A new documentary chronicles a family's everyday life in a Mexican border town.
Texas filmmaker David Redmon was originally drawn to Reynosa, Mexico, because it had so repelled Werner Herzog. Herzog, the German filmmaker known for shooting in extreme environments, has filmed the burning oil fields of Kuwait and an active volcano in Antarctica, but he could hardly tolerate the U.S.-Mexico border town of Reynosa, which is notorious for its demoralizing poverty, soulless maquiladoras, and pervasive crime.
Herzog had gone to Mexico to avoid U.S. immigration officials who were after him for violating his visa. While in Reynosa, he bought televisions and guns in McAllen to sell across the border, and suffered an injurious stint as a rodeo rider.
“My time down there was quite banal and partially miserable too,” the director reported in Herzog on Herzog, a collection of interviews with the filmmaker.When Redmon learned about Herzog’s aversion to Reynosa, he decided to look for a documentary project there. Redmon was also driven by a difference of opinion with Herzog, whom he criticizes for magnifying dramatic situations in his films. For Redmon, it’s precisely the seemingly banal aspects of life that are most interesting.
In the summer of 2003, Redmon drove to Reynosa with Ashley Sabin, his filmmaking partner and significant other. He had just finished a year’s teaching at Boston’s Emerson College, where he’d earlier met Sabin when she was an undergraduate student. In Mexico, they found a place to stay in a community of factory workers and began scavenging for stories. Initially, they wanted to shoot a documentary about a woman who sewed pink Victoria’s Secret bags on the dirt floor of her shack, but they lost track of her before they could get started.
For the next month, Redmon and Sabin bicycled around Reynosa with their equipment stowed in their backpacks. They snuck into maquiladoras but invariably were caught.
Unable to shoot a documentary about working conditions in maquiladoras, they refocused on a potential story about the lumber business. Redmon and Sabin had become fascinated by people building homes out of discarded wood. One day they knocked on the door of a shack made from scraps, and a young couple answered. Their names were Cecy and Camilo, and they would become the subjects of the filmmakers’ second collaborative project, a documentary titled Intimidad, intimacy.
Cecy and Camilo showed the filmmakers a different side of Reynosa emotionally distant from the factories and seemingly oppressive poverty.
Both 21 at the time, the couple welcomed Redmon and Sabin into their home and allowed them to begin recording their lives.
Cecy and Camilo were from Santa Maria, Puebla, in the far south of Mexico, but had migrated to Reynosa to work in the maquiladoras. Too poor to afford a decent home in the more expensive north, they left their infant daughter Loida in the care of their families.
Intimidad picks up the story as Cecy and Camilo pursue their modest dream of purchasing land and building a house outside the city, away from the flooded streets and pollution, where they can feel comfortable bringing Loida to live with them. The problem is that they make barely enough money to survive.
Both work in maquiladoras. Cecy sews bras for Victoria’s Secret, a unit of U.S.-based Limited Brands Inc. She says she gets 18 cents per bra. Camilo assembles fire hydrants for Johnson Controls Inc., another U.S. corporation.
Eventually, the couple purchases land, builds a home sheathed in plywood, and sends for their daughter. Camilo works two jobs plus overtime. The young couple’s relationship nearly falls apart in the struggle for money.
The filmmakers say they wanted to document Cecy’s and Camilo’s lives mainly because they found their warmth and openness extraordinary. Redmon and Sabin ended up following their subjects for five years, even giving Cecy and Camilo a camera to film themselves, making for an unconventional film that Sabin describes as part home video. As the film evolved, so did the relationship between documentarians and subjects.
While Cecy and Camilo’s struggle points to large, socioeconomic issues-like the multinationals that won’t pay living wages and NAFTA’s impact on Mexican families-the film’s true focus is on the family’s everyday lives. What could have been a depressing treatise on economic inequality emerges as an uplifting portrait of familial affection and commitment.
Though they have next to nothing, Cecy and Camilo maintain their sense of humor and persevere to build better lives for themselves and their daughter-aspirations the filmmakers clearly regard as reminiscent of the American Dream. Redmon and Sabin hope Intimidad will help U.S. audiences relate to the challenges facing Mexican migrant workers and their families.
“People in America tend to write off Mexicans,” Sabin says. “We wanted to film a more personal story that people could connect to on a human level, that shows that what people want around the world is much the same: simply a home and a sense of security.”
Reunion in Reynosa
On a sweltering afternoon this past May, Redmon and Sabin drive to Reynosa in a mid-1990s Honda Civic with no air-conditioning, a tendency to overheat, and a “Make Trade Fair” bumper sticker.
Since Intimidad‘s premiere at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival last March, the pair has been touring the U.S. showing the documentary at film festivals. They have $900 to deliver to Cecy and Camilo, having agreed to split their screening proceeds with the couple. They’ve also been selling jewelry made by Cecy along the way.
As the filmmakers near the couple’s neighborhood on the outskirts of Reynosa, Cecy and Camilo’s lime-green house stands out among the muted gray and brown shacks nearby. The family is not home when the filmmakers arrive, but Redmon and Sabin note the changes since their last visit, in January. Cecy and Camilo have planted a garden, started a second room on their home, and constructed an outhouse with plywood walls, where Loida has painted her name and a heart in yellow.
Not long after the filmmakers arrive, Cecy and Loida return. Cecy has soft features and a contemplative face, while Loida has wide, curious eyes. Loida shows off her silver purse as Redmon asks Cecy about the last several months, making the most of his limited Spanish. At one point, Cecy interrupts the conversation, giggling and pointing at Redmon’s pants. It’s the first time she’s ever seen him in anything other than his favorite red corduroys.
About an hour later, Camilo arrives from the factory. He’s initially more reserved than Cecy, but later in the evening, when Redmon shows him a documentary on his computer called Manufactured Landscapes, he becomes more animated. The first five minutes of the film feature a factory tour, highlighting the facility’s massive size and impersonal nature.
“That’s exactly what it’s like,” Camilo says, not without pride.
The personal bond between the documentarians and Cecy and Camilo underscores one of the film’s primary artistic achievements.
Cecy and Camilo say they agreed to have their lives recorded primarily because of their fondness for Redmon and Sabin.
At one point, they say, Cecy and Camilo’s neighbors insisted that the filmmakers planned to kidnap Loida, but the Mexican couple ignored them.
While the emotional connection between the couples made Intimidad possible, it also created dilemmas. Redmon and Sabin struggled to find a balance between documenting intimacy and maintaining respect for their subjects’ privacy. That struggle came to the forefront when the filmmakers traveled to Santa Maria with Cecy and Camilo over Christmas to visit Loida and their families.
When Cecy and Camilo greeted Loida, she turned away. Sabin says she felt uncomfortable filming the scene and held back, fearing she might upset Cecy. She only began to record the encounter-an important moment in the film, as it demonstrates the effect separation has had on Loida-when Cecy gestured to move closer.
Later in the trip, Camilo cries when he learns that Cecy won’t be returning with him to Reynosa. The filmmakers decided Sabin should shoot the scene, fearing Camilo might conceal his emotions with a man filming.
Sabin says she hesitated to document the moment because she had never seen Camilo so vulnerable.
“When Cecy was crying, I didn’t feel as uncomfortable filming because she’s very emotional,” Sabin says. “But Camilo’s very macho.”
The filmmakers’ close relationship with their subjects also raised questions about their ability to maintain a detached viewpoint. Redmon and Sabin consulted the Mexican couple on especially personal scenes, such as Cecy’s father’s funeral and the moment Camilo cries. This fact led audience members at the Independent Film Festival of Boston last April to question the filmmakers’ editorial independence. The fact that Cecy and Camilo filmed themselves added to speculation about whether the documentary provides a truly candid portrait.
Redmon and Sabin say the couple never challenged them on which scenes to include in the film, except for the footage in which Camilo cries. In fact, the documentarians found Cecy and Camilo surprisingly comfortable with intrusion. For instance, Cecy urged the filmmakers to include a shot of her father’s face at his funeral, when Redmon and Sabin had planned to cut it out of respect for her family. They explain that the other couple’s ease was largely because of their confidence that Intimidad would never screen in Mexico. (To this day, the couple refuses to tell their families about the film, and Camilo says he never wants anyone he knows to see the documentary because of the moment when he cries.)
Still, certain scenes do suggest staging. Intimidad shows several arguments between Cecy and Camilo over whether to remain in Reynosa or return to Santa Maria to be with Loida. During these quarrels, the couple seems curiously reserved, almost like they’re reading from a script. As it turns out, there’s good reason for their apparent awkwardness: The original arguments weren’t filmed; Cecy and Camilo re-created them for the film.
The documentary loses some credibility during these moments. While Redmon and Sabin say the content of the disagreements is real, the scenes nonetheless raise questions about whether the documentary probes deeply enough into the complexity of Cecy’s and Camilo’s emotions.
These scenes also draw attention to the challenges of crafting a narrative from day-to-day activities. The filmmakers say they included the re-created arguments because they were necessary to build tension. They also admit they re-created other scenes, including one in which Cecy calls Loida on a pay phone.Elsewhere, some of the film’s transitions appear somewhat clumsy. For instance, at one juncture the film announces that a whole year has passed, a jump that jars. The filmmakers explain that nothing of narrative interest happened in the interim. More likely-given the everyday aesthetic underpinning the film-no camera was around to catch it.
Back in Cecy’s and Camilo’s single-room home, the evening whiles away. The room-one bed, a small table for cooking and a couch-is well-kept and decorated with bouquets of flowers. At about 11 p.m., Cecy begins to rub her eyes, exhausted from working at a food stand. She recently started working six days a week to pay Loida’s bus fare to school, $40 a month. Cecy and Camilo are committed to keeping Loida in school-they never want her to labor in a factory; the work, they say, is too hard.
Spending an evening with Cecy and Camilo is not unlike watching a scene from Intimidad. Their lives are consumed with working and caring for Loida. While this makes the scope of the film extremely narrow, Redmon and Sabin believe the themes are common to people anywhere in the world. They say they never want to make what they describe as a “Michael Moore documentary”-arranging snapshots to support assumptions already held by the filmmaker. Instead, Redmon and Sabin first try to get to know people and discover what’s surprising about them, and then decide what story they want to tell.
“I don’t think I could ever make one of those sweeping, grand films,” Sabin says. “What is interesting to David and me is the everyday struggle and passions that people have. When we make films, we come and stay and spend some time with people and talk to them.”
As film partners, the two complement each other well. Sabin connects with people easily and has an attuned aesthetic eye, while Redmon, a Ph.D. in sociology, tends to see the larger implications of his subjects’ stories. Redmon is also the more technically adept member of the team. Intimidad is the second documentary they’ve produced and directed together.
The first was Kamp Katrina, a raucous film about a woman who allows people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina to camp in her backyard. For Mardi Gras Made in China, a film contrasting hedonistic Mardi Gras festivities with the lives of factory workers in China who make bead necklaces, Sabin helped edit a few scenes, but Redmon created it largely on his own. They say they continue to define their roles within the partnership, and each is quick to point out the other’s strengths and their own weaknesses. Redmon credits Sabin with the humor in their films, while Sabin says Redmon is the better story analyst.
Intimidad ends with Cecy and Camilo silently eating dinner at their table and peering around their new home with ambiguous expressions.
Redmon says the final scene is intentionally unclear, to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions about whether Cecy and Camilo are content with their new home and the sacrifices they made to obtain it.
This scene also reminds Redmon of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime,” which is about a moment in a man’s life when many goals have been met, but the path ahead remains uncertain.
Cecy and Camilo have accomplished a lot, but while they now have a decent home, they still work long hours to meet basic needs and keep their daughter in school. As their lives progress, Redmon and Sabin hope to continue to film them. They want to document Loida until she’s 18. Sabin, who says she’s developed maternal feelings toward Loida, worries that one day Loida will no longer enjoy being filmed.
Through five years of filming, Intimidad became more than a documentary about a Mexican family trying to stay afloat in a global economy that doesn’t recognize their worth, and more than a film about people of extraordinary character.
In the end, Intimidad is also about forging friendships across borders.
“The true struggle in this film was how to document intimacy and how to experience intimacy while remaining distant enough,” Redmon says. “But we think we did it.”
Lydia Crafts is a public radio reporter and writer based in Austin. Intimidad is scheduled to screen Sept. 12-18 at Cinema Latino theaters in Fort Worth and Pasadena, and September 30 at Texas State University in San Marcos.