Alex Rivera accepts the NEXT Innovator Prize with Cristina Ibarra at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. © 2019 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jovelle Tamayo
By Dana Kendall
After Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra’s genre-defying documentary about a for-profit immigrant detention center screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the high of a successful premiere and winning multiple awards turned into shock and anger when one of the film’s subjects, Claudio Rojas, was detained by ICE and torn apart from his wife and children.
The Infiltrators documented a previous time Claudio was detained, in 2012—and how a group of young immigrant activists hatched a plan to purposely get caught by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, infiltrate the Florida detention center where Claudio was being held, and help him and others fight their deportations. Ibarra and Rivera won accolades for the way they challenge the documentary form, deftly weaving together footage of the activists’ work and reenactments of the detainees in a way that keeps you in the middle of the action.
The directors say ICE retaliated against Claudio for appearing in the film, and he was soon deported to Argentina. On the heels of that retribution, the film was released by Oscilloscope to virtual cinemas in May, with some of the proceeds going towards Claudio’s efforts to return home to his family. The Infiltrators is now available on video-on-demand, bringing attention to the real stories at the center of the nation’s ongoing immigration debate. We caught up with the directors to get their perspective on the whirlwind journey thus far.
What has the response been like so far with your virtual cinema release?
Cristina Ibarra: It’s been a really chaotic time, like for everyone, and it’s been hard to know how to understand both the success and the crisis of the film. The virtual release comes on the heels of all of that.
One of the exciting aspects of this kind of virtual cinema release is that anyone can become the theater. Basically, Oscilloscope explained to us that when a viewer pays for a stream at one of these virtual cinemas, half of the income goes to the owner of the website and half to the distributor. Oscilloscope can generate these custom links for anyone. Movie theaters were hosting the links, but so were record stores, and so did the ACLU. The links, hosted by groups aligned with the film’s mission, can raise funds and create cross-promotion. The link we host on our website, InfiltratorsFilm.com, has been a source of raising funds for Claudio Rojas.
We see the targeting of Claudio as a clear violation of his First Amendment rights. The documentary community expressed this concern along with us. The IDA published a letter to ICE where they describe this retaliation as having a “chilling effect on free speech.” How can we make films about immigrant lives if ICE is then going to move those people to the “top of the list” and target them and their families for speaking out? The digital release is one small tool to raise funds and fight back against this retaliation.
Can you go into more detail about the retaliation from ICE? What’s the current status of Claudio’s case?
Alex Rivera: After the film premiered at the Festival, ICE targeted Claudio for deportation to Argentina. Since then, we’ve learned that what happened to Claudio is part of a pattern of ICE, under this administration, specifically targeting activist immigrants. This whole phenomenon is a frightening nexus between immigration enforcement and questions of free speech.
When people are deported, they are banned from re-entering the United States for 10 years (thanks to “tough-on-immigrants” legislation passed under President Clinton). That’s Claudio’s situation currently. He is suing ICE for violating his First Amendment rights, and we are hoping to pressure the next administration to bring Claudio, and other deported activists, back to the U.S.
We hope our film release serves several purposes: one is a chance to elevate the film and the story and the national dialogue, and the other is a chance to actually do material fundraising for Claudio, his family, and organizations that are working around these issues.
I think we probably would have rather been in theaters and had that physical experience and the slow burn of a theatrical release, but there’s something interesting about what is happening right now as well. So we’re trying to embrace it and run with it.
How did you first get involved with this story?
AR: Cristina and I both have immigrant family members and undocumented family members, and so over the past 20 years, we’ve always centered the border and stories of immigration in our work. In 2010 we saw in the news something we’d never seen before, which was undocumented youth getting themselves arrested and risking deportation as part of acts of political protest. The group was the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. To us, they seemed like almost an immigrant ACT-UP—a really groundbreaking radical group—and we wanted to understand what they were doing and how the government would react.
So we approached them about making a short film. We thought it would take a month to shoot a little thing, edit it, and get it done. That was a lie that we told ourselves apparently [laughs] because making this film ended up taking almost seven years!
The film took a long time to put together because, once we figured out what the story was, we had to confront a huge challenge: we were only able to film half of the events. Our documentary camera was outside of detention, but our characters went into detention. The story that unfolded inside of detention—half the story—was hidden from view. We weren’t allowed to see it, so as filmmakers we had that big challenge of, how do you visualize something that’s being hidden?
How did your approach change as the project evolved into a feature?
CI: We could see that the story of infiltration of the Broward Detention Center had a strong and thrilling beginning, middle, and end. We knew we wanted to make a feature doc; the question was, how? We had to solve cinematic language problems. How do we show what we are not allowed to see? How do we keep the narrative flowing forward without getting confused about how the story was being told? How can we keep an audience engaged when we leave the observational camera mode and enter a re-created space? It was a process that was not straightforward.
Walk me through the decision to weave together documentary footage with reenactments. Did that grow out of necessity, or did you plan on that creative decision from early on?
AR: Ultimately, the answers to these formal questions emerged from the story itself. To “infiltrate,” the activists played into the profiling that ICE and Border Patrol routinely does. It’s well-documented that immigration enforcement uses racial and ethnic profiling when deciding who to interrogate, who to detain, etc. The activists knew this and so they intentionally played into those expectations when they wanted to be detained. They worked with wardrobe and language, and they created a kind of “script” in order to be profiled and detained by Border Patrol. That performative element was present in our documentary material. We decided to expand on it, by using a script and actors.
CI: Along the way, we thought about other possibilities: animation, archival footage, or experimental performance. But then we remembered how the infiltrators were performing themselves as part of their strategy to get detained. That’s really what led us to think about actors. At one point we considered working with the actual infiltrators inside, but then we realized that would be incredibly confusing. So it really started out of necessity and not out of wanting to think about questions of film form.
AR: We both have been inspired by experimental filmmakers like Lourdes Portillo, Marlon Riggs, filmmakers who were transgressing form back in the 1990s, and so we approach our work often with this sense of “by any means necessary”—we’ll kind of collage and scrap it together.
When we decided to go into the hybrid film, we were afraid, because a lot of hybrid films feel a little bit lifeless to us—that form of a talking-head interview telling a story and then the reenactments. Somehow the reenactments always feel like the past, and what we wanted to do was something that didn’t feel like a flashback or a memory but that felt simultaneous to our story. It was both a challenge and an opportunity, to try and use the hybrid form to do something new, where the reenactments weren’t depicting the past but were instead representing a space on the other side of a wall, simultaneous to the documentary material. We wanted to use the hybrid form to resolve a challenge of space, not time. That idea—of recreations in simultaneous storytime to the documentary elements—felt like something we had never seen before. That was exciting.
One of the most surprising things I figured out was really basic, which is that any deportation can be stopped. That to me was a revelation.
Did you learn anything that surprised you in this process, or did you gain a greater understanding of the issues you were investigating?
CI: I feel a little bit naive saying this, but one of the most surprising things I figured out was really basic, which is that any deportation can be stopped. That to me was a revelation, and I feel like it’s such a basic thing that I should’ve known, but that’s one of the many things the infiltrators taught me through doing their work.
It was something that I thought was really exciting about this project—we were seeing a story where the immigrants were not victims, they were not folks who were struggling to achieve the American dream or anything; it was very much about people who own their own power, who are political strategists, who are sophisticated thinkers who know about the way government works.
AR: In this country, anti-immigrant people have that saying, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” like the question of immigration was simple, and people are either illegal or they’re not. But just as soon as you take one baby step towards an actual immigrant and an actual immigrant story, you start to realize how little we understand. What exactly is a detention center? How do people end up in there? How do they get out? The system runs on the whims of the federal government. There’s no Miranda rights, no jury, no state-appointed lawyers to represent the detained. The normal guardrails that we know from the criminal justice system (even though we know those often don’t work) simply don’t exist in immigration enforcement. The immigration enforcement matrix is a very strange world that takes a lot of time to understand. The other revelation was just how exciting it can be to break the mold of “the immigrant story.” We were excited to depict characters that don’t care if you call them undocumented, illegal, whatever—instead, they’re saying, “We’re doing self-defense, we’re fighting back, we don’t care what you say.” Just injecting that into American culture, American cinema—that made my hair stand up. It was exciting to try to disrupt and reboot the way immigrants are generally perceived, and this story lent itself to that.
You’ve received support for this project through Sundance Institute and other places. Can you talk about how that support influenced or shaped your project?
AR: This is my second feature film, and my second feature film that would not exist without Sundance. Sundance’s support in various stages was literally essential. There’s no way to imagine the film occurring without the Catalyst Forum, without the Doc Edit Lab. But one specific example from the Doc Edit Lab … There’s always a bit of salesmanship involved in the process of getting a film made, and as part of that selling process we would pitch the film as a docu-thriller. It just sounded better than a hybrid. When we got to the Doc Edit Lab though, Carol Dysinger, one of the advisors, was a Hollywood screenwriter who had worked in all the different genres before she was a documentarian. And she said, “A thriller is psychological and kind of a cat-and-mouse, usually between a murderer and a cop who’s chasing him. You don’t really have a thriller; you have a heist. A heist movie is about a team of people with a plan, and they case the joint, and then they go to pull off the plan, and the drama of the film is, ‘Will it all go according to plan or not?’ And that’s what you have.”
So we started to look at our film through that lens of a heist film, and it was incredibly useful. We realized we needed a scene in which they case the joint, we needed an inside man, we needed to have a lot of those familiar plot features. It was the right way to tell the story. That was a key learning experience.
CI: There was another discovery at the Edit Lab that seems really small, but it was huge and it impacted our way of thinking. It was really unclear how to treat this division of genres. We had them very separate in a lot of ways, and this idea of them building on top of each other was really pushed at the lab. We all of a sudden were able to experiment with having the documentary footage speaking on top of the scripted scenes just to do a transition, and that helped us in forming our structure because it liberated our way of thinking so that we didn’t feel like we had to keep these true divisions and borders between these two genres.
[Ed. note: Responses were edited on 7/8 with updates from Ibarra and Rivera.]