A family story

Iliana Sosa on telling her grandfather's story in What We Leave Behind

by Jennie Kermode

What We Leave Behind
What We Leave Behind Photo: courtesy of Greenleaf & Associates

A moving personal story and a portrait of a world rarely seen on film, What We Leave Behind was one of the unexpected hits of this year’s South by Southwest, earning director Iliana Sosa the Fandor New Voices Award. Shot over several years, it follows her Mexican grandfather, Julián, through the final stages of his life, documenting his bus journeys between Durango and El Paso to see family and looking at how, once he became too weak to keep travelling, he began building a new house beside his own in the hope of making it easier for them to visit. When I met her, she was still reeling from the excitement of the festival.

“It's so funny, it just feels like a whirlwind,” she says. “I'm just so grateful to have that experience in person and to have had my family there. It was really nice to be able to share that with my crew as well.”

It’s such a personal film, that must make it more exciting to share with family now. But was it something that she discussed with her family as you went into it, or was it something that just evolved over time?

The latter, she says. “I wanted to explore my grandfather's work as a bracero. If you're not familiar with that, the bracero movement during the 1950s, the US government contracted Mexican farm workers to work all over the US, because there was a shortage of labour, and he was one of one of those men. He would always travel constantly from the north of Mexico to El Paso, Texas, where I was born and raised, to make these monthly 17 hour bus trips to visit us. I wanted to document his work as a bracero, but also these bus trips and how he'd come every month to visit my family, so I really started it wanting to preserve that oral history. I didn't imagine that it would encompass the last years of his life, and much less building this house. That was later in the project. And slowly ,as I started filming over time, that became apparent to my family: ‘Oh, you're making a film.’ [Julián] at first thought I was just photographing. Over time he became almost a director too. We would wake up in the morning, he'd say, ‘Oh, what are we going to film now?’ And he'd take me around town and show me different places. So he really loved the camera.”

Did you find when filming him that she was learning things about him that she hadn't known before?

“Yeah, absolutely,” she says. “My grandfather speaks in a very distinct dialect. I'm fluent in Spanish but there were times when I couldn't understand him. And we developed this common language and over the period of filming. I started to understand him a lot better – with the help of my mother, who, especially during post production and early interviews, was the translator.

“What surprised me the most was his stories about his perseverance in terms of raising seven children on his own. My grandmother died when he was very young and he would frequently have to walk from town to town in the north of Mexico just trying to find work. And sometimes he said he would even stop at police stations, asking to sleep there just for the night so that he could continue on and find more work. Things like that, I just didn't know that about him. Still, to this day, that perseverance really stays with me. And the same with my mother, you know, just her stories of coming here [to the US] when she was really young.

Iliana Sosa
Iliana Sosa Photo: courtesy of Greenleaf & Associates

“I also loved his sense of humour. Even though my grandmother died when he was very young, and he'd say he'd never wanted to remarry because he didn't want somebody else telling him how to raise his children. I think over time, I really came to appreciate his sense of humour and just the way he looked at the world and that really surprised me as as I started filming more and more.”

Did it change the relationship between the two of them?

“Yeah. I think we became close. You know, I when I was growing up, he’d always come every month to visit my sister and I, my mom in El Paso and my father, and I didn't really know him and he would eat or he watched soccer, he never liked to sit still. He'd always be watering the plants or doing things outside. But I never really talked to him, I didn't quite know how, what to say. So over time by filming with him, yeah, we got to really know each other. He'd always say that he wanted to make this project because he wanted, hopefully, to help me in some way. It was something that's always stayed with me.

“But I think after this, I still don't know everything about him. You know, in Spanish we say every brain is like its own world. So I don't know if I'll ever come to completely understand. But I know that through the film, it made me appreciate the generational differences, but also just the person he was and the way he lived in the world.”

We discuss the contrasts between experiences of migration for Julián, for her mother (who moved the the US on her own initiative at the age of 14), and people today.

“I think what came across is, organically, what has happened in my family,” she says. “I grew up here in the US. I was born and raised here. I have the privilege and opportunity to be able to go back and forth. I have family who are undocumented who weren't able to be there when my grandfather passed. All of my family has made a living by the labour of their hands – ‘bracero’ means ‘one who works with their arms’, right, literally with their arms. And I've had the opportunity to study here, be an artist, go to film school. I'm the first of my family to go to college. So it's a big different generational difference.”

She’s keen to stress that she did not wish to imply that one way of living is better than the other.

“I like to think of my family as a regular American family. It just happened to be living in different countries.”

I point out that it would be hard to see life in rural Mexico as lesser when she films it so beautifully.

“I find a lot of beauty there,” she says, “and I also love that time moves at a very different pace there. And people also move at a different pace. I wanted to show that through the framing but also let the scenes unfold as as they are, as timeless as life is happening. And I knew going in that I didn't want to make like an interview heavy documentary. I really wanted to focus on the on the everyday life there. One of my favourite scenes in the film is when my grandfather's receiving a call and then there's [his dog] Pinto, who drinks from that bucket, and my grandfather is saying ‘Oh, they're always calling, why are they always calling?’ and my uncle says ‘Because you're always hanging up on them. You're always cutting them off.’ That was, you know, it happens by chance, right? We just set up the camera there and let things unfold. And I love those surprises about documentary. I hope that through the framing and through the cinematography, it also shows honours the silences there. I think, through making this film, I learned a little bit more about patience, and so I hope that that also came across. I learned how to make documentary really by making this film, so I feel like that tapestry is reflective of that.”

As she began to put her footage together and realised that it was going to become a film, how did she feel about the edit and the huge task of putting a documentary like that together?

“I had only made a short documentary before, called An Uncertain Future, that I co directed with Chelsea Hernandez. I've been making this film for the last seven years. So even when I was making An Uncertain Future, I had footage from this film. I had a very different version of this film a few years ago, and then I started collaborating with Isidore Bethel, who is this amazing editor. He's a dear friend of mine who I absolutely love working with, and he really helped me shape the structure of the film. I showed him that cut and he sent me a bunch of notes that I agreed on, and we agreed to collaborate with each other. But really, through that collaboration, he allowed me to fall in love with my footage.

Phil Hopkins, Iliana Sosa and friends celebrating at SXSW
Phil Hopkins, Iliana Sosa and friends celebrating at SXSW Photo: courtesy of Greenleaf & Associates

“I think there was a time where I was very insecure about what I had, and since I was learning how to make this, sometimes I hated what I shot. I thought, ‘Oh, why did I put the camera there? Why is it soft focus here?’ And he really leaned into those imperfections. He embraced them and really just made me fall in love with that footage. And we realise that the strongest footage was from the time when he [Julián] started building that house. I wasn't going to film all that but a mentor of mine encouraged me to. So really, it was through the support of my team that I realised, ‘Oh, there's a film here, and this is where the story needs to go.’ Because documentary, sometimes when you're shooting you don't really quite know where things are going to go. But yeah, he was just really fundamental in helping shape that structure and I'm very grateful for him.”

People often tell me that with documentaries made over a long period of time, the real art of it is deciding what to take out and parting with footage which one loves, but which just doesn't have a place in the film.

“There was so much there was a lot like that. I love the scene where my grandfather's with his great granddaughter where they're swatting flies, and for a while it wasn't in the film, but I fought for that and then we found a place for it. But there were moments like that where, you know, you do fall in love with certain scenes, but sometimes they might not fit into the overall structure or might be doing nothing narratively. So there was a bit of that, though, I think everything that we really loved is in the film.”

Something that's striking about the way it unfolds as it’s structured it now is the way that we see Julián’s physical decline over that time. Was it hard for her to deal with seeing that when putting the film together?

“Even now, I did see the film at our première at SXSW and I can't watch it,” she says. “You know, I will watch the first the beginning, and go in at the end. But I've seen it so many times. It's just really hard for me. And when my mother was here for the première, that was really difficult for her to watch. But for him, truly, he was a very strong person. And up until the end, even though he was unable to speak, he found a way to communicate. He really fought till the end. That's something that breaks my heart. But I know that partly, the way that film is resonating with people is because it's him, you know? I know when he said, ‘Oh, I just want to help you make this film, ‘ well, he’s done more than that. I think people are really resonating with it from all walks of life, and that is a testament to him. He is the film.

“At first, I was hesitant to film when he was really sick. Actually, that last scene of him was filmed with my cell phone. It felt organic in that moment to film it. He was just he was very sick then. It wasn't when he actually passed, but those were his final days. I feel like you don't see that enough in cinema. Also, in the Mexican culture, death is celebrated as much as life. There was an all night vigil and the whole town came out. And even when during his funeral, everyone came out to say goodbye to him and take his coffin to the to the cemetery, the whole town came out for that.

“I feel although there is a hesitancy to talk about death or to see it, we're all experienced it in one form or another. Especially these last two years, we've all suffered some form of loss, right? It doesn't have to be a loved one, but some form of loss due to the pandemic. I just think there's this form of healing that comes with it. And I hope that that's what the film brings, rather than it being this jarring depiction of death. That wasn't my intention. It was more so to see someone's life celebrated by their family, right? And everyone coming together to pay their respects.”

Julián himself is highly focused on what will happen after he dies, and then we see the house at the end...

“Yeah, yeah. I really love that scene at the end. And I attribute it to my amazing cinematographer Judy [Phu], who I've collaborated with before. She had this idea when the house was ready. It was not very furnished at all. She said, ‘Oh, I think it might be interesting to do a walk through the house,’ and I thought ‘Yeah, let's try that.’ I think it really works. And later, it was my idea to add the words he's singing towards the end. It really added to that scene.

“There was that some of the footage that didn't make it in. There was a scene that didn't make it in where he showed me the inside of the house and talked about the electric meter, complaining that they hadn't come out to put on the electricity – and just showing me around where things were. I think he loved showing things that were part of his life, whether that was the house or you know, like the House of the 100 Doors where he showed me all of the history there.”

There are some fascinating places in the area. She tells me that she enjoyed revisiting places she’d loved as a child.

“With that house, I didn't know the history of the place. For me it was such a mythical place and full of old glory. I was always intrigued by it, because it was this wreck and because it was falling apart, but very different from all of the other structures in the area. So yeah, that, for me, was a reminder of my childhood, and his house as well. I remember growing up and spending time there, especially that patio. That kitchen. And so it was nice to go back and see it in a different way and incorporate that in the film.

“When I first started working with my editor, I realised I feel very grateful to come from the family I've come from and their struggles. You know, that's the way my mother grew up. I love my grandmother, my grandfather and my mother's perseverance – and that's me as well, even though I grew up here in a very different lifestyle and more middle class, because of my parents’ hard work. They're still very working class people, but it's a very different way of living. I didn't grow up there. So I feel like part of it, too, was my attempt to just honour that. I don't I don't have an aim of it at all. It's just, that's my family.”

Did making the film affect her own sense of identity?

“Yeah. That's a great question. So as I mentioned earlier, I grew up here, I was born here. So I have the privilege to be able, because I'm a US citizen, to come back and make this film. It really made me aware of my own privilege. And this film has always been an anchor in my life. At various points where there were issues with a relationship or a career change, it's always been here and now that it's pretty much done and out in the world, I feel...I don't know. It's always been a part of who I am and now I don't know what's going to happen. But I feel like I've learned so much about myself in the process of making it – not only of myself as an artist, like what I want to do with my aesthetic, but also an appreciation of just life in general, and everyday moments and staying grounded. And I feel like that place, Durango, and my grandfather helped me stay grounded for many, many years. What do I do now? How do I go back to feeling that sense of being grounded?”

Does she have another project in mind?

“Yeah. So I'm working right now on an anthology film with four other Latina directors, Mexican American directors, who are all based in Texas, and it's a fiction film. And each of us is a wants to tell how we grew up in various cities. Mine will be El Paso, and San Antonio is represented, Corpus Christi, Fort Worth and Lewisville. It's all centred around female characters growing up in Texas, and I'm really excited about the project. It's a very early development. So it's called the Untitled Texas Latina Project. We don't have a title yet. And yeah, I'd love to just continue to make documentary and fiction work. So we'll see.”

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