From November 13th to November 15th, the Cinema Studies Club will be hosting an Immigrant Film Festival. This past week, the organizers of the festival, Gabriela Cartagena and Ana Aravena, sat down with editor Jacob deBlecourt to talk about their experiences. Below is a transcript of that interview, edited for clarity.
J: Great, well thank you for sitting down with me today for this interview, I know you’re very busy this week preparing for the festival. So I just wanted to start out by asking you about how this film festival came about.
A: Well, it was really Gabriela’s baby. As soon as we became partners in the [Cinema Studies Club] she came up to me with the idea, like “we should do something with immigrant film.” I was all like “I’m totally on board with it.”
G: Yeah, I mean, just to add on to that, for the Cinema Studies Club I wanted to start with something that has a purpose, not just meeting and talking about film–which is great and all but what else are we doing with it? I feel like academics and art can be so inactive and passive that you need to take the extra step and add some action to it, which is what film is.
J: Absolutely, and you both have been really active because this festival doesn’t just involve the Cinema Studies Club but the French Club, the Asian Student Center, Casa Latinx, all of these groups. What do you think gives this event such wide appeal?
G: First it starts with the ask, and just making it..making an event that isn’t just film. What else can we bring to the table rather than just film and moving images. This purpose is just our purpose, it’s everybody’s purpose, we all have this relationship to the immigrant experience. We all have moved some way in this country around this world. We all share this experience whether we acknowledge it or not, and I feel like these [clubs] have that direct relation with the immigrant experience.
A: Especially now in a time when I feel like being an immigrant has fallen to, like, a dark shadow in the political world so I feel like a lot of people want to get involved because they feel it is important for these stories to be told and to acknowledge that it is something that not just one group of people can relate to.
J: That’s a great point, because, like you said, we all have some sort of immigrant story, at least most of us do. I’m a third-generation American myself. I was wondering, if you feel comfortable, talking about your own family’s immigrant experience.
A: My dad is from Chile and he immigrated to the United States when he was 18. He still has family in Chile, they can’t afford to come over here. So that culture has been a part of me throughout my whole life and I feel it’s been hard–especially for my dad. We grew up in Winthrop, that’s where I’m from; it’s a very conservative town for Massachusetts so like people have their own decisions about you before you even can present yourself. I feel like the fact that he’s had that struggle, trying to get a job or whatever, because of the stigma and stuff has affected me because I grew up in a poorer situation and it’s made me strive to do better. That identity of being hispanic stayed with me and I want to do better than my dad to make him proud.
G: Yeah and I feel like so many people identify with identity, which is why these student organizations have felt compelled to help, even the ones who can’t really directly relate. Like the French club, for example, I know that they are allies. And since they understand, they want to help. Personally, both my parents came from El Salvador. My dad is El Salvadoran and Honduran so there’s a [history] of internal civil war and extreme poverty. So [my parents] came to the US. Both of my parents, they’re what they call in Spanish dos veces mojado, which literally translates to “twice wet” because you would have to pass the Rio Grande twice. So they struggled and now I’m in college and my brother graduated from UMass Lowell with a degree in engineering. Their efforts have definitely paid off with their kids but I still want everyone to recognize those experiences that people haven’t directly lived or those that have been surpressed from our history. Like I know the Chilean history, but you can’t really find what happened in museums or schools. It’s up to us to educate ourselves.
J: You’ve put a lot of thought into this process because there are so many ways to convey the stories of immigrants. I think often times, something that I’ve noticed is cinema has a tendency to take the immigrant stories and make it “The Immigrant Story.” Sometimes, when you try to present a marginalized community you can often sometimes reinforce those stereotypes. What concerns you about the way immigrants are presented on film?
A: Well I think they like to fantasize the immigrant story, that it will always have a happy ending–you’re gonna go through the struggle and then you’re gonna come out successful. The reality is these people, a lot of times, go through this struggle and either die trying or they still have to work hard once they get here to get just a bit of success. I feel like film’s depiction of that story has kind of warped people’s ideas. Just like you were saying about “The Immigrant Story,” where they think like “oh, we’re coming here because it’s so much better,” but a lot of immigrants come here because they have to, either because they’ve been persecuted by their government or there’s a war going on and they have to leave for their own safety. They don’t want to leave their home but sometimes they have to. I think it’s important to show every aspect of it so people can understand better.
G: I think that the immigrant story that is portrayed in cinema is also kind of warping what the American dream actually is, [believing] that you can reach this in a very systematic way. There’s a guy I work with and he was telling me he starts his day at 4am. I was saying “oh I’m so tired; I woke up at 7” and he was like “oh I woke up at 4 and I’m closing with you.” He lives in East Boston so he wouldn’t get home until about 10:30, so 4am-10pm, working all these hours not even 9-5, all just to afford an apartment and food for his children. What are the chances that him working 4-10 and not having enough to save will allow him to afford a home. Where is that bridge for the American dream? And the way immigrants are presented in cinema is warping this American dream to enforce a happy ending, which does not happen to many of us.
J: The way we think about cinema is very important, especially when it addresses groups of people that aren’t normally brought up in film. I think what interests me most about these types of films is how they are perceived by people who are not a part of these communities. Take Touki Bouki, for example, which won the International Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival in France. It’s a film which is very critical of what I would call French Dream, but given this award by a French film institution. How do you think these films are going to be perceived by people on campus who may not have lived these experiences?
A: That’s an interesting question. The hope is that they’ll see the film and be like “wow, maybe next time when I hear about an immigrant story on the news or if I meet somebody from there [I’ll listen more].” But there are always those people who are like “I don’t get it.” I recently read an article about the short film that showed before a Disney film [Editors Note: The film in question is Bao] about a Chinese American. A lot of people were mad because they didn’t get it, but to a lot of Chinese Americans it really resonated with them and their experience growing up in America. So there’s always a chance that it could go to the I-Don’t-Get-It realm, but I hope people will watch these films and look at them in a critical light.
G: I agree and I think it’s important for people who leave not getting it to go home and do research, or ask or try to reach out and talk to someone. I mean, that’s art, I’d rather you feel something than nothing.
J: It’s great that you bring up art because I think there are a lot of ways to convey peoples’ personal stories. What do you think film does that makes it distinguishable from other media of art?
A: I think film has the ability to get across to a large amount of people. With art it’s like in a museum and not a lot of people can afford to go. But with film, especially these days, people can post things they’ve made on YouTube which is, for now, a free and accessible thing. The more you’re exposed to these kinds of films the more understanding you’ll get. It may not be right away but you’ll think about it more.
J: My last question is just, if you had to pick any movies that won’t be shown during the festival that you feel people have to watch, either to understand you or the festival, what would they be?
A: Good question. I think maybe Pan’s Labyrinth. I’m a huge Guillermo Del Toro fan and the fact that he weaves these messages in about fascism and capitalism into this fantasy film is really impressive. The first time I watched it really got me to think. I think it’s really relevant today with the pale man who has all the food but if somebody touches it he goes and kills them. So just the themes in that film I feel are extremely relevant and it’s one of my favorites.
G: I’d say Ixcanul, only because it’s an indigenous film based in Guatemala with French funding. When I first watched it, I didn’t get it. But again, reinforcing not getting it is important. Even though I am brown and come from indigenous ancestry, I don’t know shit about it because I grew up here in Boston and I know a lot of that history was repressed. It’s hard to fill those [gaps in information] all the way over here. It’d be a lot easier if we talked about these things. The film is in Kaqchikel and it’s an indigenous language with some Spanish in it. And it just shows this complexity of growing up wanting to be a woman and needing that other world to help you stay alive, like literally in regards to health. It’s deep.
J: Thank you so much for sitting down with me and I really look forward to the Film Festival!
A: Thank you.
G: Thank you.