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Behind The Scenes with the Directors of 'American DREAMers'

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Movie still of American DREAMers| Photo courtesy: American DREAMers Jenniffer Castillo

Jenniffer Castillo and Saray Deiseil are neither undocumented nor immigrants but equipped with their cameras and passion for storytelling, they capture the journey of undocumented youth who risked their livelihood to mobilize for immigrant rights.Their feature documentary, American DREAMers, follows a group of six undocumented youth and one ally who embarked in 2012 on a seven-month 3,000 mile walk--from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.--as they mobilize support for the DREAM Act, legislation that would grant conditional residency and work permits for undocumented youth. These bold individuals not only came out of the shadows as undocumented but emboldened other youth to do the same as they garnered the support of allies for comprehensive immigration reform. 

Films and novels about cross country journeys have captured the American imaginary for centuries, reflecting our desires for self-discovery, romance and adventure. American DREAMers, however, follows seven Latino/a trailblazers pursuing a cause greater than themselves, calling on people across the nation to pressure politicians to pass the DREAM Act.

KCET spoke with the two directors to learn how their film, American DREAMers, came to be. 

In 2012, director Jennifer Castillo received regular e-news alerts on immigration issues at large, but this particular story caught her eye. “It was a desire to do something for this cause with the privilege I have,” Castillo tells KCET. Within a month of finding out about the walk, she and her colleague Saray Deiseil were on the road filming. They became so invested in documenting the 3,000 mile walk to its fullest extent that they quit their jobs to do so. 

While the youth risked arrest and deportation by staging civil disobedience actions across the nation, the communities they connected with along the way lent their resources helping make the lengthy trek possible. Likewise, the filmmakers depended on grassroots support to finance and produce this documentary. In all, American DREAMers- a film needed in light of the uncertain fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)- is a grassroots effort that demonstrates the power of social movements and human resiliency.

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Photo courtesy of American DREAMers

Interview Highlights

On what motivated them to make a film about immigration 

Castillo: I grew up in Puerto Rico so I’ve always had the privilege of having citizenship. In high school, when my parents moved to Florida, it was the first time I became aware of realities for undocumented people. I had friends who were not applying to college because they didn’t have papers. Later, when I attended Boston College, there was an immigration raid around the corner from the university. 180 mothers working at a factory that made vests for the troops in Iraq got picked up by ICE agents leaving all these childless mothers! It was chaos in the city of New Bedford! This horrendous incident was very eye opening.

Deiseil: After reading the article, about the courage the youth had to go on a 6,000 mile journey, I immediately thought it was an important story to follow. My mom is an immigrant but I never thought about what undocumented meant. She was here during the 1980s when Reagan granted amnesty so that’s how she got her citizenship. I didn’t realize she wasn’t a citizen prior to that. It wasn’t until we were on the road with the group that I started to question how my mom got here. Immigration issues became much more personal as we followed along their journey.

American Dreamers
American DREAMers streaming on KCET for a limited time.

On the role that social media played in making American DREAMers

Castillo: During the walk, social media was really huge and played a significant role in the walkers’ survival. They would post on Facebook and Twitter whenever they were planning to stop in a new town. That’s how families, schools, churches, nonprofits and people in the larger immigrant rights networks would connect with them, house them, plan fundraisers and meetings to support them. One lawyer drove 2 hours to deliver them new shoes and water! For us, we first raised funds through Indiegogo which gained us support from donors including people from Europe because immigration is an issue for them as well.

On the challenges of making a film on the road

Deiseil: There's a lot on the technical side we had to think about. We had to leave the group at times to charge the camera batteries and download footage. McDonald’s became the charging station because there was also free WiFi there and thankfully there was always a McDonald’s somewhere. We tried to be a fly on the wall as much as possible. Obviously, there was no script so we were just letting the action unfold and capturing it. In the end, we had over 300 hours of footage that we got down to an 80 minute film.

Castillo: At the beginning of the walk, when the youth stayed in houses and churches, we stayed with them but towards the middle of the journey, in more rural areas, we camped in our car while they stayed in their RV. But, we couldn't keep our car with them at the side of the road because it would attract police. Some places it was just an issue that we were outsiders and sometimes there was racial tension.

On why their film is relevant today

Castillo: Right now we don’t know what’s going to happen with a president that has such opposing views to immigration reform. He has said that in his first 100 days he would increase deportations. But, to see what these young people accomplished in 2012, how they raised an issue and humanized it is incredible. They showed that civil disobedience actions can change people's mind and hold politicians accountable. We hope people see this film and see that we can make a difference and that we can take action at the local level as well.

On whether or not American DREAMers is an activist film

Castillo: I really respect the group of youth we filmed with and the activism they do, which is more than those 6 months. They do it daily and so the title of an ‘activist’ is a higher title that we don’t necessarily act on every day, but I think we need to own the film as a piece of activism. It's political because politics affect people and this is a film about people, people speaking up. 

Deiseil: Our film is a different type of political film. It’s not a Michael Moore documentary or a documentary that tells two sides of the story. It’s a personal film that centers on the lives of the subjects.

On the impact of American DREAMers

Castillo: When we screened American DREAMers at the LA Film Festival, the undocumented youth groups that were present cheered “Undocumented and Unafraid” which told us that we made a film they were proud of. That was powerful. This run on KCET is our first broadcast release so we are excited to see the broad spectrum of responses. We hope viewers will connect with the activists and follow their current immigration activism as well.

Deiseil: I remember the first time we saw students dissect American DREAMers. It was moving to see students react. I am proud that our documentary can be used as an educational tool. Other people who have seen it as well have told me they didn’t really think about immigration issues or know much about the movement till our film presented it to them.

You can check out the film’s website here to learn more about the activists from the film and even request a community screening near you. 

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