“Hiding in the shadows isn’t a path to power”
An interview with Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera, co-directors of “The Infiltrators”
“The Infiltrators” chronicles the riveting, unbelievably true story of a group of activist Dreamers who slipped undercover into ICE detention centers to stop those inside from being deported. With a formally daring mix of fiction and documentary, filmmakers Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera track young Marco Saavedra as he gets himself arrested in order to save a Mexican father from getting thrown out of the country. Winner of this year’s Sundance NEXT section Audience Award, “The Infiltrators” has been compared to a classic prison escape movie and a thrilling genre film—with a powerful political message to boot. Ibarra and Rivera discuss their unique mix of forms, the fate of one of their subjects, Claudio Rojas, and the ongoing crisis for immigrants in the U.S. today.
How did you first find out about the National Immigrant Youth Alliance?
Alex Rivera: In 2010, we saw in the news something that was really disturbing and exciting, which was undocumented youth, dreamers, taking this radical step, getting arrested and taking part in civil disobedience actions, risking their deportation as an act of political protest. We knew there would be a story there, and so we had reached out to them, and they had seen my previous films, so there was some trust there. Then we started working with them to tell their story. We didn’t know what the story would be, but we filmed with them for two years, and the infiltration of the Broward County Detention Center emerged in that journey.
Within the film, it becomes clear that being visible and public is helpful in raising awareness, but I wonder if it also risks making them targets. Were you at all concerned that the film might put any of them in further danger?
Alex: That’s the core of their project. When we met the group, they had high confidence that the key to being safe as an undoubted immigrant is coming out of the shadows. If nobody knows you and you’re not part of any organization, you’ll find yourself on a bus to Mexico really quickly. If you’re active in the church or the union or other organizations, and they can fight for you, you will have a better chance of staying. Visibility equals safety. So through the process of filming, there were really no doubts about that. But now we’re in a different era. Hiding in the shadows isn’t a path to power, but we’re in a moment in the Trump era right now where we don’t know what is the power of visibility.
Cristina Ibarra: One of the approaches we’ve tried to stick to is we really turned to the activists themselves as the leaders, paving the path for us, to make the film. We don’t have access to the stories, so we’re really taking the lead from them, because they’ve been working on these issues for a long time.
Back to this question of visibility, one of your key subjects, Claudio Rojas, was recently detained again after being released several years ago. Do you think the film had an impact on his case, and what’s his current status?
Alex: It’s very hard to know what the relationship is between the film and his recent detention. There are thousands and thousands who had a stay of removal, where from years ago they were granted time to be here and with their families, and now they’re walking into ICE to check in with them and they’re getting taken away. That has been a pillar of the recent ICE strategy, detaining people who are walking in the front door. Claudio was in a precarious position, but we don’t know if ICE targeted him because of the film. We also don’t know if the film is going to help him get out. That’s what we’re hoping. Because of the high profile of the case, he has a strong legal team now and a lot of support. We’re hoping the visibility of the film builds power around the case, and offsets the risk of participating in the film. These equations are complicated, but everyone believes that staying in the shadows is not a good option.
Cristina: Remember that Claudio had already been doing this work, and that was a choice he had made, and the film amplified this choice, and gives him a larger platform. But a larger question is what this case means for documentary filmmakers in this country. There’s this idea that Claudio’s detention was retribution for exercising his free speech. The International Documentary Association recently circulated a petition on his behalf because they believe this has the potential to have a chilling effect on all documentary filmmakers, so we should all be concerned.
So let’s discuss the unique combination of fiction and documentary that the film employs. Alex, I know you’ve done fiction films before (“Sleep Dealer”) but how did you decide to create this hybrid mix to tell this story?
Alex. When we settled on this story, which is a story about organizing a campaign inside a detection center, which is a place where journalists can’t go, we realized we had this great footage of the outside of the campaign, but not on the inside. So how do we tell the story? We thought about animation, or conceptual reenactments, inspired by Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” or “The Arbor,” but we ultimately decided to emphasize the cinematic pleasures of this kind of-doc heist. So we turned to these reenactments that aren’t quite real, but are rooted in documentary. We believe as filmmakers when you have a problem like this, solving that problem pushes you into unknown creative terrain. But by doing something that’s never been done before, it’s been exciting for us.
Cristina: One of the things that we discovered is that we wanted to keep things moving forward, in a present tense feel. So when you cut to the scripted version or the story, the clock is still ticking forward, and you’re not recreating something that happened in the past. That was one of our guiding principles: How do we keep it present tense in both worlds.
Speaking about the past, while watching the film, I kept thinking to myself that this all takes place during the Obama years, and wondering how much worse off it is now. Or is it not that different?
Alex: The activists will say that it’s not that different. And the statistics show that. Obama still has the record of deporting the most people in U.S. history: 400,000 people. His administration built a series of connections between local law enforcement and immigration, and that’s how they hit those massive numbers. That’s something that liberals and the left has to reckon with: Why did we accept that? I’d rather have a President who cares and speaks eloquently about what it’s like to be an immigrant but who believes in it, and allows people to be with their families, and dials down the enforcement regime.
Now we’ve come to a place where we have these political prisons, places where people are locked up who have not committed a crime. Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime. But we have a system with 200 prisons around this country, where 40,000 people are locked up. But because these are political institutions, they’re all vulnerable to attack, to being challenged, and that’s the story of our film: It’s a political campaign to free people from these detention centers.
Ibarra: We’re often used to feeling, ‘This is how it is.’ But you don’t have to accept something that you think is immoral or unethical; you can intervene, and that’s what the film is trying to remind you: That you can fight back.