Interviews

The Undocumented Activists Who Turned Themselves In to Infiltrate ICE

Hyperallergic talks to Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera, the directors of the documentary The Infiltrators, about how they filmed this “reverse heist.”

From The Infiltrators (2019), dir. Cristina Ibarra & Alex Rivera (all images courtesy POV)

In 2012, several members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a network of young undocumented activists, voluntarily surrendered themselves to border patrol agents in order to be sent to a detention center in Florida. Having arrived in the US as children, Marco Saavedra and Viridiana “Viri” Martinez were protected by the DREAM Act and DACA, and believed this unusual strategy would let them assist other undocumented people already in custody.

As the group plotted this “reverse heist,” filmmakers Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera were following them with their cameras. Later, Ibarra and Rivera reconstructed Saavedra and Martinez’s experiences in detention through reenactments. The result is The Infiltratorswhich won the NEXT Innovator Award and an Audience Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Now the documentary has made its broadcast premiere, under very different circumstances from those under which it was filmed. Hyperallergic sat down with Ibarra and Rivera over video chat to talk about its production.

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Hyperallergic: At what stage did you decide that you would follow this story in the way that you did, and that eventually you would reconstruct a good deal of the action?

Alex Rivera: We had been following NIYA for about a year before then, as they had gone through a series of radical civil disobedience actions. After they decided to infiltrate the detention center, we followed them for another six months or a year. When we looked back at our footage, that was the most fantastic story. It had an incredible set of characters, an incredible beginning, middle, and end, and an incredible problem, which is that half of it took place inside detention. We had tried to get into the center and were denied access.

We thought about using animation, performance art, audio. But ultimately, inspired by the activists, we decided to turn toward actors. The activists themselves used wardrobe, hair, makeup, and a script to punk border patrol into taking them in. So it felt organic to work with actors to recreate the part of the story that we couldn’t see.

H: When you started following the group, did you conceive of a more traditional documentary?

Cristina Ibarra: Definitely. We didn’t really know how we would tell the story. We just knew it needed to be told. We did incredibly long sit-down interviews with them in 2014, after the operation finished in 2012. Using that material, we started to shape the film and wrestled with these questions about how to tell the story. When we discovered that actors would be the best way to do it, it was then time to go back to our protagonists and explain this approach to them.

AR: They understood that we needed a way to depict the detention center. But we felt awkward with the idea of pivoting from a process of documentation to one of essentially screenwriting, and we weren’t sure what to do, ethically speaking. So we ultimately decided to show the activists a version of the film with storyboards and our own voices speaking the dialogue we were proposing. If they had rejected this, we would have been stranded with half a documentary and half a script. But we spent two days together and did these kind of memory workshops, where we went through it scene by scene. They showed us how big the spaces were, what shape is the cell, how does the courtyard work. We determined whether our script was accurate. They enriched the whole thing through their dialogue with us. We took that into a script polish and produced the final screenplay.

H: When making the recreations, did you have the actors work closely with the people they were portraying?

CI: We had the actors and their real-life counterparts speak to one another on the phone. They had this bed of documentary evidence that we shared with them to inform their work. The most exciting interaction was when Claudio Rojas came to live with us for a couple of weeks, and sat with us and read the script before we even started shooting. He immersed himself in the creative process with abandon. He was so happy to help coach the actors on their dialects, to help the art department depict a more realistic set. That was impactful in many ways.

From The Infiltrators

H: What influences were there on the look and feel of the reconstructed segments?

AR: One of our main concerns was to have a visual border so that the audience always would know whether they were looking at a real or recreated sequence. In dialogue with our cinematographer, Lisa Rinzler, we looked at the visual texture of the documentary material. It was shot with a small handheld camera and existing light. So for the reconstructions we used a Steadicam, orchestrating its movements with those of the actors. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant was one inspiration.

CI: We also looked to films like The Imposter, The Road to Guantanamo, The Arbor, American Animals … at the time, Netflix had just released Wormwood. We looked at different ways of hybridizing the film grammar that people had been trying. But in those films, the scripted sections are like flashbacks, in a way; a depiction of the memories of the subjects. Here, we treat the scripted moments as present-tense. The timeline keeps moving forward, not jumping back and forth.

From The Infiltrators

H: Since many of your subjects are undocumented, what precautions did you take to ensure their safety, both when shooting and afterward?

CI: At the time we were making the film, it was somewhat controversial to “out” your own citizenship status. Our subjects were some of the more radical activists in the movement, who believed in doing it as a political tool. They were putting themselves at risk by doing so, but in a very calculated way. And you have to remember, this was the Obama era.

AR: In films about undocumented immigrants, you traditionally have a few options. One is to not use their names, not show their faces, etc. But this is a film about a movement where their entire core of their strategy was to come out of the shadows. Having undocumented people come out and tell their own stories is how they build power. So we never considered blurring anybody’s faces or hiding anybody’s names. The whole story had also already been reported on This American Life with everybody’s names made public. Hiding anybody would have been …

CI: Against their strategy.

AR: Yeah. But then, like a nightmare from hell, after the film premiered at Sundance last year, ICE detained Claudio. We went through the surreal experience of reliving the film when trying to get him out of detention, but this time under the Trump regime. It’s a different landscape now, it’s very hard to get this administration to do anything decent to any immigrant. And he was deported, but it’s not over yet. We’re working with Claudio and his family, we’re trying to have the film build power to bring him back, hopefully under the next administration.

H: How is Claudio now, along with the other protagonists?

CI: Viri is working with an organization in North Carolina. Mo is really hard to pin down. Pre-COVID, Marco was thriving at his family’s restaurant; he turned it into a lending library and a hub for activism. But now, as far as we know, the restaurant is still closed. [Ed. Note: The Saavedra family restaurant is currently open for deliveries and is cooking 2,500 weekly meals for the community through a mutual aid program. Marco Saavedra’s immigration case remains active.]

Claudio is in Argentina. He’s separated from his wife, his two sons, and his two grandsons. He was able to hold his first grandchild, but he missed the birth of his second, so he’s incredibly depressed about that. At the same time, he’s also fighting, always working with his lawyer. He loves to be asked about his story; he’s still doing interviews about it. We’re trying to help as much as we can with this film. He’s really eager to get back with his family, especially with this global health crisis tearing families apart in other ways.

The Infiltrators is available to stream on PBS and other platforms.

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