An ‘Undocumentary’ Maker Speaks Out

Michelle Chen

Alicia Torres Don, one of the immigrant youth activists filmmaker Josh Davis follows in his new project, is a lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) fighter known in the ring as La Aguila Dorada, or the Golden Eagle.

As a documentary filmmaker, Josh Davis gets very close to his subjects. But in his stirring film series chronicling the lives of undocumented immigrants in North Carolina, he also had to navigate the line between journalist and participant in many of the scenes. Here, he talks with In These Times about how he’s applied his creative lens to the struggles of undocumented youth — and uncovered deep connections that span across boundaries of culture, language, class and nationality.

His film series, which documents education and healthcare barriers facing immigrants, youth-led activist campaigns, a band of migrant churchgoers, and North Carolina’s Mexican wrestling scene, among other issues, can be viewed at http://​www​.the​un​doc​u​men​tary​.com.

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ITT: You’ve worked in both journalism and free-form documentary media. What do you feel is the strength of your current medium in telling stories that you couldn’t necessarily capture through print journalism or even video daily journalism, like TV?

Davis: The key to this is time. A lot of journalists who work on deadline on a newspaper or a daily television news show have very tight deadlines, so for that reason, they can only get to the surface of many issues or many sources. With a documentary, you’re blessed all of a sudden with time. I can spend a few days, a week, a month, a semester, a few months, with this one person. And in that time not only do you get to gather more reporting and more footage and more pictures and more audio interview, but you start to really develop a trust with your subject that turns into a very special type of access into that person’s life. Traditional journalists don’t always have that privilege, because they’re constrained by deadline pressure. You can’t always have that luxury of time.

Of all the stories you’ve documented, which have had the greatest impact on you personally, creatively, or by embodying the strength of documentaries?

At one point, I was working with a fighter, Alicia Torres Don, and she’s a lucha libre [Mexican wrestling] fighter who was trying to find health care and dialysis treatment for her mother, who was being treated for kidney failure. She was separated from her family because she lived in Texas, but had to move to North Carolina to get treatment for her mother [who is undocumented]. So she left her family behind — and she has a very large family, one of nine brothers and sisters, and now she has all sorts of in-laws, and nephews and nieces. I happened to be in Austin, [and] so she picked me up and we drove to the house where she grew up. She hadn’t been there in years, since she had to move out to North Carolina, and this is a house that she was very attached to. Growing up in such a big family, she was remembering all these memories that came to the forefront of her mind. Once we got there, she started just crying. At that moment I realized what was happening, and that she was completely trusting me. She wanted me there. On a personal and professional level, everything just clicked.

In moments like that one, do you ever feel an ethical burden as a filmmaker? On one hand, you are completely immersed in this story and you’ve cultivated a rapport with your subject, yet you need to maintain an editorial, professional distance. Do you ever feel some ethical tension there?

At some point you feel this tug, like, Oh my god, this is really awesome footage,” but at the same time, this is so much more than footage — this is someone’s life. You’re responsible for accurately and respectfully putting these images and information about their life out into the public. It comes down to trust. I have to trust myself about how I’ll edit the footage together and how I’m seeing my subject. And my subject has to trust me that we’re seeing the same thing. As a journalist there is always that line: Am I getting in a little too deep with my subject? Am I maintaining an independent critical stance, or losing focus and going in the wrong direction?” As long as I can tell my subject trusts me, I feel okay about things. But [can I] take a break and put the camera down once in a while and give the subject a hug? Yeah. You kinda have to. I’m not just someone who’s going to take from your image and take from your life. It’s not just about taking. There has to be some way you can always give back to your subjects, and I very strongly believe in that.

When you’re charged with bearing witness to someone living their life in a really precarious situation, you must feel invested in whether or not they make it through, or worrying that your filming will affect their behavior in ways that could jeopardize or expose them. It must be difficult to hold back. 

The biggest concern, reporting in North Carolina, was riling up the conservative right, people radically against immigration. There’s a certain base in North Carolina, and a fear was that talking about rights for undocumented immigrants would make people break out the illegal alien” language, and they’ll start passing laws that say [for example] undocumented immigrants are banned from community colleges. We feared awakening these seeds of hatred and ignorance in people who just didn’t want to understand the debate for what it is.

Was it an extra hurdle to get people to trust you and agree to be filmed, and then be around non-native Spanish speakers all day?

A lot of it is just not being an asshole. A lot of journalists are just not good at reporting in that way and really respecting their subjects. A lot of times when I go report on a story, people are like, Hey, you’re not anything like the guy from so-and-so who came recently. You’re really different, you care about what we’re talking about, seems like you’re going to write a good article, or publish some good photos, or create a good video.” So a lot of it for me is just a genuine sense of trying to do my job right, and by that I mean listen to people, have compassion and respect, and try to really understand what’s affecting them, and establishing trust through that.

This piece was produced in collaboration with CultureStrike.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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