Over the years, Heidi Ewing has been steeped in the world of documentaries. The New York-based filmmaker is perhaps best known for "Jesus Camp," the Academy Award-nominated peek inside Kids on Fire School of Ministry that she co-directed with Rachel Grady. But, while Ewing’s latest film, "I Carry You With Me," did begin its life as a documentary, the story of a couple’s journey from Mexico to the United States, took a different turn.
Ewing says that "I Carry You With Me" is the "most organic story" that has come to her. Years ago, at neighborhood bar on salsa night, she met Iván and Gerardo, the real life couple at the center of the film. They quickly became friends, but about seven years would pass before she learned their life story. "It blew my mind. It was epically romantic. It was full of sacrifice. It was nostalgic," she says, by phone from a coffee shop in Manhattan. "It touched me deeply and I knew that I had to bring their story to the screen in some kind of way."
Initially, she thought the film would be a documentary and began filming interviews with Iván and Gerardo, while capturing important moments in their lives. "I realized that this was basically the third act of a movie and the first and second act of the film just needed to be scripted," says Ewing. "It needed to be a narrative."
Instead, "I Carry You With Me" became a hybrid. The couple’s past is told as a narrative film, with Mexican actors Armando Espitia and Christian Vasquez in the roles of Iván and Gerardo. Their recent history is told through the documentary footage that Ewing shot. "It’s a film about memory," she says. "It’s a very lyrical film and it deserved a narrative treatment. So, I switched gears," she explains. "I continued to keep filming them with my own cameras. Then I started writing a script. In the end, the result is an interesting meeting of the two forms."
Iván and Gerardo met in Puebla, Mexico during the 1990s and their relationship was complicated by the struggle to live openly as gay men at that time. Separately, they made their way to the U.S. and were able to resume their relationship. Love won, but it also came with a caveat.
"The movie, in a lot of ways, is a meditation on the price of freedom," says Ewing. "They’re successful. They have all the social freedoms that they were looking for. Yet, they can’t go home."
The movie, in a lot of ways, is a meditation on the price of freedom. They’re successful. They have all the social freedoms that they were looking for. Yet, they can’t go home.Heidi Ewing on her film "I Carry You With Me"
Making the film, which is in Spanish with English subtitles, was a challenge. "I am an American woman. Spanish is not my first language," she says. "I was desperate to get it right and to make an authentic film created by a mostly Mexican crew."
She did a lot of research before she began to shoot the film. "Obviously, I relied a lot on my friends — the real Iván and Gerardo — to help me paint the picture of what it was like to live in Puebla in 1994," says Ewing.
Finding the actors to fill the lead roles was a "big odyssey" as well, but Ewing struck a perfect match with Espitia and Vasquez. "There is an immense chemistry between these two actors. I think that’s what makes the movie work." Pointing out that the two actors had not met each other prior to "I Carry You With Me," she adds, "when I put them in a room together, I knew that they could carry the film."
"I Carry You With Me" premiered at Sundance in 2020, where Ewing won the NEXT Innovator Award and Best of Next! Audience Award. It was an exciting period for everyone involved with the film. "Then, of course, the world ended for everybody," says Ewing. The COVID-19 pandemic made the film’s future less certain. Ewing wondered whether or not theaters would reopen and what that meant for "I Carry You With Me." Would people be able to see it at all? Would it end up only available online? "Sony Pictures Classics was pretty adamant about holding back until theaters opened," she says. When the film opens on June 25, audiences will have the chance to see it on a big screen, with others, inside a movie theater. Says Ewing, "From a directorial point of view, there's nothing better."
Currently, Ewing is working with her frequent co-director Rachel Grady on an HBO documentary about the dangers that journalists around the world face. She’s also working on a narrative series that’s based on a true story. "I love documentary and now that I've made a narrative I want to make more of those too," says Ewing. "If you can do both, you're able to tell a lot more stories."
And that’s particularly crucial in getting the important, often under explored, stories out into the world. "I think art and culture make an impact," says Ewing. "I think you can't change the world with one film, but you can change one person at a time to view something through a film."