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Women Directors Tell Stories Along U.S.-Mexico Border Amid Immigration Debate

It seems straightforward enough. The Femme Frontera Filmmaker Showcase, a festival based in El Paso, Texas, exhibits short movies from female filmmakers who live along the U.S.-Mexico border.

But it’s also a combustible recipe. Ever since Donald Trump jumped onto the national stage last June, referring to Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, the border — and the proposed wall he wants to build along it — have become a lightning rod for passionate arguments from all sides of the inflammatory immigration debate.

The Femme Frontera filmmakers find themselves at the center of this firestorm. They hail from such places as Texas and New Mexico in the U.S., and Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua in Mexico. And they provide personal and unique perspectives on the border communities.

“Based on how immigrants from Mexico are currently being depicted as criminals, it’s crucial that we continue to share stories of what life is really like on the border,” says fest founder Angie Tures.

Ilana Lapid, a film professor at New Mexico State University who has shot two films on the border, was in the fest with “La Catrina,” about a farm worker grieving her husband’s death. “I grew up in several countries,” she says. “Borders have always interested me. They’re places where worlds meet and often collide. They’re places of conflict, but also of creativity and connection.”

To shoot along the border, Lapid had to tap into area resources and communities for support. In exploring the story and symbols for her film, she kept things local, hiring crew on the spot and casting non-actors.

Laura Bustillos Jáquez — born in Ciudad Juárez and raised just over the border in El Paso — also shot in the area. Her short nonfiction film “Undocumented Freedom” follows a man who came to the U.S. as a child illegally to flee human trafficking. She participates in demonstrations and performance-art pieces on the Ciudad Juárez bridge that links the two cities, usually without incident.

“When it’s a demonstration that’s been announced publicly,” she explains, “the federal Mexican police have assured us that they’re looking out for us. But there have been times when I’ve been asked to stop filming or taking pictures, and a [U.S. Immigrations] agent will tell me that they’re afraid people are documenting areas so they can plant bombs.”

Jáquez is quick to point out that while she’s generally stopped for filming only if she doesn’t have a permit — just as she would be in L.A. — others must deal with much more harrowing incidents. Some people get detained or arrested, she says. “I’m privileged with a legal visa. I can go up to the bridge, to a border wall, and have no fear that they’ll kick me out or arrest me.”

El Paso native Iliana Sosa, whose film “Child of the Desert” tells the story of an unlikely connection between a West Texas mom and an undocumented immigrant, feels attitudes have changed since Trump’s election, but not all for the worse. “Before the election,” she says, “I used to wonder why people weren’t more open to talking about immigration. Post-election, I feel like people are more open to discussing it.”

Femme Frontera films sold out the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in El Paso last summer and are now touring other U.S. cities.

Further advancing the Femme Frontera narrative, Sosa and co-director Chelsea Hernandez are working with Firelight Media and visual journalism shop Field of Vision, founded by “Citizenfour” director-producer Laura Poitras, on a short documentary that follows two pregnant women — one undocumented, the other married to an undocumented immigrant — and shows how they’re affected by Trump’s policies.

It’s part of the two companies’ Our 100 Days initiative to produce and distribute 10 short films in which a diverse section of filmmakers highlight the impact of Trump’s campaign promises on the communities most affected by them.

Sosa says the initiative would have never happened had Trump not been elected. “But it’s sad that [this is what got] people to suddenly care about our stories,” she adds. “We’ve always been here, but now people are interested in what we have to say.”

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