Austin filmmaker Heather Courtney sets out to show the human struggle that accompanies globalization and free trade. In her most recent film,“Letters from the Other Side,” Courtney follows the lives of four women (Carmela, Laura, Eugenia, and Maria) who are left on the other side of the border in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato after their husbands and sons try to cross into the United States to work. The women try to support themselves through alternative methods, without their husbands’ (or the government’s) support. Carmela and Laura, whose husbands were among the 19 immigrants who died outside Victoria, Texas, in 2003, try to open a bakery. Maria farms and makes pillows, and Eugenia has learned to make cactus products. As the film makes clear, despite the promises that NAFTA would bring jobs and prosperity to Mexico, an increasing number of Mexicans are left with two options: They can remain poor or suffer the dissolution of their families. In many cases, these options are not mutually exclusive.
The “Letters” in the film’s title are video letters that Courtney helps the women record and send to their family on the other side. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Carmela and Laura record a letter that they send to the Department of Homeland Security. Screened at the Slamdance, Sundance, and the SXSW film festivals, Courtney’s film has garnered a warm critical and public reception, and received a positive notice in Variety as well. The film was also shown in Mexico and San Antonio, and (along with “Los Trabajadores,” Courtney’s earlier film on day laborers) was shown in Austin last month as part of the Mayor’s Book Club events. Recently the Observer spoke with Courtney about her film and its reception in the United States and Mexico.
The following is an excerpt of the interview:
Texas Observer: How did you become interested in workers’ rights issues:
Heather Courtney: I was interested in immigration issues, and before I came to film school, I worked for a refugee organization. I worked with immigrants in Washington, D.C.; I worked in Africa at a refugee camp. Then I came to Texas. I knew I wanted to do a documentary about immigrants, so I started to go to the day laborer site. In all the discussion about day laborers, nobody was paying any attention to the immigrants’ voice. When I was making Los Trabajadores, I met the wife and kids of one of the men in the film. They were back in Mexico, so I got the idea for another film on the other side of the immigration story—you know there are whole communities in Mexico where there are no men left. I got a Fulbright and was able to go to Mexico. Through a women’s organization, I met several women in these villages who were working on proyectos productivos [very small-scale community development projects] where they could try to earn extra money. Growing cactus, making soap, or selling embroidered pillows. I would visit for a couple of months before I started to film. Every once in awhile, a friend from Mexico City would shoot with me, with a camera. But usually it was just me with a camera and a microphone. That helped make them more comfortable. There were many times where they didn’t want me to shoot something, so I wouldn’t. I could tell they were uncomfortable.
TO: How did the idea of video letters come about?
HC: I had been filming for a few months and was going back to the States for a visit, and one of the women asked me if I would visit her son, an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., and show him the videos of her. That’s when I realized how messed up it was: As a stranger I could go visit her son, but she couldn’t unless she wanted to risk her life and cross the border. The film illustrates that: Here I am going back and forth with videos. I can visit her family, but she can’t. It’s the only way they can “see” each other—through the videos. So I went to see him and brought back videos of him to her.
TO: Border security has increased since 9/11, and you talk to the Department of Homeland Security in your film, which was particularly interesting.
HC: Their argument is that other people come through Mexico to be here. But right around the time when NAFTA was passed, was when Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold the Line began. [Stepped up] enforcement in urban areas like San Diego, Laredo, Ciudad Juárez. They would flood the more urban areas of the border with electronic sensors, making it impossible to cross at more populated areas. This was concurrent with NAFTA, so you have two different things happening: making it harder for people and making it easier [for goods and services to cross].
So it’s not just about 9/11, but after 9/11 they bumped up security even more.
TO: There are a couple of scenes in a bakery that are especially telling. The Mexican government is shown bringing supplies, but it didn’t seem as if they were really helping the women. Why did the Mexican government go to all that trouble if they weren’t really going to completely help them?
HC: Because they’re “high-profile.” Carmela’s and Laura’s husbands died outside Victoria, Texas in May 2003, in the biggest immigrant smuggling tragedy in recent U.S. history, which received tons of attention from the press. Because Carmela and Laura lived in the same town [in the state of Guanajuato], a lot of the press went to their town and interviewed them. So of course, the Mexican government wanted to be seen as trying to help them. So they said, “we’ll give them this bakery.” But they just drop off the equipment, take a photo so that they could have proof that they’re trying to help them, and then never show them how to use it. There’s no follow-through. Even if they had showed them how to use it, they wouldn’t have shown them how to run a business, or where they could sell. That’s the big problem. There’s no market for them. It’s a sign of how trade policies might help established businesses that have infrastructure and money, but they’re not helping individual artisans or [micro-businesses] like Eugenia with her cactus plants, who is trying to figure out all these regulations, all these fees. It’s all good intentions, but it’s a Band-Aid approach. Eventually these women are going to stop. They need to be able to access national and international markets.
The education system doesn’t seem to be an option. In rural areas, they only have school through secondario, which is basically like junior high or middle school. If they wanted to go to high school [preparatorio or “prepa”], they would have to go to a nearby city, and there’s usually tuition. It might not be much; add the fact that they have to take the bus—if it’s close enough to go back and forth. If not, they have to figure out how they can stay overnight. They have to buy their school supplies, their uniforms, their lunch. All those things that don’t seem like much to us is a lot to someone who doesn’t have income. So that’s part of the problem: A lot of kids can’t go to school because they can’t afford $50 tuition, paying for bus fare every day, paying for lunch. Since it’s not an option, a lot of boys go to the U.S. when they turn 16; the girls hang out at home, help their moms.
TO: The film has been shown at Slamdance, part of Sundance Festival, in Mexico City, and last March at South by Southwest in Austin. You tried to get visas for the women to come to Austin to attend the screening. What happened?
HC: I contacted an immigration attorney in early February, a month before SXSW. She said it usually takes four to six months for anyone to just get an appointment [at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City] and recommended that I contact Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s office. Through their contacts, they were able to get an appointment for the women, I think within three weeks. In preparation for the visa application, I wrote a letter outlining the reason they would be coming here. I provided a letter from SXSW that said that my film was showing at the festival, and I also provided a notarized letter saying I would pay for their travel expenses, all expenses incurred here, that they were only going to be here for this amount of days for this specific purpose. I couldn’t be there for their appointment because I had to go back to Texas. Only two of the women were actually going to be able to travel, so they went to their appointment.
They later told me that the interviewer said he didn’t believe that I was going to pay for them and asked to see their bank statements. Of course they don’t have bank accounts; they don’t have any money. Of course that’s something that consular officials do all the time. They say [people like these women] are at risk to stay in the U.S. and try to get a job, even though in this case I showed them that I was sponsoring them; they were just going to be here for two weeks for this festival because there was a documentary film about their lives.
I told the women that the audience had responded very strongly to them. They were very touched. But it’s one thing to tell them. It would have been so much more empowering for them to actually experience it—to experience people being so interested in hearing what they have to say.
In Mexico City, the women were able to travel to a conference I was attending. There was a small screening, maybe 20 or 30 people. Everyone is affected by immigration in Mexico, so there were more tears.
But I think Americans have been touched by [this film] too. It’s a very universal story of heartbreak and families being torn apart.
Observer intern Rachel Mehendale is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in Russian and Czech.