“There were no easy answers to my questions”: Iliana Sosa on her first SXSW doc What We Leave Behind
Iliana Sosa What we leave behind is a surprisingly intimate labor of love. The film was born out of Sosa’s desire to document his grandfather Julián, a proudly hardworking man who first left his native Mexico in the early 1940s to join the US government’s Bracero program, which brought in farm workers to alleviate the labor shortage of World War II. After his daughters, including the filmmaker’s mother, settled in the United States permanently, the widower Julián spent the next two decades traveling solo from Durango to visit them in the Southwest. But as he now approaches his 90s, the monthly bus ride becomes too heavy. So Sosa, who grew up in El Paso, decides to accompany Julián to his rural lands and follow his grandfather’s journey to the inevitable end.
Director caught up with the first-generation American director — and 2020’s 25 New Face of Independent Film — to learn all about her own journey, including how a simple family portrait became an unexpected love letter. And how, as she says, “the cinema brought me closer to him, on the other side of the border and in his house”. What we leave behind makes its SXSW debut on March 11.
Director: I really love how personal this documentary is, like the mainstream is almost an afterthought. You seem to have created What we leave behind first and foremost for yourself, your family, and then perhaps for your community. The rest of us are just privileged to have a look. So have you ever felt any pressure — perhaps from some backers — to make the movie a more family-friendly drama?
Sosa: I think the main pressures were the ones that I had internalized about how films looked and how filmmakers had to tell their stories. I always knew deep down that this was about my grandfather and the complex experiences that shaped him and my family. But early in production, I tended to describe the film as being more directly about immigration and the US-Mexico border: a look back at my grandfather Julián’s work as a bracero and the legacy of this program. I think I felt more comfortable saying the movie was explicitly about a social issue or a piece of history than saying I was focusing on Julián’s life in his Mexican hometown. As a rookie filmmaker, I didn’t want the project to be pigeonholed as too small to merit a feature film.
Initially, I did everything on the project myself – directing, producing and filming. When I started working with collaborators like soundman Glenda Charles and filmmakers Monica Wise and Judy Phu, they immediately embraced the pace and beauty of Durango, where my grandfather lived. They also connected with Julián’s humor, determination and warmth, hanging out with him after shoots and joking with him between takes.
Over time, I realized that my grandfather and his current life was enough context for a movie. The narrative ended up focusing on Julián’s efforts to build a new house because that’s what mattered most to him as we were filming. I developed the confidence just to trust him and follow him on this journey. I also became able to articulate my own motivations more clearly – I was making this film to connect with it, and I was developing my own sense of identity as a Mexican-American artist through this process. Knowing that opened my eyes to some of my rawer early footage, as those early elements helped show my evolution as a filmmaker or gave a hint of my personality behind the camera.
I feel extremely lucky that I was not pressured by any of our funders and institutional supporters to impose a particular narrative on this project. The JustFilms-Ford Foundation, the Sundance Institute, Field of Vision, the El Paso Department of Museum and Cultural Affairs, and the Austin Film Society have all given me incredible freedom to realize my artistic vision, even though that vision was evolving. At one point when we were writing the voiceover that weaves into the film, we considered writing an English version to make the project potentially more marketable to American buyers. In the end, we decided not to. The rhythm and poetry of the Spanish version suited me perfectly.
Director: As a filmmaker who started as a writer, are your influences a mixture of literature and cinema? Where exactly do you draw your inspiration from?
Sosa: I’m looking for texts and films that make me think about the world in unique ways that I can’t break down into simple dishes. I found visual inspiration in movies like Pixote and Central Station, and in works by Agnès Varda and Catherine Breillat. Gloria Anzaldua, Chicana feminist and poet, and Uruguayan novelist Mario Benedetti are particularly inspiring to me. A poem that has accompanied me since the beginning of What we leave behind is “No vive ya nadie en la casa” by Cesar Vallejo (“No one lives in the house anymore”). He compares houses and tombs. One line says: “Cuando alguien se va, alguien queda”. “When someone leaves, someone stays too.”
Director: I find it fascinating that the style of the doc actually emerged from the pace of life in Durango. So how did this slow pace specifically affect the editing?
Sosa: The film’s editor, Isidore Bethel, often talks about listening to the material and letting a narrative and approach develop from there. Filming in Durango had forced me to slow down in a powerful way, and our camerawork reflected that. When we started working together, Isidore extended the shots and inserted sequences that I had neglected before because they seemed too tangential or ambiguous. With the right frame and context, these shots could have a different meaning. An example of this was a conversation between my uncle and I as I sought answers about my grandmother’s death over 50 years ago. As we edited, we stretched the shot longer and longer until it reached its final length of nearly five minutes. It powerfully captures the feeling of that conversation with my uncle, as I realized there were no easy answers to my questions.
We generally let the events on screen play out as much as they could in the footage itself, which helped the film reflect the particular rhythms of life in my grandfather’s hometown. When my producer Emma D. Miller arrived, she helped us deepen my perspective and sense of earth in Durango as we worked on the voiceovers for the film together. She is good at encouraging an idea and giving it space and language to flourish.
Director: Were there any particular times when you just had to put the camera down and just be there with your family? I can imagine it must have been heartbreaking, say, filming your mother’s anguish over her own father’s deterioration.
Sosa: There were a lot of moments like that during the last shoot. I brought a small camcorder with me to Durango when my grandfather was sick. I had no intention of filming, but some friends and colleagues had encouraged me to bring a camera just in case. I ended up filming only when it felt right, which ultimately wasn’t that often. My main concern was just to be with my grandfather and the rest of the family. My family held an all-night vigil after my grandfather died. The whole town came out and carried his coffin to the cemetery. It was important to me just to be in the moment for it, and not be distracted by the filming. I am grateful to have been able to be there.
Director: What do all your relatives think of the film? What were their reactions?
Sosa: Some members of my family are not ready to see the film yet. I screened it for my mom before locking the picture to make sure she was comfortable with how it portrayed her dad. She cried after looking at it, and I just held her. She told me later that she was proud of me and the film. She likes that it gives others an idea of who Julián was.