Cultivating a story

Flavio Alves on the lives of trans women and undocumented immigrants, and The Garden Left Behind

by Jennie Kermode

Carlie Guevara in The Garden Left Behind
Carlie Guevara in The Garden Left Behind

In a cinema landscape full of simple stories about characters who don’t have much going on in their lives until the plot grabs them, Flavio Alves’ The Garden Left Behind is something of a curiosity. Recently screened at Outfest in Los Angeles, it charts the story of Tina (Carlie Guevera), a young, undocumented immigrant from Mexico, living in New York, who works as a taxi driver, supports her homesick grandmother and is considering going through the medical process that could enable her to feel more at ease with her body as a trans woman. It’s a slice of New York life, complicated and real, focused on people who often go unseen. It emerged from a long process of collaboration and was, perhaps, coloured by Alves’ own experiences as an immigrant. I ask him about that when we connect to talk about it.

Director Flavio Alves
Director Flavio Alves

“Just like all my films, The Garden Left Behind is about marginalised and overlooked members of our society,” he says. “When I was making this film I thought yeah, let’s try to tick as many boxes as possible, because it is hard to be a trans woman but it is much harder if you also happen to be undocumented, you know? Especially in the US, there are so many people who flee persecution, especially from Central or South America. They come to the US and they don’t have the papers. They live among us and it’s very sad, you know? At one point in my life I was undocumented, so I know what it’s like to be an outsider and that’s the reason why I made this film... I feel that it’s my obligation to bring to the forefront stories that reflect not only my experience but the experience of marginalised communities.”

It’s famously difficult to get funding and support for films that take on more than one issue. Was that a problem in this case?

“Yeah, but on the other hand, I don’t make a film every year, you know?” He shrugs. “I make them every three or four years. Also, the way we made this film is not the way that most filmmakers make a film. It’s almost like a documentary. We engage a community, we live with them, we hang out with them for a long time – almost a year – and after that we start writing the script, because the best way to draw a community is if you become a part of that community.

“We had not only people in front of the camera but people behind the camera, like producers, who were trans. The beauty about it is that you are challenged as you make the film, and they become a part of the fabric of the story, you know? I was very excited because we didn’t know where this was going to take us.”

It was, he says, what led him to make sure sure that all the trans characters in the film were played by real trans people.

“It was not easy finding them,” he says. “We don’t go through the traditional way of casting, calling a casting director, having auditions. We happened to rely a lot on our producers who know everyone from different walks of life.”

Some of the cast had never been filmed before, he says, so it was a challenge. This included star Carlie Guevara.

“You know, she stepped in front of the camera for the first time on this film, and she became the lead, and that’s so amazing... She came and she had everything I was looking for. Everything about her intrigued me. I also interviewed her. it wasn’t just the audition – I also interview the actors because I want to know them on different levels too. I want to know how they can connect with the story, and that story was very personal to her. She’s from El Salvador, she came when she was five years of age. So she was a character, you know? After she read a few lines I though ‘Okay, I found Tina.’ She was perfect for the role.”

Driving ahead
Driving ahead

I tell him that I like the way the film introduces Tina – just an ordinary young woman waking up and preparing for her day, the only odd thing being that her grandmother keeps shouting ‘Antonio!’ at her.

“I didn’t want the audience to know too much about her because the idea is to present the character like a girl sitting on the bus next to you,” Flavio says. “No-one knew anything about her except that the grandmom is calling her ‘Antonio’. For most people watching the film for the first time, they won’t know the film is about a trans woman. They just don’t get it – they just see her as a woman. And she is a woman. But they don’t know anything about her gender identity. And then we start revealing it little by little, and for people that don’t know anything about the film, they only get it about 15 minutes later, and before then they are already connected with the story, they are already in love with her. I want them to know her without any labels or anything.”

I also like the nuanced way the film depicts medical transition – not as the ultimate solution to everything nor as a disastrous choice, but simply as a set of procedures that present a mixture of hope, uncertainty and frustration for Tina.

“Everything emerged from their stories,” he says of the trans people he worked with. “When I was interviewing them I was amazed that there were so many things I did not know about this whole thing. I was looking for something that was unique, that had not been explored in other films. I was looking for something that would help to educate people. And also something that’s true, which is that the trans experience is different for everyone. People tend think, oh, trans men and trans women, they want the same things. Not true! And that’s a good example – Carlie, she’s a lot like her character, she’s not very active. And most people that I met, probably because when I was looking for actors I went to the trans community, were advocates. They see things differently than the average trans woman who lives in Queens in New York, you know?

“But that was Carlie. She’s still very active, as opposed to Kristen [Parker Lovell] or Ivana [Black] or Tamara [M Williams] – they are the best friends in the film. They’re active, you know? So all those things actually came from hundreds of interviews that I did, and every person I met had different desires. Tina, the character, she was a little reluctant about actually going through with it. She was questioning herself, ‘Is it worth it? Why can’t I just be myself?’ You know? And ‘Why do I have to interviewed by this white, older man? You might say he’s getting in the way of my transitioning – why I can’t I just go on the black market and get what I need and do it myself?’ So yes, there are different stories in the trans community and I just want to capture that.”

The Garden Left Behind promotion
The Garden Left Behind promotion

It’s refreshing to see a trans woman presented not as an outsider on every level but as someone who is part of a community, who is loved. How did Flavio approach creating the character of the grandmother (played by Miriam Cruz) who is so important in her life?

“I realised that having family acceptance and growing up with support makes a tremendous difference in their lives, so I thought that it would be good for me to bring the family aspect to the film, because most films don’t talk about it and it gives the wrong idea that they don’t have families. And some of them actually don’t but for the most part they do – whether they get along with them or not is a different story. I thought that it would be interesting for Tina to live at home with a family member but the reason that we had the grandmom as opposed to her mom and dad is because I want people to be on her side quickly, and people tend to love the people who actually look after their grandparents. And that relationship is so beautiful. There is no lack of love in that relationship. they just misunderstand each other.

“Also something that is important to note in the film is that the definition of home is also different for Tina, who lives in America although she’s illegal and the grandmom, who wants to go back to Mexico. I realised that most people who live in the US who happen to be undocumented, who came here when they were very young, they see America as their home although they are illegal, I thought it would be interesting to touch that subject and how they define home.

“Something that’s also special about that scene... The journey that a parent has to go through when a child is transitioning is often left out in other films. We tried to have it so people could understand what a parent goes through when a child is going through the transition, and that was something that I thought was important as well.”

The issues around immigration seem very much in keeping with the New York setting, I suggest, given that the city has been home to wave after wave of immigrants. He agrees but emphasises that the specific issue of being undocumented is a key part of what he wanted to address.

“There is so much that you have to deal with if you are a trans person, especially if you area trans woman of colour, but it’s a lot harder if you happen to be undocumented. People don’t understand. I came to America and I was, for a year, undocumented, and the fear that I had to live with every day, you know, somebody might knock this door and send me back to Brazil or deport me, I lived with that fear for a long time, and that was...” he pauses, a certain look coming into his eyes that makes it clear that the experience still haunts him. “I could not sleep. I could not function. Because I had to live with that fear. I want people to experience that in the film.”

It’s very topical now...

“I wrote the story in 2015. It was way back before Trump came to power, and it was not meant to be political but it became just that with so many things that were happening. Especially Tina, the character, she’s Mexican and she’s a trans woman. So it seems that it’s very timely, right? It just happened that our story reflects what’s happening in the world right now.”

Coming up: Flavio Alves on the violence experienced by the trans community and the struggle he had to get The Garden Left Behind shown at LGBT film festivals.

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