LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE from Side Street Films

 

This was the official website for the 2006 documentary film, LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE from Side Street Films. The documentary interweaves video letters carried across the U.S./Mexico border with the intimate stories of women left behind in post-NAFTA Mexico.
Content is from the site's archived pages and other outside sources.

"How many more deaths does it take for the U.S. government to do something? Let it be on their conscience that since our tragedy many more have died and many more will die!"

So says Laura in a video letter to the U.S. government, speaking about her husband who died trying to cross the U.S./Mexico border to search for work. LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE interweaves video letters carried across the U.S./Mexico border with the intimate stories of women left behind in post-NAFTA Mexico. By focusing on a side of the immigration story rarely told by the media or touched upon in our national debate, LETTERS paints a complex portrait of families torn apart by economics, communities dying at the hands of globalization, and governments incapable or unwilling to do anything about it.

The People
The daily lives and struggles of four Mexican women interweave with their video letters, carried across the border (by the film's director) to both loved ones and strangers in the U.S.:

Eugenia González:
"If you invite your father to watch this video, please tell him that I am very happy to have accomplished everything I have accomplished without having to rely on him at all."

Eugenia's husband left some 8 years ago and has never been back. Initially he sent money and called often. But after a little while, he stopped sending money, and the calls became sporadic. In the years following, her sons have left one by one, the first one in search of his Dad. Eugenia has tried to make a new life for herself and her two daughters, learning how to cultivate cactus and make cactus products like soap and jam that she sells in local markets. As her teenage daughter Maricruz talks more and more about going to the U.S., Eugenia worries how she will keep what little family she has left together.

When a video letter opens the lines of communication between Eugenia and her husband again, an engrossing and painful family dynamic unfolds.   Eugenia has conflicting feelings when her husband makes promises of returning home soon. She worries who will "wear the pants" if he does come, and how her 7-year-old daughter Jessica will react to the father she has never known. Yet she also knows how much it would mean to her daughter Maricruz, who hopes against hope that her father will return in time for the approaching date of her quinceañera (15th birthday) celebration.

Maria Yañez:
"All this here is seasonal, we don't have irrigation. When it rains, it grows, and when it doesn't, it doesn't. The crops are only for eating, and anyway, the price in the market is really low now."

Maria Yañez is a subsistence farmer in rural central Mexico, who, along with her husband Domingo, waits for the rain each year to begin planting corn and beans. As they desperately try to eke out a living from their small parcel of land, another son leaves for the U.S. each year, leaving them to wonder, who will they pass their land down to?

As we follow a planting season in Maria and Domingo's lives, we see them worry about the forces of nature and economics, neither of which they can control. As they grow older, it gets more difficult for them to farm, and they hope their youngest son, who has not yet left for the U.S., will take over the land. But Julio, who has one more year of high school left, has other ideas.   "You can't make any money from farming at all. The government doesn't support the small farmer anymore, and prices in the market are really low."

Maria tries to earn a little extra money by embroidering pillows, which sell at a women's cooperative store in a nearby tourist hotspot. Her video letter begins by following one of Maria's pillows over the border and into the U.S. with the American retiree who bought it.

Carmela Rico and Laura Masacruz:
"He said he would only go for a year. The morning he left he hugged and kissed me and the children, and then he left. I never heard from him again. We found out through the television."

The story of Carmela and Laura opens with television news footage of the story of their husbands who lost their lives in the worst immigrant smuggling case in U.S. history - in May 2003, they suffocated in the back of a semi-truck in Victoria, Texas, along with 17 other undocumented immigrants trying to cross the border to look for jobs in the U.S. In an attempt to start their lives over, Carmela and Laura struggle to begin a bakery, but are shell-shocked from their tragedy and frustrated with government band-aid approaches on both sides of the border. Immediately after the tragedy, the Mexican government helped them by donating a large oven and other heavy equipment. But this quick fix hasn't helped get the bakery off the ground -- the equipment stands idle as the woman have no money to invest in additional necessary supplies, and no training.

In a video letter with a U.S. Homeland Security spokesperson, they vent their grief and frustration over inhumane policies that do little to address root problems. Says Laura in the video letter:

"How many more deaths does it take for the U.S. government to say this is enough and do something? They need workers over there, if they didn't people wouldn't be trying to cross the border, and in trying many die. Enough already! Enough death and suffering!"

The Problem
Between 1990 and 2004, the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States rose from 2 million to 6 million. Free trade agreements and liberalization policies have made it increasingly difficult for individual farmers in Mexico to make a living. By 2002, the number of farming jobs had fallen by 1.3 million since NAFTA went into effect in 1994. In that same time period, U.S. corn exports to Mexico have increased by 240%, and Mexican corn prices have fallen by more than 70%.

Meanwhile, U.S. immigration policies since NAFTA and more recently 9/11 have focused on enforcement, driving undocumented immigrants to cross at more and more remote places in more dangerous ways, and pay thousands of dollars to unscrupulous smugglers. A tripling of the number of Border Patrol agents on the U.S./ Mexico border since 1994 has not brought down the number of those trying to cross, but has increased the numbers who die trying and the fee paid to smugglers. The recorded number of immigrants who died crossing the U.S./Mexico border has grown from 61 in 1995 to 464 in 2005, while some estimates show that the average smuggler fee has increased from $300 in 1994 to around $2000 in 2004.

While the U.S. enforces immigration policies that do little to stop migration and only make it more dangerous, the Mexican government does little to stem the flow of migration from their communities. U.S. dollars that flow into Mexico each year from immigrants working in the U.S. may be one reason why. In 2004, Mexicans in the U.S. sent back $17 billion, almost twice the amount sent in 2000. This is more than Mexico makes from tourism, and the country's second largest source of income after oil.

Recently, the Bush Administration proposed a guest worker program that will allow Mexican immigrants to work legally in the U.S. for 3 years but then have to return to their country. Still being debated in the U.S. House and the Senate, many say this will do little to stem the flow of illegal migration, since most immigrants won't want to subject themselves to a time limit of three years. And it does little to address the problem of families forced to live apart. Meanwhile, the enforcement provisions that go along with the proposal, including the proposed construction of an additional 700 miles of fencing along the border, will only make it more dangerous and risky for immigrants to cross.

 



 

COMMUNITY-BASED SCREENINGS

Through a grant from the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division and the Texas Commission on the Arts, free community-based screenings of LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE are being planned throughout Austin. If your organization, church, school, workplace, community center, neighborhood association, apartment complex, or cultural center is interested in helping to organize a screening of LETTERS, with post-screening discussion or activities, please contact Heather Courtney at: letters@sidestreetfilms.com. 

PAST EVENTS

  • St. Stephen's School, Austin, May 2006
    12th grade Theology Class
  • St. John’s Community Center, Austin, May 2006
  • Sierra Ridge Community Center, May 2006
    Residents of Sierra Ridge apartment complex and nearby complexes, co-sponsored by Foundations in Communities and AISD Adult ESL program for northside schools
  • Bedichek Middle School, May 2006
    AISD Adult ESL program for southside schools
  • Reagan High School, Austin, May 2006
    Adult ESL classes, students of Reagan High and their parents
  • Austin Learning Academy May 23, 2006
    Charter school students and faculty
  • Reagan High School, May 16 2006
    Adult ESL classes, students of Reagan High and their parents
  • Mujeres Unidas, Oakland, CA, June 2006
  • Marshall Scholars, Austin, June 2006
  • St. Catherine of Sienna Church, Austin, June 2006
  • St. Catherine of Sienna Mother's Program, Austin, July 2006
  • Austin City Limits Studios, Special Community Outreach Preview in the in advance of the KLRU broadcast, Sept. 2006
  • Ice House Cultural Center, Dallas, in conjunction with PBS station KERA, Sept. 2006
  • St. Mary’s Church, Austin, Sept. 2006
  • Women’s Community Tour with Eugenia in conjunction with www.womenandfairtrade.org - Austin, Dallas, and Houston, TX, and Biloxi and Morton, MS, Nov 2006

 



 

SCREENINGS

UPCOMING FESTIVALS AND OTHER PUBLIC SCREENINGS

 

  • February Screenings to be announced soon

PAST EVENTS

  • Slamdance Film Festival World Premiere, Jan. 2006
  • SXSW Film Festival, March 2006
  • San Diego Latino Film Festival, March 2006
  • Guadalajara (MX) International Film Festival, March 2006
  • Cine Mujer, Esperanza Center, San Antonio, March 2006
  • Big Red Sun, Mayor’s Book Club Event, April, 2006 at Big Red Sun
    co-sponsored by Austin Public Library
  • Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, April 2006
  • Big Red Sun, encore screening, co-sponsored by Austin Public Library and Big Red Sun, as part of the Grand Opening Celebration of new Terrazas Library Branch, May, 2006
  • San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, May 2006
  • Benefit for the Religion and Labor Network of the Equal Justice Center, May 2006
  • San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, May 2006
  • Synergos Border Philanthropy Conference, McAllen, TX, June 2006
  • San Diego Media Arts Center, June 2006
  • Rooftop Films (Brooklyn), July 2006
  • 19th annual Dallas Video Fest, August 2006
  • Bridgewater College, Viriginia, Sept. 2006
  • Missouri KOPN Community Radio and Columbia's One Read Program, Sept. 2006
  • University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Sept. 2006
  • Rutgers UniversityCenter for Law and Justice,
    Oct. 2006
  • The Haifa (Israel) International Film Festival, Oct. 2006
  • The Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival,
    Oct. 2006
  • Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, Oct. 2006
  • The Boston Latino International Film Festival. Oct. 2006
  • Annapolis Film Festival
    Nov. 2006
  • Cucalorus Film Festival, Wilmington, North Carolina
    Nov. 2006
  • Ohio Independent Film Festival, Nov. 2006

 



Director's Statement

My main motivation in making LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE has been to give a
voice to these amazing women I was meeting all over rural Mexico, to give them the recognition they deserve, and to provide a way for people on this side of the border to hear their stories and learn from them.

I became interested in the other side of the immigration story while making my first documentary, a story of undocumented immigrants working in Texas (LOS TRABAJADORES/ THE
WORKERS). While making that film, I met the wife and daughters of one of the men whose story  I was following, and I realized that the pain and struggle of the immigrants here in the
U.S. extended to and intensified with the family and communities left behind, communities that were losing men every day to jobs in the U.S.  This was a part of the story many didn’t know about – how many Americans realize that the man waiting on the street corner for work is
doing so for the wife and children he left behind in Mexico?

Two years later, I left for Mexico, armed with a Fulbright fellowship, a prosumer video camera, my 1989 Volvo station wagon, and a vague idea of telling the immigration story from the perspective of the women left behind.  I had no plan for how the story would fit together, what the narrative arc would be, what the women would be like.  To me, that is the beauty in documentary filmmaking –finding your story and your characters as you make the film, taking cues from the people in the film and interacting with them, letting go of any pre-conceived notions or ideas you might have
had about how the story should go, and being as open as possible to the unexpected.

After a few months of filming several Mexican families, I was about to drive back to the U.S.
for a visit, when one of the women asked if I would show the videos I filmed of her to her
sons, undocumented immigrants working in the U.S.  When I offered to shoot and bring back videos of them, I realized how messed up it was -- I could visit the sons she couldn’t, and shepherd messages over a border she wasn’t allowed to cross.  And that’s how the video letter idea was born, an idea I was a bit hesitant to pursue at first.  All directors have an effect on what is happening in front of the camera, but in setting up and delivering the video letters, I was becoming a much more active participant in the film.  But despite my initial hesitancy, I forged ahead, and I feel these video letters help convey, in a much more visceral way than an interview could, the pain of families torn apart just to survive economically.

I expanded the video letter concept to exchanging videos between women in Mexico and Americans on the other side of the border.  These videos created connections that might not have existed before, illustrating how we are all a part of a system that allows products and
services to move across a border freely, but makes it nearly impossible for some people, particularly those without resources or power, to cross that same border.

Ultimately, that is what I am trying to do with documentary filmmaking -- make connections and help people see a bit of themselves in each other.  The hope is that maybe someone who
sees my film might think differently about something than they had before, or question previously held assumptions, or even be moved to DO SOMETHING.  I have no illusions that
a film can change the world, but I do hope it might change some people’s minds, or maybe their
hearts

 



 

REVIEW

Letters From the Other Side

A post-NAFTA immigration story told by the Mexican women left behind.

LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE interweaves video letters carried across the U.S.-Mexico border by the film's director with the personal stories of women left behind in post-NAFTA Mexico, giving voice to four amazing women who feel the effects of failed immigration and trade policies on a daily basis. Focusing on a side of the immigration story rarely told by the media or touched upon in our national debate, LETTERS offers a fresh perspective, painting a complex portrait of families torn apart by economics, communities dying at the hands of globalization, and governments incapable or unwilling to do anything about it.

"A much-needed examination of the collateral damage of illegal immigration ... sensitive, effective and emotionally potent."

John Anderson, Variety
 
Synopsis: 

A U.S. Homeland Security official watches a video of Laura, a Mexican woman whose husband died in 2003 along with 18 others in the worst immigrant smuggling case in U.S. history. "How many more deaths does it take for the U.S. government to do something?" she asks. LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE interweaves video letters carried across the U.S.-Mexico border by the film's director with the personal stories of women left behind in post-NAFTA Mexico. Director Heather Courtney interacts with her subjects through her unobtrusive camera, providing an intimate look at the lives of the people most affected by today's failed immigration and trade policies. Her use of video letters provides a way for these women to communicate with both loved ones and strangers on the other side of the border, and illustrates an unjust truth - as an American she can carry these video letters back and forth across a border that these women are not legally allowed to cross. As the U.S. Congress and Senate debate this divisive and heated issue, tossing around band-aid approaches such as building a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE provides the human context that has been missing. Focusing on a side of the immigration story rarely told by the media or touched upon in our national debate, LETTERS offers a fresh perspective, painting a complex portrait of families torn apart by economics, communities dying at the hands of globalization, and governments incapable or unwilling to do anything about it. LETTERS FROM THE OTHER SIDE is a co-production of Front Porch Films and KERA Dallas/Ft. Worth, in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS). 

Reviews

"Impressively thorough, painful and honest."

The Austin Chronicle

 

 

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