been in office for four months, and as a Mexican woman I felt that I needed to tell a story about immigrants in the city and the things happening in the country.
And so I started reading a lot of news and found out about the New Sanctuary Coalition, and then I reached out to Father Juan Carlos Ruiz [co-founder of the Coalition] and he told me to come to his office. So I showed up and told him what I wanted to do, although I didn't have a specific story, but just that I wanted to follow him around and see what they were doing. And he said of course, so I started filming with him and at a bunch of events. They were working on this idea of "Sanctuary-hood," like sanctuary neighborhoods, building sanctuary spaces for people. And then after three months of filming, Amanda reached out to the Coalition for help with her case.
Then it went super fast. She called them two weeks before she was meant to show up in court with a one-way ticket back to Guatemala. They told her, “Come next week to the church, there's no time so just come to the church. We’re going to offer you and your kids sanctuary and you can stay here. We can help you with your legal case once you're in the church, but if you're not inside the church by the date that you're meant to leave then they're going to arrest you.” So basically it was the last day that she was allowed to be in the U.S., August 17, 2017. Juan Carlos called me and said, "She's coming to the church. Come and meet her, come and film her. It's a super important case, she's the first woman to publicly take sanctuary in New York after Trump took office."
So he thought of you and called you to come be involved.
Well he called a bunch of press. When I arrived there were already a lot of members of the press, but it was super interesting because I was there with my camera, and I had already been filming with the New Sanctuary Coalition so a lot of the members already knew who I was, which was great because the press was super aggressive and overwhelming for Amanda. But I was there and was allowed to go into the back room and met her and the kids, and I just filmed that entire day without a specific angle. I told her, "I'm here with New Sanctuary, I want to do a documentary about their work so I'm going to be filming, but I'm going to come back tomorrow and the day after and I'd love to follow your case." And she said, "Okay, that's fine." That day was super chaotic, but then the next day I arrived and it was a bit more calm, so I was able to sit down with her and tell her what I wanted to do - that I'd love to cover her story and do a documentary on her. Not just on the beginning but the entire process.
Was she immediately interested in participating or did she have some reservations? Did you spend time building a relationship with her first?
I think she was mostly feeling overwhelmed by all of the media, she kept saying yes to everyone. But I think as the days then the weeks went by and I kept showing up, we were able to develop a relationship. I was always filming in the corner without intervening too much in her daily life, so that was great because she hated the reporters who were in her face asking her "Why did you take sanctuary? Are you scared? Do you have faith?” I waited a month and a half before I sat her down and asked her questions. So she really started to trust me because I was just hanging out there and playing with the kids when I wasn't filming, so that's how it started.
Amanda's story is very personal, and of course the situation is very sensitive. How did you make the decisions of what to include or what not to include? What parts of her experience in sanctuary do we not see on screen?
I think it was very natural for me. It was my first film and I was very much discovering what I could do with the camera and what story I could tell. It went with the process. At the beginning I was just filming a lot of everything, and then I realized that the key was to see her change. We did develop a relationship, I was filming everything, but I also saw her in the down times.
I would stay after people came to visit so I would see all of her mood shifts, how overwhelming it was for her. There were a lot of volunteers, a lot of people trying to donate food, clothes, and money, clothes for the kids, and that was very nice but at the same time I could sense - because I would stay the whole time - how Amanda felt it was great to be offered these things but that she couldn't actually go out to get them for herself or for her children.
So I think I was just finding those moments. What I tried to do in the film was be very intimate with Amanda and show those down times in a subtle way, so that people can see themselves in Amanda and in her family, see what she's missing out on, the changes in her emotions as time passes.
There were also a lot of private strategy meetings that I was allowed to film. But many people were uncomfortable that there were details in those meetings that could be used against them by ICE. The organizers of New Sanctuary are also very scared and very protective, so I had to navigate that relationship as well. I promised that I wanted the best for Amanda's case too so whatever I ended up filming that was too much information, that was useless or not going to help the film’s story, of course I wasn't going to share.
The film has a very distinct style in terms of the many tight shots. They really create a feeling of proximity. Did you come to filming with an idea already in mind of how you wanted to tell Amanda's story? Or did this style unfold naturally? What sort of feelings were you hoping to evoke?
I think I knew from the first time I walked in—maybe it's my specific style of shooting—that I wanted to be close to her. I wanted to convey that sense of claustrophobia. From the first moment I saw her she was so overwhelmed by all of the attention that I really wanted to get close with the camera and have the style of the film mirror this prison that she was in, the church. So all of the shots are very, very tight. The space of the church was also very tricky to shoot in so that likewise informed the style.
You develop close proximity to the central figures of the New Sanctuary Coalition. Do you see the documentary first and foremost as a means to explore the work that the Coalition is doing, through the lens of Amanda's story? Or did you intend to focus on Amanda's story more particularly, as part of but separate from the work of the movement?
More than the movement, I was very interested in specific figures that I was able to trust and develop relationships with. Father Juan Carlos Ruiz and Revered Luis Barrio were those people for me. But I think it's an interesting thing, because while I was editing the film it was always the two storylines: the story of the New Sanctuary movement, which is also not just the New Sanctuary movement but grassroots activism in New York City more broadly, the story of the people and the movement in New York, what people are doing to help. They're going out on the streets, they're protesting, they're doing vigils. But it was also the personal story of Amanda.
I couldn't let the story of the movement overshadow Amanda's story. There are so many social movements going on after Trump’s election, but I don't think following those movements specifically can change people’s minds in the way that looking at Amanda's life inside of a church that is more like a prison could. I also didn't want to make a movie that would go into the fine details of the movement, which is very complicated. I wanted to focus on Amanda's story but still integrate elements of the growing movement, to show what it’s doing.
I also tried to make clear through Amanda’s story that they offered her sanctuary and they did everything they could to help her, but at the end of the day they weren't able to. This is one woman and one family who went through an enormous amount of trauma. Sanctuary is such a complicated thing, specifically when it’s a woman taking sanctuary and churches offering sanctuary when they aren't ready to. It’s very complicated, because sanctuary, at the end of the day, is not a solution. I felt that only focusing on the movement to represent the day-to-day struggles of this problem would have been much trickier and a much less efficient way of telling the story.
If you had to summarize the power or the importance of Amanda's story, apart from the broader sanctuary movement, what does her experience represent?
I think what's important about Amanda's story is that it is, at least as I represented in the movie, a very intimate, personal story that can become a door into this life that thousands and thousands of immigrants are living and facing in the United States with uncertainty.
Amanda decided to take sanctuary, she went into the church with so much hope and so much enthusiasm, and as the days went by it faded. At the end, she was in a prison. So I think her story, showing the day-to-day experiences that can seem mundane - her feeding breakfast to her kids, her waiting for her kids to come back, her cleaning the space where she's living - I think showing all of those small details can really allow the audience to connect with her on a personal level, to feel her pain.
She went from one agony - fighting her deportation and being here undocumented, all of this fear - to giving this up and moving on to another type of agony. It was like, "I'm probably not going to get detained inside of the church, but now I'm in prison. I can't live my life in this country." It’s an in-between where many undocumented immigrants are stuck, it’s limbo.
Sanctuary is a very beautiful idea, and I think it gets a lot of positive attention in the media, but I decided to make a feature film on this topic specifically because of its complexity. I felt that I would never be able to convey this story, or the feelings that Amanda is going through, in a shorter piece. I felt that I had to put the audience in front of her for at least seventy-three minutes in order for them to experience what she experienced. In a shorter piece you wouldn't feel the mundanity, the repetitiveness, that I think connects people to the film.
From there, what would you say were the main challenges of making the film? What challenges came up in deciding to make the project a feature length documentary?
There are two obvious distinctions: one, production wise, I had no money and was doing basically everything myself. Which, at the end of the day, I'm happy about because I was able to learn many other aspects of filmmaking. I filmed, produced, directed, edited. But in the edit process it was very complicated to be so emotionally invested in the project that I couldn't step away and look at it objectively. I had two co-producers and they were very helpful with reviewing cuts, but I would have loved to have an editor. In any case, I'm happy with the results.
Another challenge was maintaining relationships with my subjects. Specifically because it was such a difficult period for Amanda, there were times where she was like, do not put a camera in my face right now. So it was a constant conversation with her, that this was something that we were doing together. At the beginning I asked her, "If you allow me I want to tell your story, and I want to follow you as long as it takes that you're inside of this church." She thought would be two weeks but ended up being eleven months. In the beginning I went a lot more often and then I would go once every two weeks, or once a month depending on what was going on. But I think it was a constant conversation, a constant push and pull. Also, because it was such a hot subject, it was a challenge to take the time that I needed to complete the film and not rush into anything. I had to know what I needed to tell the story and what would be pushing it too far.
What's next for you? Are you taking a break or is there something else coming down the channel?
Well, I'm working full time on another project right now. I'm not directing but I'm co-producing for [Mexican-American filmmaker] Bernardo Ruiz. So I'm working on this project that I'm very passionate about and I think that this is a great opportunity for me right now. But I also want to keep some time for myself and some ideas going. I want to make a short doc, but it's going to be animated. It's going to be a dark political satire about a specific case in Mexico. It's a loose idea that I want to start developing, so let’s see how that pans out.