Those Who Remain (Carlos Hagerman, Juan Carlos Rulfo, 2008): Mexico

Reviewed by Richard Feilden.  Viewed at The Mann Festival Theatre as part of the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival.

those who remainI’ve seen a fair number of documentaries which depict the journey and plight of migrant workers, most recently H2 Worker which was finally released on DVD.  But Those Who Remain is a rarer thing.  Directors Carlos Hagerman and Juan Carlos Rulfo turn the tables and shine a light on a group of people often ignored in America’s immigration debate: the families that the workers who slip into America to work illegally have to leave behind as they search for a better life.  Though it is a thought-provoking exploration of the impact that the long-term absence of husbands, fathers, sons and daughters can have on their loved ones, the film’s decision to omit any reference to the underlying issues that force the illegal workers north undercuts its effectiveness.

The film opens with a group of young school children being asked why their fathers travel to the US (apart from one young woman, it is exclusively men who are shown in the film to have left).  Every child has an answer, just as every child’s father is, or will soon be, absent.  Money, gifts and gold chains is the answer they give their teacher.  But the real answer is staring us in the face.  Time and again we are told that the reason that fathers leave home–in one case for seven years–is to pay for their children’s education.  Certainly, we see houses being built and homes improved with the money that filters south over the border, but it is the desire for their children to be educated, and thus to be able to make a life for themselves without resorting to an illegal, dangerous journey into America, that drives many of these men away from their families.

But behind them, they leave ghost towns.  The more people who leave, the less reason there is for people to stay.  The men who choose to remain in the depopulated villages find themselves in an unviable economic position; they suffer for the needs of their neighbors.   Worse still is the emotional hardship that the long-term separation can bring.  A child tells the filmmaker that she doesn’t care what they are forced to eat; she just wants her daddy to come home.  Another woman fights to hold back tears as she recalls the last phone call with her husband, before he was mugged and killed so far from home.  But others proudly show the film crew around the house that they are building with the money that is sent back, and discuss the education they can now afford to give their children.  Indeed, the film presents a remarkably balanced perspective.  So much so that, in the end, I was unable to decide for myself whether it seemed that the risk and hardship was worth it for these people or not.  The film does not preach, but simply informs.

The film never digs very deeply into the forces that condemn these families to their long-distance relationships.  Certainly farmers tell us that they can’t make money selling corn, but they never show any sign of understanding why.  That they are traveling to the country whose farm subsidies have destroyed their way of life is never mentioned.  Nor is the fact that their huge families mean there are many mouths to feed and minds to educate.  When a woman says that seven of her ten siblings are working in the US, the idea that there isn’t enough money to put food on the table becomes a little easier to understand.  But with the US Government and the Catholic Church absent from the discussions, it makes the people seem naïve.  One man mentions that their own government is wrong when it tells them they can live on what they make, but nothing is done to suggest that these people see any further than that, and, while they might not be quick to condemn the church’s anti-birth-control stance, surely there must have been resentment towards the US policy which makes it cheaper to buy imported corn than grow your own.  But none of this is shown here.

What we have then is a film which provides a rare glimpse into the lives of these people who are so often ignored when the specter of illegal immigrants is raised.  I would just have liked to see the film explore the reasons behind these sundered families, as well as demonstrate the damage caused by unfair policies and outdated strictures.  Still, the film adds a worthy voice to the migration debate.

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