MARISOL: Spotlighting The Human Impact of Today’s Immigration Debate

While film is a medium that’s been created to entertain audiences, film is also a powerful reflection on the unfortunate realities that exist outside the cinema. The daily struggles of immigrants in America is a visible example of one such reality, and director Zoé Salicrup Junco’s astonishing new short film Marisol shows how a seemingly ordinary conversation can rapidly unravel into a horrific confrontation with high-level authorities who have let hatred misinform their judgment.

Directed by Zoé Salicrup Junco, produced by Lauren Sowa and written by Tim Eliot, Marisol debuts on Saturday, March 23rd during the San Diego Latino Film Festival’s “Viva Mujeres!” short film program. Starting at 3:30 PM Pacific at the AMC Fashion Valley Theater (screen 9), the eight film block features shorts, such as Marisol, that have been directed by Latina filmmakers. Tickets to see Marisol can be purchased on the festival’s website, which readers can also access at the end of this interview.

The film stars Emma Ramos as Marisol Fuentes, who supports her young daughter Maria (Rachel Lizette) by working as a ride-sharing driver. She is also living in the United States as an undocumented immigrant. For Marisol, transporting people to and from their chosen destinations is a mostly routine experience until her next customer reveals himself to be an undercover ICE agent — Frederick, played by Tim Eliot (who also wrote the film).

In a frightening twist of fate, Marisol and Maria’s futures are threatened, and Marisol must fight to keep both of them in a country where prejudice continues to drive a painful wedge between Americans of all generations.

With the debate over immigration at its highest peak, bigotry and violence against immigrants have become tragic outcomes of today’s divided political atmosphere. As demagogic politicians and their followers continue to view immigrants as a threat to their prosperity, their fears and actions have been countered by an even bigger resistance devoted to acceptance and respect for immigrants and other marginalized communities.

Emma Ramos stars as Marisol Fuentes in director Zoe Salicrup Junco’s powerful new short film MARISOL, premiering Saturday, March 23rd at the San Diego Latino Film Festival.

By employing a diverse cast and crew during its production, by presenting the film bilingually in English and Spanish, and by promoting the importance of equal rights for immigrants, Marisol and other films like it are part of that resistance. As Eliot, Salicrup Junco and Sowa comment, their project came as an emotional yet true-to-life response to the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, and the contentious political world that has resulted from it.

What (and/or who) inspired you to make Marisol?

Tim Eliot (Marisol actor, “Frederick”, screenwriter): The palpable threat to our immigrant communities in the wake of Trump’s election primarily inspired Marisol. While anti-immigrant sentiment has risen disturbingly over the course of my lifetime, that election suddenly made it feel like the demonization of our neighbors, friends, and fellow Americans had been dangerously legitimized.

Zoé Salicrup Junco (director, Marisol): Coming in as the director, the character of Marisol (played by Emma Ramos) really drew me in. She felt authentic to me. She read vulnerable and valiant at the same time. She’s relatable and inspiring. She’s the kind of character I long to see onscreen.

Zoé, how have your personal life experiences — and those of others who have also faced situations like the one seen in the film — influenced the story and characters seen in Marisol?

ZSJ: As a Puerto Rican, I was actually born with U.S. citizenship. It’s always felt like a weird position to be in. We’re not part of the United States and in many ways were are treated as second class citizens by the U.S. government, but we are also granted citizenship at birth. Living in this gray area has allowed me to live both sides of the experience we witness in the film. I know what it’s like to be treated as an inferior just because you are Latinx. But not having to worry about my pending legal status has lifted the necessity for me to live in the shadows of the system.

I’ve been in situations where people don’t realize I’m actually not from this country, and I’ve witnessed how some people really feel towards immigrants. It’s not pretty, but it’s given me insight. That came really handy when it came down to portraying these characters. In order for the film to feel real and resonate, we had to capture an experience that felt authentic to all characters, regardless of where we personally stand in the debate.

L-R: MARISOL co-stars Michelle Vo and Rachel Lizette.

Tim and Lauren: describe how your creative inspirations for Marisol, and your real life experiences with its subject matter, influenced you during the process of making this film.

TE: Right after the 2016 election, I had a nightmare about being pulled over and not having the “correct” papers, and I realized that authoritarian, dystopian nightmares for white people like me are lived realities for too many of our Latino friends, neighbors, and countrymen and women. The truth is that, in many ways, I don’t and won’t have real life experience of being at the absolute mercy of law enforcement — and that’s part of the reason for making Marisol.

Lauren Sowa (producer, Marisol): The tense political climate is absolutely a factor in making this film. It feels like we’re living through a time in history where people are very divided. Making a film with a strong social message is one way of trying to bridge that gap, ever so slightly. If we can bring Marisol to audiences and start to have a conversation about immigration, maybe we can open someone’s eyes. We hope to create empathy in our viewers.

How did you find your cast?

LS: Pretty traditionally. We put out a casting notice and held auditions. We knew that Tim was going to be playing Frederick, the ICE agent, so our auditions were mostly focused on finding our mother/daughter duo and then rounding out the cast around them. We were so fortunate to find the stellar cast that we did. I know I was nervous about finding a little girl to play Maria, who was bilingual, young enough to look the part, and natural on camera. We found an absolute gem in Rachel Lizette — she was actually the first person we cast. She came in on the first day and absolutely nailed her audition. She sang “De Colores” for us, and our hearts just melted. It was magical.

ZSJ: For Marisol, I knew we needed to find someone who identified but also carried some of the same drive and fearlessness as the character. I remember Emma came in to audition. I remember her questioning the character more than actually reading her lines. You could feel she really cared about Marisol, the story, and the overall message.

Tim, discuss the emotional impact that playing Frederick (Marisol’s passenger/undercover ICE agent) had on you.

TE: I’d say that playing Frederick was a bit scary, in that it’s all too easy to lean into a narrative of white male victimization and wield the power of American law enforcement to assuage a personal pain. That’s pretty much all I had to do as an actor — give myself a personal reason to be open to that narrative and then accept it. And the amount of damage that Frederick, and others like him, can do to innocent people in our current legal framework is horrifying.

L-R: MARISOL co-stars Q Kadwani, Teren Carter and Tim Eliot (who also wrote the screenplay for the film).

What was the production process like for the film — from script to shooting?

TE: For my part, once Lauren and I had sussed out the basic idea, I put together a quick treatment and then the script. Then we reached out to directors and hired Zoe, who helped us make great revisions on the script.

LS: We spent time to find the right collaborators. It’s very important to me when staffing a set that there’s good energy. The chemistry of the staff has to be positive and productive. One bad apple can ruin the experience. So, after reviewing reels and websites, I like to interview people and I go off of personal recommendations as well. Once we had our core team in place we started the creative work of bringing the film to life, and I dealt with a lot of the logistics of locations, equipment, insurance, transportation, etc.

ZSJ: For me it was making sure the script felt authentic for us, as well as for the cast. We did a lot of research about situations that have happened similar to Marisol. For example, I spoke with close friends who have gone through similar experiences. A friend of mine is an immigration attorney so she was also able to provide insight on how these cases usually work and the complexities of the legal system.

Aside from story, we had a major production challenge, which was the fact that most of the film takes place inside a car. So there was a lot of collaboration between the DP (director of photography) and myself as we figured out creative ways we could get around shooting these scenes. Tim also helped out a lot with that; we basically had to map out a bunch of driving routes in advance.

L-R: Lizette and Ramos with MARISOL director Zoe Salicrup Junco.

Describe how you’re providing actors and filmmakers of diverse backgrounds opportunities to succeed in the industry through Marisol.

TE: Lauren and I knew very early on that we were not going to be the best tellers of a story centered on Latina experiences. We interviewed Latina directors and were so lucky to meet Zoe, who has been this film’s guiding light. She helped refine the script and bring in collaborators who took on the core of the story and made it truly theirs.

LS: I’m very passionate about equality on set — in front of and behind the camera. I always make sure to hire at least 50% women. On this set we actually had 67% women, and our cast and crew is very diverse. This is a New York story, and it’s important that our films and film sets reflect the city and the world we live in.

ZSJ: Prior to this film, I had focused most of my gender equality efforts in front of the camera (re: cast) and I had not put as much effort behind the camera. I honestly didn’t give it much thought because I was used to working with mostly men since my school days. This project changed my perspective on that front. It helped me realize I had to expand my network and foster more opportunities for women behind the camera.

The film is presented bilingually in English and Spanish. How has that helped to bring together audiences for the film, and how does that feature help to make the film even more impactful to viewers?

ZSJ: Being bilingual is such a powerful tool. We haven’t screened the movie yet, but I’m very curious to see how a bilingual audience reacts to it. The beauty of preserving that bilingual element is that you preserve the authenticity of the story. Latinxs in NYC are constantly shifting between Spanish and English. Bilingualism informs the experience of a U.S.-based Latinx at its core.

What impact has making Marisol had on you — both professionally and personally?

TE: I feel stronger in making politically-motivated choices in my creative work, and I’m thrilled to be meeting and collaborating with more people that are also more inclined that way.

ZSJ: Marisol is the most political and socially charged film I’ve directed so far. Prior to this I gravitated more towards family dramas, specifically centered around the Puerto Rican experience. Marisol gave me an opportunity to branch out into other Latinx stories and themes, and I truly enjoyed it; I learned from it and it’s helped me grow more as a storyteller.

LS: Working on Marisol was fundamental for Tim and I in forming our company Form & Pressure Films. For me, it helped to put into sharper focus my point of view as a filmmaker — the kinds of stories that I want to tell, and the work that I want to create. I think media is our most powerful influencer, and I want to spend my time telling stories that will help move humanity towards positive growth and change.

In what ways do you feel Marisol and films like it can help to give people a greater understanding of the challenges that immigrants face in today’s political climate?

TE: I really hope to reach people everywhere with Marisol, from those who never consider what it is to live as an immigrant in America to those who know intimately what it is to live in America without equal rights. Marisol makes a truly harmless decision, and yet she and her daughter suddenly face an existential crisis because she lacks the “proper” documentation. I hope people of all backgrounds come away from Marisol asking why we, as inhabitants of a country explicitly defined by its immigrant history, allow recent immigrants to live in such easy peril.

MARISOL director Zoe Salicrup Junco watches a scene during filming.

In what ways can this film help to change the way we look at immigrants in our society, while reflecting the human impact that the immigration debate has on people from all backgrounds?

ZSJ: To me it’s more about sparking up a conversation that can potentially lead to some type of understanding. This film strives to put a complex, political situation in a relatable setting. Most people can relate to what it feels like when your family is threatened, regardless of whether you are an immigrant or not. When you’re able put yourself in the same scenario as Marisol — a mother who fears she will be taken away from her daughter in a foreign country — all the political layers of her being a threat, her being an illegal alien, all of that strips away. You can connect with her as a human. There’s power in that connection, power to change and to progress.

What do you hope people take away from seeing the film?

TE: I hope that people who see Marisol engage more with the human stakes of our immigration policies and enforcement. Undocumented immigrants are Americans by all rational definitions except the legal, and that is a result of a moral failure in our politics.

LS: I hope they connect with Marisol, and feel the stakes of her situation. I hope that after seeing the film, our audiences will want to engage more in their communities to help improve the lives of immigrants. At the end of the day, nearly all American families have immigrant roots, and I think it’s important to remember that. We are a beacon of hope and possibility to the world, and we should treat those that want to come here with respect.

Tickets to see Marisol on Saturday, March 23rd at the San Diego Latino Film Festival can be purchased at:

http://bit.ly/sdlatinoff

For more information on Marisol and the broader work of Form and Pressure Films, visit:

www.formandpressurefilms.com

On Twitter: www.twitter.com/form_pressure

On Instagram: www.instagram.com/formandpressurefilms

For more information about Marisol director Zoé Salicrup Junco, visit her web page:

www.zoesj.com

On Instagram: www.instagram.com/zoesj_

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Chris Hadley

Writer, @SnobbyRobot, @FSMOnlineMag, Writer/Creator, @LateLateNewsTV