TORONTO — In 2008, the Mexican government sent the army to fight drug traffickers in the rugged region along the U.S. border. What at first glance seemed like an attempt to rein in the powerful cartels turned into an epidemic of state-sponsored violence, leading to the murders and disappearances of countless journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary citizens. As the violence escalated, many Mexicans in the Juarez Valley fled their homes, crossing the border to request asylum in the U.S.
In “The Guardian of Memory,” director Marcela Arteaga bears witness to the violence that has displaced thousands, while examining how governments on both sides of the border have exacerbated the crisis. With striking visual poetry, she provides intimate accounts of the lives Mexican migrants have left behind, while also highlighting the work of Carlos Spector, an immigration lawyer from El Paso, who fights to obtain asylum for those fleeing the violence.
Arteaga spoke with Variety about border politics in the age of Donald Trump, U.S. complicity in the ongoing crisis, and preserving the memories of asylum-seekers who are caught between two worlds. “When these people leave Mexico, they are forgotten,” said Arteaga. “Because here they are treated as traitors, and in the U.S. as criminals.”
The story of Mexican and Central American asylum-seekers trying to enter the U.S. has been one of the dominant storylines in American politics in the Trump era. At what point did this become a story you wanted to explore yourself?
Here in Mexico, I didn’t even know about these Mexicans seeking asylum. But I was very aware of the violence. You could read it in the newspapers, you can feel it in the streets. I have two daughters, and I fear for them every day. Every political discourse is about that. I kind of became an expert on the subject.
One day, I met Carlos Spector, and I heard him talking about the stories of his clients, and people who had suffered the violence that I had been reading about in the newspapers. And I realized that I didn’t know what was going on clearly. After I met all these people, I couldn’t just sit down. I felt the need to do something. And the only way I can do something is filmmaking.
You offer very little context in this film outside of the character’s themselves, telling their own stories. Why did you decide to make the film without providing more background about the violence?
My first film was the same. I don’t like talking heads, and that’s a problem for me, because there are lots of people that do. [Laughs] But if I couldn’t do it this way, I would never do it. I really think that it will touch people more, it will touch the audience more deeply than if you explain things.
With this film, I had more problems than with the other one, because [viewers] got lost—if the people were in Mexico, or in the United States. But I think if I had done that, then it would be another film about violence in Mexico. In this way, I think it makes it more universal, because it could be anybody in any nation.
One of the first characters we encounter in this film tells the story of her search for a yellow blouse she’s left behind in Mexico. Physical artifacts play such an important visual role in the film: the camera lingers over abandoned houses, furniture, photos. What was behind that artistic choice?
It was a lot of things. One is the connection that I made with the people, and then what they told me. The same lady with the yellow blouse, she says that she had a dream that she was carrying two big suitcases. They told me these stories, and then I started to think how all these things are connected, and how could you imagine the amount of damage. The first idea that came to me was, ‘What if we put 4,000 spoons in the desert, just to show how many are 4,000?’ Imagine if your life could be told by your objects—by your toothbrush, by the CDs that you have. And those are the kinds of things that we found in the abandoned houses.
Also, I thought, ‘How can I in film explain that this was not just a mass shooting, that it was an organized thing?’ And that’s why I decided to put all the glasses together, all the light bulbs together, in a very organized way. I connected their stories, their feelings, and the political situation. Or at least I tried to.
The phrase “Mexican asylum-seekers” has almost become a campaign slogan in the U.S., but those asylum-seekers aren’t often given a voice to tell their own stories. Was that something you wanted to change with this film?
It’s true. Even in Mexico, they become statistics, not human beings that have suffered. It’s a problem. It’s too easy to talk about hundreds of people, or thousands of people, who have died. It’s numbers. It’s terrifying. And people don’t want to talk about it. And I understand. If you do, then you have to realize that there’s something going wrong here. Or you have to leave, or you have to do something. On the other hand, [if you ignore it], you have your life going on as if there’s not a war. But there is.
Not all of the characters we meet in “The Guardian of Memory” succeed with their asylum requests. What was it like for you, as both a filmmaker and a witness, to see how some of their stories ended?
It was very hard, the first time Carlos said to me that one of them was deported. I interviewed him two months before. I did the interview, and he was very happy that he left. And then two months after that, they deported him to Mexico. We were all of us, the crew, we were so upset. And Carlos didn’t tell us. It was his wife that told us. I interviewed Carlos asking him that, and he was almost crying.
It was very hard. They open their hearts to you, their lives, and they have the hope that something is going to change with what you’re doing. It’s very hard to not accomplish their expectations.
The story of Mexico’s political violence, and American complicity in it, did not begin in Donald Trump’s America, as you point out in the film. Is that an important message that you want to deliver to viewers—that this isn’t just about Trump’s wall?
Yes, totally. At the beginning, when Carlos is feeding the birds, he names one Trump. And I decided to edit that, to take Trump out of the discourse. Because it’s not about him. It’s about a system. And also in Mexico, it’s not about one president or another. It’s the system. It’s true that it could be worse with one president than with the other one, but it’s a machine. It’s the system, it’s not one person.