Dan DeVivo, co-director of “Crossing Arizona,” has strong feelings about the illegal immigration portrayed in his documentary, which opens the Third Annual Princeton Human Rights Film Festival at the Princeton Public Library with a screening on Friday, May 11, at noon, and again at 7:30 p.m. Initially, he says, he went to Arizona “with a healthy sense of skepticism about the effectiveness of our own government’s policies.” And today, although he says that “the film gives voice to as many people’s concerns as possible,” he admits to an editorial perspective “that an enforcement-only approach to immigration reform has never worked and never will.”
Probably the biggest challenge for DeVivo in shooting the film, which was screened at Sundance, was spending so much time with Chris Simcox, the leader of the anti-immigrant Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. This network of volunteer vigilantes, not trained in law enforcement, patrol the border and have even built their own walls. The group of self-appointed border guardians and its leader display what DeVivo describes as “an overwhelming sense of entitlement and white privilege.” In his conversations with Simcox, DeVivo says he came to understand “how racism informs Simcox’s anti-immigrant stance and his crusade to prevent people from crossing the border.”
While that racism moved students to storm the podium when Simcox’s Minuteman co-founder spoke at Columbia University to the College Republicans, DeVivo and his co-director, Joseph Mathew, felt it was important to include all sides. “With this film, we could have made Chris Simcox look 10 times worse, but that wasn’t our goal,” he says. “We kept in mind that we were trying to foster discussion and debate about the issues and the failed policy. We felt any attempt to vilify one person or entity would distract us from that process.”
DeVivo’s film will be one among 18 documentary films presented at the library from Friday, May 11, through Sunday, May 13. Filmmakers and other speakers will give talks and lead discussions on issues of peace, justice, and human rights. For a complete schedule, go to www.princetonlibrary.org/phrff.
DeVivo grew up mostly in Maryland, but also in Morris County, New Jersey. His mother stayed at home with DeVivo and his two brothers, and his father works for a multinational corporation. A 1999 graduate in social anthropology from Harvard University, Dan DeVivo says that a course in visual anthropology opened his eyes to the possibilities of film. “It whetted my appetite to try to figure out a way to bring the study of people and their positions in society to a large audience,” he says, and he concluded that film was the right medium for him.
After college, he moved to New York City, where he waited tables while he interned for Global Vision, a film production company. As he was learning the ropes, he “got turned on to editing,” which he sees as the central activity of creating a documentary.
Documentaries are unscripted. “You don’t know what you’re going to end up with,” says DeVivo. “You don’t have an intention as to how it’s going to look, what the subjects will yield, and what you will capture when you’re filming.” It is only in the post-production shaping, he says, that a narrative emerges.
While based in New York, DeVivo worked on several projects including “Counting On Democracy,” “We Are Family,” and “Refusing To Die: A Kenyan Story” but he had never done a film from beginning to end.
He and co-director Mathew, a former colleague, had been nosing out issues along the southern border of the United States but were originally focused on the sanctuary movement. In the early 1980s church groups in southern Arizona were actively disobeying the law and smuggling people into the country. “They were fleeing civil war-torn countries in South and Central America,” DeVivo says, “because of the meddling the U.S. government was doing.”
While in Arizona, Mathew found an issue of greater currency: the new immigration struggle “brought on by U.S. border and immigration policy.” With border control, walls, and stadium lighting, the government had essentially funneled the flow of immigrants into the desert of southern Arizona, where the borders were more porous but far more dangerous.
Mathew and DeVivo, who would go down to southern Arizona for two weeks every other month, found that once they had made the initial connections with activists on all sides in February, 2004, many were eager to talk.
As they followed their noses, encountering the people who would be central to the film, they were lucky, DeVivo admits, that the events they were following early on eventually drew national attention. “We didn’t know when we met Chris Simcox that he would launch into the popular media with his Minutemen project,” he says.
Similarly with Proposition 200, an attempt to deny social services to undocumented people, they followed its story because they felt it was a good issue, not knowing it would come on the ballot when Bush was reelected.
The co-directors met with all the subgroups affected by the government policy that funneled immigrants through southern Arizona. “We talked to ranchers who were upset with the way they were being inundated with migrants crossing through their property,” says DeVivo, “as well as the border patrol, vigilantes who were preventing immigrants from crossing in a paramilitary way, and immigrant rights activists.”
Perhaps the most memorable of the immigrant supporters was Mike Wilson, a native American who puts out water on the Tohono O’odham Reservation — a plot of land the size of Connecticut, completely within the borders of Arizona, that contains the most deadly migrant trails.
In the face of a tribal demand that he desist from putting out water, Wilson places recycled milk containers and multigallon Pepsi cans with a dispenser in different locations, because, says DeVivo, “he doesn’t feel anyone should lose their life for lack of a cup of water.” Wilson, formerly part of the special forces in the United States Army and now a Presbyterian lay minister, persists with his mission even though the containers are vandalized, removed, and torn up.
“He really does become the soul of the film,” says DeVivo, “because his head-down, persistent approach reminds me of the way in which undocumented folks are in the shadows in this economy; he embodies the undocumented.”
Asked about whether he had policy recommendations based on his experience making the documentary, DeVivo responds that we have to “start to think outside the box of American nationalism. We live in a globalized economy where free movement of goods and services is allowed and encouraged, and it’s not realistic to think that we can prevent human beings from migrating.” He adds that we have lots of space, with a population density about a twelfth of Europe and, in any case, “this country has been built on the efforts and ingenuity of newcomers.”
As a society, he believes we need to “begin to deconstruct our sense of entitlement and the presence of racism and white privilege. It is an ideology where we need to protect what’s ours and are entitled to this, that, and the other, and see that people are coming to take it away from us, and we need to protect our resources.”
“Crossing Arizona” has won several awards: the One Future Prize 2006 at the Munich Film Festival, the Best Documentary at the Arizona International Film Festival, and audience awards at Cine Las Americas and the Brooklyn International Film Festival. And of course just being invited to participate in the Sundance Film festival is, in itself, an award of sorts, since it means being selected out of thousands of films. “Being programmed at Sundance put us on the map,” he says. “It got us out of the gate a little faster.” The film’s web site is www.crossingaz.com.
Although DeVivo has not yet decided upon his next documentary project, he does have an entrepreneurial idea that builds on his experiences promoting his own film: a company that would book community screenings of documentary films, with their directors facilitating “talk backs” on the issues after the screenings. “Coming from our own experience and difficulties,” he says, “it was an uphill battle to get the film out there.” What he envisions is building an infrastructure that would simplify this process.
On Saturday, May 12, at 5 p.m., “Story Telling: New Orleans” comprises a series of shorts, dubbed Katrina Chronicles, by filmmakers either from New Orleans or who went down right after Katrina. The event includes an open mike where those affected by Katrina as well as those in relief are invited to share their experiences, and talks by filmmakers Mary Beth Black, director of “New Orleans East,” and Walidah Imarisha, director of “Finding Common Ground in New Orleans,” as well as Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University.
“We all had Katrina on our mind,” says Pamela Groves, who is coordinating the festival for the library, about the film selection committee. “We had a feeling that we wanted to find a way to keep it alive, because it continues to be a real tragedy. It’s our very own, home-grown human rights disaster.”
The group of shorts, which will include parts of Spike Lee’s film “When the Levees Broke,” says Groves, are a “powerful presention of different views of the devastation and rebuilding, examining issues of race and class and the politics around them.”
Filmmaker Mary Beth Black lived in New Orleans and was displaced to Tennessee; her film focuses on the Vietnamese community in New Orleans, looking at the disaster from the perspective of “a minority within a minority.”
Also speaking at the event are members of the student organization Got Guts, who studied with Harris-Lacewell in a fall class, “Disaster, Race, and American Politics,” focused around the consequences of the hurricane. Thirteen of the students spent semester break in New Orleans gutting homes and meeting with local leaders in an effort to expand their understanding of the disaster.
On Saturday, May 12, at 8 p.m., there will be a screening of “Black Gold: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee,” an official selection at the 2006 Sundance festival, which Groves cites as the most beautifully filmed documentary in the festival. The film’s subject is coffee, the most actively traded commodity in the world after oil. For every $3 of coffee sold, says Groves, the coffee farmer receives only 3 cents. “Black Gold” takes viewers to Ethiopia. “It makes the connection between farmers in Ethiopia, Wall Street, and you and me drinking a cup of coffee,” says Groves. “What’s great about it is that it shows how you and I can influence trade and human rights policy. It leaves you feeling like you can do something.”
Because the festival takes place over Mother’s Day weekend, the Sunday, May 13, programming offers films about women. One is “Shut Up and Sing,” at 4 p.m., which tells the story of the Dixie Chicks in the wake of Natalie Maines, its lead singer, making an off-the-cuff anti-Bush statement during a 2003 concert. The film, which Groves says “leaves you tearing,” tells the story of how the three women came together, responding to threats and personal attacks, and grew as both women and sisters.
The idea of the festival, says Groves, is not to dwell too much on the tragedies that have happened but rather to look at how the continuing issues are being addressed, with an eye to inspiring people to get involved. “Human rights films are not bright, happy films,” she says. “It is a delicate balance of how not to leave people feeling depressed. We want people to have enough anger, empathy, and some guilt so they feel motivated to speak out or take some kind of action on whatever issue speaks to them. We want to motivate people without paralyzing or numbing them.”
Human Rights Film Festival, Friday through Sunday, May 11 through 13, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, www.princetonlibrary.org/phrff or 609-924-9529.
Friday, May 11: “Crossing Arizona,” noon; “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil,” 2 p.m.; “Street Witness,” 3:30 p.m.; and “The Last Graduation: the Rise and Fall of College Programs in Prison,” 5:30 p.m. Opening night program includes “Crossing Arizona” and discussion with co-director Dan DeVivo, reception, and music, at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 12: “Cartoons for Peace and Justice,” 10 a.m.; “Invisible Children,” 11:30 a.m.; “Last Ghost of War, 1:30 p.m.; “Salud! What Puts Cuba on the Map in the Quest for Global Health,” 2:30 p.m.; “Story Telling: New Orleans,” 5 p.m.; and “Black Gold: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee,” 8 p.m.
Sunday, May 13: “Lumo,” noon; “Rosita,” 1 p.m.; “Suncookers,” 2 p.m.; “The Shape of Water,” 2:45 p.m.; and “Shut Up and Sing,” 4 p.m.