Prowling the same old haunts

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Filmmaker Alex Rivera says that seeing a 2,000-seat baseball stadium in remote Boquerón, Mexico, made him feel like one of the apes that curiously approach the huge black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s an experience that led him to make a documentary, The Sixth Section, to tell the story behind the existence of such an unlikely structure in a town so isolated that, until recently, it had no paved roads. The film features the efforts of a group of undocumented immigrant men, aged 17 to 40, living in Newburgh, about 75 miles north of New York City, and their efforts to organize on behalf of their struggling hometown in Mexico. Grupo Unión, as they call themselves, not only raises enough capital to construct the baseball stadium but also to purchase an ambulance and other items needed in the community and to start work on a well to provide a steady water supply. Rivera, 31, a native of upstate New York, views the group’s actions as an impressive assertion of power.

“One of the objectives of doing this kind of fundraising is to be visible—to say we’re not going to sit here quietly and just take the lot the world has given us.” The title refers to the name the men have given Newburgh. Boquerón has five neighborhoods, or sections; Newburgh has become the sixth. A self-proclaimed science-fiction junkie, Rivera admits that the 26-minute film is a departure from some of his other work. “I was trying to tell a story that’s entirely built out of somebody else’s words,” he says. Last month Rivera was in Austin for a screening of The Sixth Section, which previously aired on PBS. The Observer later spoke with him by phone. The following is an excerpt of the interview.

Texas Observer: You’ve said that one of the inspirations for The Sixth Section was the void in the debate about immigration.

Alex Rivera: One side [of the debate] says that undocumented immigrants are basically criminals that come to steal jobs. The other says they’re actually victims; they’re not protected by minimum wage laws and other laws that are supposed to protect workers. That’s not a very complicated debate. It seemed like there was something lacking, which was understanding and deeper reflection. I wanted to make a film that looked at one immigration story and used that story as a way of saying that immigrants are not criminals, they’re not victims. They’re actually savvy people trying to figure out the world that we live in, just like any of us. In the case of the story in the film, they’re able to live both here and [in Mexico] and find some kind of power and leverage. A lot of the other work I’ve done is sort of political satire. The idea is to communicate with an audience, and sometimes the way I do that is through satire and humor, sometimes it’s through animation, sometimes it’s through fiction, and sometimes it’s through documentary. The Sixth Section, to me, represented a story that was kind of surreal—or invisible—a story that we haven’t really seen. It seemed like the appropriate form was to take a back seat and use the form of the documentary; to let the story, as much as possible, tell itself.

TO: There are moments that are definitely humorous, but it’s more understated. Did you have a tendency to want to put something there or take a more humorous approach to it?

AR: I got to morph Benjamin Franklin into Nezahualcoyotl [an Aztec philosopher/king ]. I was happy about that. Even though it is a documentary and is using mostly standard elements—interviews, home footage, verité footage—I wanted to use the computer and digital imaging to show this kind of transnational reality. The idea was to use special effects and the computer not to tell fantasy, but reality. That meant using the computer to blend together upstate New York and southern Mexico, to blend together North America and Latin America into one kind of seamless frame where you’re not cutting from here to there, not showing them as opposites, but showing them as deeply interconnected.

TO: What inspires you to focus on the issues that you do? They all are revolving around immigration, farmworker issues, issues of human rights and social justice.

AR: A couple of things. One, my pop comes from Peru. I grew up always hearing about this other world, this other reality that he came from and how different it was. And then all around us, you have to be kind of blind to not see that this country is going through some really radical transformations in almost every community. I’ve been going to North Carolina, Illinois, Texas, New York, California. The population and the culture and the life of this country is changing. Nobody wants to talk about it or understand it, and it kind of drives you crazy. And when you feel crazy the best thing to do is to do something about it. My little mission in life has been to try to document what’s going on. There’s definitely a crew of independent filmmakers like myself, but the film studios and the major media are not really interested in the story.

TO: We’ve talked a little bit about getting Grupo Unión to agree be in the film because of their immigration status. You’ve said that they weren’t really very worried, their attitude was that if anything happened, they could just easily come back to the United States. Did they not realize that so many people were going to possibly see the film?

AR: I don’t know. One thing to remember is that the process did take two and a half years, off and on. For me it wasn’t one of these projects where you parachute into a community. I had been to their town. I was working with a group called Tepeyac, the largest community organization working with Mexican immigrants in New York. They have over 10,000 members. I was doing volunteer work with them and they were the ones that arranged for my visit to [the state of] Puebla, which led to the film.

TO: So they knew what they were getting into and thought that it was better to get the message and the story out?

AR: What’s important to understand is that one of the objectives of building a baseball stadium, one of the objectives of doing this kind of fundraising, is to be visible. To make an impact on the world, to be seen, to say, “We’re not going to sit here quietly and just take the lot the world has given us.”

I don’t know where you were born. I was born in New York. These guys were born in southern Mexico. That’s luck. Now immigrating, sending money back—all the things that happen in the film—are things that these guys are doing to say, “Well, the fact that I was born there doesn’t mean I have to stay there. The fact that I’m in the U.S. doesn’t mean I have to live here now; I’m going to live in both places. I’m going to be seen and heard and I’m going to make an impact.” The baseball stadium was one thing. The film is another thing to become visible. There’s not really a contradiction. The film was almost part of the work of the group.

TO: What are you working on now? You mentioned at the screening that you’re doing work with science fiction.

AR: I have a couple new documentary ideas and then I also am a science fiction fan. It might sound incongruous, but I think groups like Grupo Unión show how today’s immigrant community, the 21st-century immigrant, is going to be the future of the U.S. and the future of—in this case—Mexico. What better way to imagine that future, or to discuss that future, than science fiction? There’s a whole potential in the cinema to talk about these really profound issues and profound transformation in our society. That potential has been wiped out [in Hollywood] and replaced with car chases and explosions. I’m interested in making a rebellious and profound kind of science fiction that can seriously imagine what our world’s going to be like. The future does not belong to Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis. It belongs to all of us. It’ll be interesting to see science fiction that looks like all of us.

TO: What does Grupo Unión think of the documentary?

AR: They seem really happy with it. They own a piece of it; they negotiated to own a part of the proceeds. Right now they’re still working on the well and are trying to raise the $100,000 just for that. Then I’m helping them to get it set up so that they can do PayPal [an e-commerce site that allows viewers to securely spend/contribute].

TO: Who influences your approach to humor?

AR: There’s Lalo Alcaraz, who does the comic strip “La Cucaracha.” I’ve collaborated with him and he’s also an influence. Guillermo Gomez Peña, who does cross-border performance art. Who else? Mad Magazine and the spirit of that magazine, The Onion. On the documentary side, Lourdes Portillo, Errol Morris—documentarians who use a lot of stylized imagery to take complicated ideas or concepts and make them visual.

Observer intern Jessica Chapman will receive her M.A. in journalism from the University of Texas-Austin next month.