Sharing the Stories of Young, Undocumented Immigrants

RISERS-COVER-ART
September 24, 2017 | 10:19 am by Karolle Rabarison

Interview produced by Erik Moe.

RISERS is a film and educational program driven by the first-person perspectives of young undocumented immigrants whose lives and stories are emblematic of the need for immigration reform. Their statements examine their respective journeys to the US, anecdotes from their childhood, and how they are contributing to American society. We recently chatted with filmmaker Andy Fernandez about the project.

How did RISERS get its start? What moved you to advocate for young undocumented immigrants in your work?

I was born in D.C., raised in Arlington, but my family came here as immigrants. They didn’t have to go through any of the things that recent immigrants are going through. It wasn’t so politicized. In 2013, I attended an immigration reform rally on the National Mall. Footage from that day was the start of RISERS. I knew that there was something that I could do visually. I just had to figure out what.

And how did the young people you’re working with get involved in the project?

Douglas Gonzalez was someone I had played in a soccer tournament with. When I met him, he was 17. Fast forward four years and he’s graduated from high school, undocumented, working and helping his family pay the bills. So he was a natural guy to go to. He introduced me to the poet Aura Alvarez, and she introduced me to Gerson Quinteros and Brenda Amador who are actually the two main leads.

You let each of them speak for themselves, which feels like a natural choice. Was it hard to avoid putting your own voice in the mix?

I can’t inform the public on what it’s like to be undocumented. I’m not undocumented. I can’t inform the public on what it’s like to be an immigrant. I’m not an immigrant. From a storytelling perspective, their own narratives are really what drove the film. Had I not been lucky enough to find these charismatic young adults, maybe I would have had to put more of myself in the film. Giving them the platform to tell the story was a no-brainer. I just had to figure out how to make it all look.

You made strong aesthetic choices: bold backdrops, staring straight in to the camera? Is that something you were doing before you came to this project?

I’ve always been influenced by the fashion industry, starting in high school with Details Magazine and then GQ. I loved looking at set design and costumes. I think most filmmakers try to make their film look as good as possible, make them look beautiful. This is my way of trying to do that.

So the media shaped your aesthetic choices as a young person, and now you’re turning those influences toward creating media with social impact. How do you see the media shaping the conversation about undocumented immigrants?

Media tends to treat this problem as all politics and victim narratives, and I am somewhat averse to that. I want to tell stories that show how normal these young people are. Even though I think they are doing extraordinary things, they’re really just normal young adults just like I was or like anybody is. These are normal kids whose fates are in the hands of the U.S. Congress.

Beyond the film, RISERS is also taking these stories to audiences in person?

Yes. When Brenda and Gerson joined, we began talking to schools about what it’s like to be young and undocumented as a college student. The first was a private school, which was perfect. I didn’t just want to preach to the choir. Later we spoke to a group of high school students who had just arrived in the country. The tone of the presentation changed. The message changed. Brenda and Gerson were much more inspirational. They said, “it’s OK to be undocumented; It’s OK to be an immigrant; You should be proud of your culture.” At that point I knew. This is the film. Right here. It’s them engaging with their peers and telling the story from the perspective of two people who have already been through it.

So are you looking for more of those kind of live, public forums? Is that the best way people can help, by organizing a screening in their community?

Absolutely. Community groups, libraries, teachers. We’ve spoken to Spanish classes, Civil Liberties classes, all kinds of groups. Contact me through the form on our website, www.risersdc.com.

RISERS will premiere at the Media Rise Festival on October 1, 2015, 7:30-9:30pm (claim your ticket). There will be a fundraiser event in D.C. with the child development group Centro Nia on October 2, 2015. RISERS also has a youth screening with LAYC planned, a screening in New York, and a fundraiser in mid-October to support a Los Angeles screening and talk. Watch the teaser below, and visit www.risersdc.com for details.