Jeff is a volunteer with No More Deaths, a controversial aid organization based in Tucson Arizona. Tasked with hiking deep into the Sonora Desert, which borders Mexico, Jeff and his team leave water at remotes points called way points in an effort to mitigate the deaths of migrants occurring in the sweltering heat of summer.
Interview with filmmaker Jason Outenreath
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Every day people are dying in the Sonora Desert in an effort to reach the United States from their home countries of Mexico, Central, and South America. It is a humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding over the past twenty five years, but receives only cursory media attention these days. I wanted to put a spotlight on those trying to make a difference at the border and mitigate some of the deaths that are occurring. I hope others take a serious interest in the immigration issue, and look beyond what they're being told to seek out answers for themselves. I made The Desert Walkers to hopefully engender greater curiosity on the part of the American public, and to shed light on a unique side of the issue.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
We live at a time when racism at both individual and institutional levels are not just tolerated, but celebrated by large parts of the American public, including President Trump. This film exposes a side of the immigration issue that has not been explored: those doing something about the deaths happening at the border. I don't know that any single film could possibly encapsulate the entirety of the tragedy, or historical oppression of Latinos in the United States, and I certainly don't try to do that with my film. However, I hope to add one small piece to the tapestry of the discourse that I feel strongly has been underrepresented and under appreciated.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
I have spent years of my life living and working in both Mexico and Nicaragua. The themes and content are both very close to me. I have volunteered in the desert, and travelled extensively to northern Mexico. On a universal level, people are dying on a daily basis in the desert, while being subjected to inhumane treatment from both the cartels, as well as the border patrol. I feel strongly this is wrong. I have seen firsthand what is happening to migrants in the desert, and those experiences have left a deep impression on me.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
Documentaries rarely come out exactly as expected. And I would venture to say that if they have, something probably went wrong. It was my first time in Ajo, AZ for the filming of The Desert Walkers, and I could not have imagined the level of heat, or hostility of terrain that I faced. That impacted the way that I had planned on shooting the film. From a purely physical standpoint as a one man crew, I had to make adjustments to account for my safety and survival. During an eight hour water drop, it simply isn't feasible to carry a camera for the entire duration and maintain concentration.
Towards the end of the day, you start to feel particularly terrible. You're overheated and dehydrated. No amount of water can sustain a human life in 111 degree heat for very long. So those were some of the practical considerations that shaped the final film. They also ended up shaping my views of the current crisis, since as a volunteer wading into the desert, you share in some small part, the suffering endured by thousands every year.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
Mostly positive. It was always important to respect the organization No More Deaths and the reality of them putting their lives on the line 365 days a year to save the lives of people they will never meet. There is a selflessness to the operation that I find deeply inspiring. It requires an almost unimaginable level of empathy.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
Honestly, not really. Obviously there are groups that think immigrants are the cause of every problem the United States has ever faced, or ever will face. There are misguided people that believe migrants should not come to the US, and that what these aid groups do is wrong. I will never entertain these xenophobic beliefs as right or rational. The United States has eschewed responsibility for decades of oppression against Mexico, Central, and South America, which has, in part, caused these mass migrations we see today. I believe all human beings deserve to be treated with respect regardless of their background or where they come from.
So with that in mind, the feedback has not seriously challenged my point of view. With that said, as a filmmaker, I make a conscious effort not to proselytize, and I strive to let the characters lead the story. Telling people what to believe seldom works. Audiences must be exposed to something different from what they're familiar with and come to their own conclusions.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
I hope to engage and motivate a broader audience to take an interest in immigrant rights at a critical time in the United States. There needs to be more discussion, and wearemovingstories is a great outlet to share ideas and galvanize people to action.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
Buyers, distributors, film festival directors, and journalists all have the power to amplify the film's message and to reach a broader audience still. The United States is a big country, and the more people who see it, the more possibility there is for the film to connect with people and make them think twice about the position our government has taken against immigrant populations worldwide. At the same time, the film is a celebration of the work No More Deaths does to save lives every day, and hope is an equally important message to share.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
Hopefully it will have a positive reception, and people will be interested in learning more both about No More Deaths, as well as the immigration issues facing our country. And of course, I hope people are engaged by the story and see beyond the politics.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
How does the US value human lives?
Would you like to add anything else?
Please check out the amazing work being done in the desert at the No More Deaths website, www.nomoredeaths.org, and get involved.
What are the key creatives developing or working on now?
I am currently editing my second feature length documentary about a prominent refugee house saving lives in Austin, Texas called Casa Marianella. If you are interested in contributing to the post-production process of the film, please reach out using the contact form on my website. (http://www.jasonoutenreath.com/the-live-here-now/)
Interview: March 2017
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