Producer Lisa Valencia-Svensson and Director Min Sook Lee talk about the exploitation of temporary foreign workers in Canada in their new film Migrant Dreams, sharing their perspectives on the affect that lack of diversity in documentary filmmaking has on doc makers and audiences.
Hot Docs: Your team had a busy Hot Docs this year: Migrant Dreams had its world premiere, and Lisa you participated in Hot Docs Deal Maker with your next project Laila at the Bridge and were the facilitator of the Hot Docs Corus Diverse Voices Program.
Lisa Valencia-Svensson: It was a busy Hot Docs for me for sure, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The Diverse Voices Program participants got a full week of learning, networking, and career building, and Producer Ina Fichman and I had great meetings and were able to raise the profile of Laila At The Bridge.
For Migrant Dreams, the screenings were everything we could have hoped for: two of our three sold out and we ended up in the Audience Top Ten list. Ingrid Hamilton at GAT PR and her colleague Daniela Ponce are among the best doc publicists in Toronto. Together they got us crucial media coverage for the film, including on CBC Radio’s “The Current” and in Macleans. We also enjoyed tremendous community support for the film, I believe because people are hungry for the rarely heard stories of migrant workers. Our Hot Docs audiences were very racially and age diverse. This was partly as a result of the different communities and networks that director Min Sook Lee and I are connected to, and also because some of our key characters worked hard to promote the film, which for me is one of the characteristics of a true impact screening. I feel that films will have the most impact when the filmmakers are genuinely connected to, and often even come from, the communities whose stories they are telling. Community support for a film will also be strongest when the community whose story the film is telling feels that the telling of the story is long overdue, and the story is finally being told from the community’s perspective, rather than the perspective of an outsider.
HD: When you started the film, were you hoping to capture some kind of resolution to the systemic oppression of migrant workers caused by the government turning a blind eye? The film reveals all these impossible hurdles that the migrants and advocates are trying to traverse, in terms of gaining rights and a modicum of respect and dignity.
LVS: My goal is never to make a documentary that has a tidy resolution to the issues it is exploring. I think to do so would lead an audience into a false sense of “things being okay now.” In social issue documentaries, the issues are not suddenly and magically resolved by the end of the film, and any doc that makes you feel like they have been is misrepresenting the truth. Sure, a law or ban might be passed, but then we have to ask whether implementation and in depth structural change are really happening. In my films, I aim instead for people to be taken on an emotional story arc. I want audiences to intimately get to know and care about the characters being affected by specific issues, and through that, I want audiences to then find themselves caring about those issues. In the case of Migrant Dreams, the struggles of migrant workers in Canada are nowhere near being resolved.
HD: Because you were dealing with an already exploited class of people, did you and Min Sook have to negotiate with the ethics of representing this population?
Min Soon Lee: Documentary is a human relationship on film. Documentary is not a neutral process. I believe what you see on screen is important, but equally important to me are the promises, conversations and dialogue that happened off screen in the process of making the film. I continually question the authority of the camera, the filmmaker and the process of telling the story of others. Media is power and as the media maker you inhabit a site of power that requires ethics, accountability and an internal/external system of checks and balances. Each shot, story beat and narrative is an active choice. When you work with people whose lives can be made more precarious or vulnerable as a result of the project, it is important to be transparent about your process, to make space for their agency and to think through the impact of your project on many levels. You will, at times, make choices that prioritize safety over dramatic storytelling or content. Omission and refusal are forms of power the participant and you can exercise. The film and future audiences do not need to know everything. Participants are not required to splay the whole of their interior lives for the consumption of the film. There are parts of their lives that they can choose to remain private about and I will respect that. This is not an extractive process.
HD: Can you talk about what building trust with your subjects was like?
MSL: Working with people whose lives are situated in the margins of economic, social and political power means the film itself can play a critical role in reframing how these people are seen and have direct, material impact on their lives. Consent is a variable exchange. Someone can say yes to your project one day and slip out the next. This happens to me on virtually every long form project. People give consent but are often unfamiliar with the endurance of documentary. Filmmaking can take place over years and often at times of extreme duress or crisis. You earn consent each time you film. The process is participatory, not designated, but co-created. As much as I can lay out the anticipated stages of production, this is still really an unknown. I can ask people to sign ‘waivers’ that acknowledge consent but these are files for insurance agents, they don’t embody the spirit of consent between two people. Consent is not verbal or written. It is enacted.
That the film exists is a testament to the courage of workers. Speaking out means job loss, deportation. Migrant workers are continually told they are disposable and replaceable. If one worker rejects the gruel Canada offers them, there is a line up of hundreds waiting behind to take their place. They have seen workers injured on the job and sent back home without proper medical treatment, workers berated and penalized for not working fast enough, workers fired for speaking out about unsafe working conditions. Despite this climate of total control, workers resist because they understand justice. The workers who appear in this film trusted me, they trusted the activists who vetted me and they trust you - the future audience. They believe in the power of film to inform, engage and mobilize.
HD: In the film, a migrant workers advocate talks about the intentional oversight of workers’ rights by government to keep business owners happy. How did Leamington and other levels of government respond? Has there been any backlash?
MSL: I know that telling the story of injustice behind our fruits and vegetables can have material consequences. In 2000, I released a documentary called El Contrato produced with the National Film Board of Canada, which told the story of migrant Mexican men who work in Canada’s farms under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. The film’s release was barred by a libel threat issued by Leamington farmers, which succeeded in shutting down distribution of El Contrato for a year. This was a classic SLAPP-suit tactic; corporate-driven media censorship at its finest. Thus far, Migrant Dreams has not been similarly targeted.
HD: What do you think about the current state of documentary films representing the lives of people of colour and women of colour?
LVS: I find it frustrating that the documentary world is relatively comfortable discussing issues of gender, but issues of race and representation are still much harder topics to address and explore. As a result of global processes of colonization, the stories of indigenous people and people of colour have been controlled, and often silenced or erased, for over five centuries and at grave personal cost to people and cultures around the world. In the Philippines where my mother is from, the Spanish burned 90% of the indigenous written records when they arrived as a colonizing power. This historical dynamic continues throughout our societies today, including in the film and television productions sectors. This includes ongoing imbalances in who is behind the cameras and in the writing rooms, and in who is making funding, broadcasting, programming and distribution decisions.
At the same time I am so heartened that people of all racial backgrounds are starting to really speak out about this. The focus on these issues at the recent International Documentary Association’s Getting Real conference was refreshing and crucial. I am becoming increasing hopeful that, when people of colour and indigenous people now insist that we be in full control of our storytelling, this will be understood simply as a long overdue restoring of balance. We need to undo the damage of colonialism so that the perspectives of people of colour and indigenous people are once again understood to be equally valid and important. Thankfully it actually turns out to be very easy to make real change: the key change is to simply hire more people of colour and indigenous people, train us, fund us, program, broadcast and distribute our work.
HD: Can you talk about how making Migrant Dreams has informed your future filmmaking and producing practices.
LVS: Migrant Dreams has confirmed for me that my passion is for producing well-crafted, artful stories that also explore difficult issues of injustice in our world. With each film, I also learn how plan better, what to try to avoid doing, and what to not even attempt logistically, financially, technically, creatively. This is the only real way to learn filmmaking, by doing it. To my mind, experienced filmmakers have either made more mistakes or have heard about more mistakes made by others, often costly, difficult mistakes. Finally, through this film I have gained an appreciation of how much is involved behind the scenes, and all throughout the process of making and then launching your film, when your story deals with controversial subject matter.
Migrant Dreams airs on September 18th, 2016 on TVO.
Learn more about Migrant Dreams at:
Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo.October 21, 2016