Iliana Sosa on WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND (SXSW 2022) – Leslie Combemale interviews

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What We Leave Behind won two awards at the fest, the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award, a jury prize created in 2011 to honor SXSW co-founder and director Louis Black, and the Fandor New Voices Award. “Fandor is honored to present Iliana Sosa with the first ever Fandor New Voices Award,” said Phil Hopkins, president of Fandor. “Our team was extremely moved by What We Leave Behind. Iliana beautifully captures the lives and vulnerability of her family, particularly Julián’s humanity, commitment to family and sense of humor in the face of mortality. What We Leave Behind embodies the type of captivating storytelling we work to elevate at Fandor. We could not be more excited to present Iliana with the Fandor New Voices Award.” As part of the Fandor New Voices Award, Sosa will receive a $7,500 cash prize and will have the opportunity to feature What We Leave Behind on Fandor’s independent film streaming service, available across web.

I interviewed Sosa about her film, and both the love and respect she has for her grandfather, and her appreciation for the wonderful crew that helped craft this award-winning documentary came through.

Leslie Combemale: Your grandfather, though he often had simple tastes, was always fascinating to watch. You spoke of his being a bracero during WW2, but can you speak to the many reasons why his experience as a person is universal in terms of being the subject of a documentary?

Iliana Sosa: During production, I was mostly trying to understand this man myself. He’d visited my family and me in El Paso on a monthly basis since I was a kid, but we’d never managed to forge a deep bond. His accent and vocabulary sometimes tripped me up, and he wasn’t a man to speak much about his emotions. Making the film allowed me to appreciate his presence, his body language, and his particular ways of speaking. And screening it, I’ve realized that many of us have trouble finding common language with our elders, especially when we’ve grown up in other countries or cultures.

LC: What were some of the qualities of his that made you most proud?

IS: He has always had such a strong sense of himself — he knew who he was, where he was from, whom he loved, and what he wanted to do. He threw himself into hard work until he passed away. The stories he’d tell me about his past — traveling hundred of miles on foot, sleeping in police stations, facing injustice at work on both sides of the border — sounded unimaginable to me. But he’d always end with a joke or a saying that teased a nugget of wisdom from the experience. He had a wry smile, a sharp sense of humor, and a profound open-mindedness. He looked out for those he loved — making sure we never went hungry, we had food and gifts to remind us of our home in Mexico, and we knew he was there for us. He would always say, “There is more time than life.” He always lived life moment to moment.

LC: What did he think of your filmmaking and of you being the first in the family to go to college? What were his opinions about what you chose to shoot?

IS: These didn’t seem like questions that concerned him too much. He acknowledged that filmmaking was a part of who I am without needing to understand it. That kind of tolerance and acceptance taught me a lot. He seemed indifferent to what we ended up filming — he just enjoyed spending time together, chatting, laughing, eating, and sometimes singing. He was proud of me, but that pride didn’t hinge on me becoming a filmmaker or going to college. It was more that he knew I wanted to pursue those paths, so he was happy that I was doing so.


LC: Can you talk about the collaboration with editor and co-producer Isidore Bethel? How long did you shoot, how long did you film him and how did you approach the editing with so much footage?

IS: I’d been shooting intermittently for about five years before I met editor Isidore Bethel. When he and I were first deciding about working together, he asked to watch some unedited footage. I pulled together an hour or two of selections that particularly resonated with me. He then replied with meticulous, free-form notes on what he watched. Reading them felt like getting to spend time inside his mind. He wrote about what moved, excited, inspired, and delighted him. He noted what felt distracting or problematic before easily letting it fall away. He loved everything I’d always loved about my grandfather — his offhanded comedic timing, his evocative gestures, his wisdom grounded in labor and land. Isidore was also able to situate those feelings in specific moments from the footage. This inspired tremendous confidence in me. He already seemed to know that he could craft a film using only the footage’s strongest moments. A lot of the early editing process involved letting Isidore pursue his desires with the material and then speaking up when something felt missing.

It seemed like his primary tool was carefully choosing the first and last images, phrases, and sounds for a particular shot. He’d then build meaning across the film by honing the junctures between shots, crafting how we build from one cinematic moment to another. We allowed events onscreen to play out as much as they could in the footage itself. That undoubtedly helped the narrative reflect the particular rhythms of my grandfather’s hometown. Isidore — as well as producer Emma D. Miller — also encouraged me to articulate my own connections to the material, approaching both its strengths and its weaknesses as opportunities for storytelling. This was incredibly empowering. For example, when my grandfather was ill and we were caring for him, I sometimes struggled to hold the camera steady. Isidore gravitated towards the feelings in some of those shots and found ways for their presence to speak to my emotional state, as one of the film’s protagonists myself. Moments I’d previously seen as mistakes actually embodied powerful experiences and emotions — and ultimately became motors of meaning in the story.

LC: In terms of the cinematography for which you share credit with Judy Phu and Monica Wise Robles, how did the tasks break down between you three?

IS: I started out filming on my own with minimal equipment — whatever I could get my hands on. It was only after the film received financial support that I was able to bring on Judy and Monica. They brought a real sense of poise and lyricism to the photography, immediately bonding with my grandfather and absorbed the rhythms of his routines. A sense of those rhythms had been present in my early footage but with less consistency. For the last shoot, when I traveled to Durango on my own as my grandfather’s health was waning, I channeled their approaches to camerawork. The final edit features a lot of material from Judy and Monica’s shoots, even though they were only there for a few weeks. On set when I was working with Judy and Monica, I typically stood very close to the camera, even when I was chatting with members of my family who appear onscreen. As a result, our edit could smooth out any discontinuity viewers might’ve noted between the different shooting conditions. What united these different shoots most of all was our love and respect for Julián — at the end of the day, it was his desires and whims that guided our cinematography.

LC: You have so many women working with you below the line in this documentary. Was that a choice on your part, and since it was a film with a smaller budget, can you give us a picture of how everyone worked together?

IS: It was. When the film began to get funding, I felt a sense of responsibility. Being able to compensate others for their work is a form of power, and I wanted to ensure that I was exercising it in line with my own ethics. I deliberately chose to work with women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ artists, both because they come from historically underrepresented communities and because I knew their unique perspectives would have a real impact on the project’s artistry. My creative collaborators included producer Emma D. Miller, cinematographers Judy Phu and Monica Wise (and Mina Kim Fitzpatrick and Laura Bustillos Jáquez, who helped on a few shoots), sound recordist Glenda Charles, sound designer Lena Esquenazi, composer Camilla Uboldi, title and graphic designer Yen Tan, and countless others. I first connected with many of them thanks to Brown Girls Doc Mafia. Natural camaraderie arose between the members of our team, and collaboration was pretty seamless.

LC: You filmed his passing, and didn’t try to stay objective (we can hear you crying) which I can understand and appreciate, but it breaks with the objectivity you show for much of the rest of the film – how did you come to the choice of showing your grandfather dying and why that was it important to the film?

IS: It wasn’t a plan of mine originally. When my grandfather got sick, I went to Durango to be with him and the rest of the family. A friend suggested I bring a camcorder with me, just in case. I ended up filming only when it felt right, which ultimately wasn’t that often. I shared that footage with Isidore and he told me how moving it was for him. He found it particularly compelling how my family came together to accompany Julián to the other side, treating him with dignity and love to the very end. Those scenes also showed my whole family’s dedication to my grandfather and their courage in a moment of crisis. Mexican culture also seems to engage with death and the horror of it more directly than I’ve seen in the US. Julián had always shared his life with us so openly and lovingly — and ultimately he did the same with his death. With time’s passing, I’ve come to understand those final moments as a gift from my grandfather.

LC: What We Leave Behind offers an opportunity for audiences to see beautiful landscape, which explains why your grandfather loved it so much. What makes that land so evocative and special?

IS: I’ve particularly gravitated towards Durango during times of personal crisis — moves, breakups, upheavals at work. In my eyes, there’s always been a deep connection between the land there and my grandfather. For decades, he planted chile, watermelon, corn, beans, and wheat on the plots surrounding his house. He smelled of the earth. As soon as I’d arrive on the bus to Durango, a sense of calm would come over me. Later on in the edit, we’d reached a solid rough cut, but I felt a desire to draw out more of a sense of the land. In close collaboration with producer Emma D. Miller as well as with Isidore, we drafted what ultimately became the film’s voiceover interludes, which more specifically highlight the landscapes of Durango and my own relationship with it. There’s a rhythm to life there that is slower — it’s the rhythm of heat lightning in late summer, of donkeys braying, of waking up early to tend to the land. While I was shooting, I let the feeling of life there wash over me — the experience of slowing down and taking it in felt almost cleansing. I developed a deep sense of belonging in Durango.

LC: We also see your grandfather, Julián Moreno, who represents an aspect of Mexican culture that many Americans don’t understand. What are you hoping audiences will get out of seeing him, getting to know him, and seeing his experience?

IS: Over the course of filming, my grandfather and I spent much more time together than ever before, and I learned to appreciate his clever (if sometimes opaque) turns of phrase. I loved his stories about walking days on end looking for work, about courting my grandmother, about working for decades in the US harvesting strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and cotton as a bracero. Despite that, I recognize that I’ll never come to fully know him — and it’s thanks to him that I’m okay with that. He had a majestic way of being at peace with the world as it is — of just being. I hope audiences come to appreciate his perseverance and work ethic. It’s rare that we get to see faces like my grandfather’s onscreen. He’s part of a lost and forgotten generation, and I’m honored to pay tribute to him and millions of other braceros by bringing his story to viewers.

LC: There’s an interesting push and pull I felt when seeing Julián’s concern for Jorge, his blind son. I love that he was so committed to keeping him safe, but as a woman I was curious about how his daughters and granddaughters felt about it. I also wondered about their relationships with Jorge then and after your grandfather passed.

IS: Jorge’s sisters live in the US, and some of them can’t return to Mexico. Their affection comes out through daily phone calls and care packages of food and clothes. My mother calls Jorge every day — sometimes several times a day — to check up on him. My cousin Rosi and my aunt Herminia, who live in Durango, take turns visiting him every other day. They cook for him and make sure he has what he needs. The bond my grandfather had with Jorge was definitely special, though. They shared a house and bedroom from the time of my grandmother’s death until my grandfather died. Jorge continues to live in the house now — even without being able to see, he knows the space inside and out, better than anyone else.

LC: What legacy, as the film asks us to consider in its title, did your grandfather leave behind, apart from the brick and mortar we see constructed? What do all his descendants have in common that can be traced back to him in terms of qualities or philosophy, or is the fact that so many left for the US mean they became far less connected?

IS: Talking with various members of my family across the US and Mexico during production — and screening the film for audiences — I’ve come to think that Julián’s legacy is different for each of us. That ambiguity and that richness feel reflective of who he was: sometimes inscrutable, always generous, infinitely present. Quite simply, he has left behind a family — one that treasures our bonds to each other and our ties to Durango, even when some of us can’t return there physically.

LC: What did filming your grandfather, both as his descendant and as a filmmaker teach you about life or about your career going forward?

IS: My grandfather carved out his own path in life. His convictions and values never wavered. At times, I’ve struggled to find my place — between Mexican and US culture, English and Spanish, my working-class background and my roles now as a filmmaker and professor. Even within the world of filmmaking, I’ve worked in both fiction and documentary, and have sometimes been unsure about how to identify myself as an artist. I admired and learned from Julián’s confidence, even as he faced overwhelming uncertainty. He provided for seven children on his own after my grandmother’s death, traveling to the US to work for months on end, journeying hundreds of miles with just the clothes on his back. He taught me to embrace the unknown and even to find grounding in it.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.