Several new documentaries at the traveling Ambulante Documentary Film Festival capture the drama of Mexico’s immigration crisis, but during its first weekend in Mexico City, one story expanded beyond the screen.
A family of undocumented immigrants from Central America, whose experiences are chronicled in Pau Ortiz’s “The Other Side of the Wall,” were detained by authorities on their way to the festival, and released only after frantic late-night efforts on behalf of the festival and film’s producers.
Ortiz follows a family of undocumented Honduran immigrants struggling to make ends meet in a remote area of Mexico. The emotional real-life drama finds grown siblings Ale and Rocío Morales Rico caring for their younger brother and sister after their mother (also named Rocío) is imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The movie follows their uneven attempts to maintain a stable household and find work, while their mother tries to reopen her case over the course of two years.
Ortiz’s non-fiction tearjerker is filled with intimate moments of frustration and anger, although it eventually arrives a hopeful conclusion, with Rocío released to her family.
On Saturday, the four siblings and their mother were traveling from their home in northern Mexico when they were detained in Villahermosa, Tabasco, for lacking travel papers. The mother was able to contact Ortiz around 11 p.m. on the night before their scheduled premiere.
“They usually don’t travel for this reason,” Ortiz told IndieWire shortly after his premiere. “She knows the risk. They decided to take it because they wanted to share this story.”
Actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna founded the festival 12 years ago to widen the audience for non-fiction films, and Ambulante presents new documentaries at over 140 venues across Mexico over a two-month period. Many of the films in the 2017 lineup deal with immigration challenges, but “The Other Side of the Wall” is one of the few to confront a side of the immigration crisis too often buried by conversations surrounding immigration into the U.S. — the experiences of Central American refugees living in the country.
In Mexico, a law prohibits authorities from demanding that travelers show their documents during transit, but it is often exploited. When Ambulante officials called the immigration office where the family had been detained, immigration officials declined to discuss the situation. At that point, an impromptu team of producers and festival representatives began making a series of late-night calls to activist organizations and legal advisers. “We were waking people up and asking them, ‘Can you call this office? Can you ask for these people?'” said producer Carlos Rossini. “If you ask for somebody enough, they start to take notice.”
All told, Rossini estimated they called around 40 people on Saturday night, and heard from the family that they had been released around 1 a.m. “We were able to explain that we know them, they’re guests of the festival, we’re expecting them,” said Ambulante director Paulina Suárez. “I think there was a racial component to it as well. Because they’re Afro-Hondurans, they get profiled very easily.”
The family continued their lengthy journey across the country the next day, finally reaching Mexico around 4 a.m. It was too late to make the film’s premiere, but the family will be able to attend a special screening in the Senate on Wednesday.
“We’re very aware and empathetic toward Mexican immigrants in the U.S., but show little political solidarity towards Central American immigrants in Mexico,” said Suarez. “So there’s a big contradiction there, and massive human rights violations all along the southern border, and all along their transit across the country. It does change something for young people to go and sit in the Senate, watch this film and confront their senators — there’s a longer tradition of confronting your political figures in the U.S., but it’s been slower here because there’s a legacy of authoritarianism. For young people to see this active debate within the Senate is very valuable.”
The 67-minute “The Other Side of the Wall” next screens at the Hot Docs Documentary Festival in Canada in late April. It’s one of several films screening at Ambulante programmed around the theme of “Justice.” During the packed premiere Saturday, audiences laughed at a moment in the movie when 14-year-old Rocío Morales noted, “Mexico is supposed to have one of the most transparent justice systems in the world.”
Launch Gallery: IndieWire's Favorite Latin American Films of 2016