Since 1986, Casa Marianella has provided housing and assistance for thousands of recent immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from 40 countries around the world. Dedicated staff help create a healthy sense of community within their walls and help their guests learn English, find jobs, and see immigration lawyers.
Nayeli is a recent addition to the Casa Marianella community. She is 16 years old and would rather not say her last name. The story of her journey from Mexico (she’d rather not say what part) to Austin is a harrowing one, filled with loss, violence, and fear. She is seeking asylum in the US but, as a lawyer tells her, her chances aren’t great. It’s impossible not to feel for her while listening to her story and watching her make connections at Casa Marianella. Unbeknownst to the staff and residents, not to mention me as I was watching the film, she is a fictional character being played by an actress.
Knowing that the documentary I thought I’d been watching was in fact a “fiction/doc hybrid” changes the way I think about the film. My initial review, had I not bothered with some post-viewing research, would have admired the film’s subject and intentions but complained that, with only a 63 minutes running time, we don’t get enough chance to get to know the people staying thereI would have cited Nayeli as an exception because she gets the most screen time. I also probably would have said that this is one of those rare movies that I’d actually wished had been longer.
I now think that maybe I’d been asking a lot of filmmaker Jason Outenreath and his participants. Outenreath spent a year visiting Casa Marianella and forming relationships and building trust. He did not conduct pre-interviews but instead asked his participants “Tell me whatever you feel comfortable with, about your experience as an immigrant coming to the United States”. The answers he gets vary both in length and in how much detail they are willing to provide. Many of the residents have been through unspeakable trauma and some have good reason to fear for their safety. When I think of what they’ve been through, I appreciate even more how giving they are with their trust in Outenreath and the audience and in how much they are willing to share.
What struck me the most about many of the interviews was the gratitude of the film’s subjects. Many take the time to thank the camera for the opportunity to speak, which is something I don’t see a lot of in documentaries. Outenreath sought to give voice to immigrants and refugees who are too often left out of the much politicized discussion on immigrants and refugees. With all the statistics and rhetoric being thrown around on both sides of the debate, Outenreath reminds us to take the time to listen to the people that we’re arguing about.