Documentary Screening Series Along the U.S./Mexico Border Centers Migrant Audiences

by Lyndsay Knecht May 23, 2023
A woman holding her child on a train

Lillian, the subject of “Lo Que Queda En El Camino,” 2021, travels from Guatemala to Tijuana with her four children on a caravan, joined by the filmmakers.

The first small negotiation in Lo Que Queda en el Camino (Jacob Krese, Danilo Do Carmo, 2021) happens at the very beginning of the film. It is before dawn in Guatemala. A woman named Lillian changes her toddler’s diaper on the ground as bright lights press toward impending departure. Tearful goodbyes surround Lillian as she completes this task her parents know is a tender collaboration, an early struggle for parent and child to agree. Lillian seems to be looking at something beyond the scene, just as that something is looking at her amid the rush.  

As the advancing day heats their crowded trailer bound for Tijuana, Lillian removes her son’s hat to shield the face of her younger daughter from the sun, hoping the child might sleep. Their 2,500 mile journey will be fraught with danger. Lillian is fleeing the abuse of her children’s father, she tells a tattoo artist in the caravan. Lo Que Queda en el Camino’s imagistic voice is dense with people in full sun from a child’s line of sight. Lillian’s inner life — the private negotiation she’s making constantly, quietly, as a person — is later treated as a central concern by cinematographers Arne Büttner and Do Carmo, who she allows to accompany her away from the group to witness private conversations and important disclosures. 

Are migrants safer with filmmakers observing their caravan? What does it mean that the artists who committed to join this trip are neither Guatemalan nor Mexican? These are common first questions raised by a project like Lo Que Queda en el Camino. The documentary’s lack of traction on the U.S. festival circuit created other paths toward understanding the refugee experience. An experiment to engage migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border flips insular programming concerns and aspirations of wide reach to consider: What is Lillian’s relationship to film as a viewer, and how might she have better access to screenings?

Sentient Art Film is a thoughtful distributor that approaches forgotten audiences with curiosity. A special focus on bringing lyrical films that reference their own making to family-friendly, community-based venues included a screening of Yara Trevioso’s meta dance epic La Medea at Dallas’ Latino Cultural Center’s theater last summer.

Organizers Sophia Haid and Tony say Lo Que Queda en el Camino’s run, which began Saturday, May 6 in Laredo and visited Los Angeles on May 12, care of Echo Park Film Collective, is part of an effort to understand how refugee audiences engage with film and how future community events might serve migrant women fleeing domestic and gender-based violence. The final screening took place in Tijuana at Casa De Luz, which is the same collective house open to LBGTQ+ refugees that appears in the film. It is run by community organizer Irving Mondragon, who coordinated the caravan with which Lillian traveled.

A caravan of people on a truck

The caravan of migrants was organized by Irving Mondragon, who invited the filmmakers to make the journey with them. Organizers say the subjects of the film were more open to the project when the filmmakers emphasized that they were not journalists.

When I sat down to review Lo Que Queda en el Camino, I found it impossible to extricate the work from this layer of the distribution strategy by which I was introduced to the project. Seeing Lillian and the migrant women she talks with as a potential audience — not just for this film, or films about the caravans — was an experience of new proximity. I found myself drawn to the details of Lillian’s daughter’s clothes. A full-skirted denim dress with heart-shaped buttons, a signature throughout the wardrobe she layers in vastly different weather throughout the trip, is a glimmer of Lillian’s creative expressions of love for her kids. A t-shirt worn by the girl reads “Everything is cool” in English, evoking Lillian’s humor as she interviews her kids about the trip using her friend’s rolled-up toboggan, like a reporter’s microphone. The small choices that contain Lillian’s preferences — her self — shine when the subject is presented as an audience. 

Not only is Lillian an active participant in this film, but she feels like the reason for its making. Her impulse to be honest, to imagine more, is met with rapt attention. Whereas other recent projects have followed Central American migrants in a wider lens — in the case of Blood on the Wall, the 2020 National Geographic film by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested, the presence of narco-traffickers complicates the experience of the caravans — Lo Que Queda en el Camino gives space to the moments of this journey that reflect individuals who are growing beyond survival.

The narrator in Sara Cwynar’s Marilyn says it directly and with precarity: “To choose when to look and when to be looked at, that is the essence of true freedom.” This is another film made in 2020, an art film concerned with the buy-and-sell of women’s desire in American capitalism — a full extension from the obscured experiences of migrant women and their desires. Lillian made the choice to let herself be seen for Lo Que Queda en el Camino in ways she had never before in her life. Now, for Lillian to have the choice, the time, and the access to look, not as a consumer but as a participant and a critic and an appreciator and perhaps, if she wants, a filmmaker herself (she already is, in one way) — that is a dream worth the effort it will take to realize. 

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