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Married MacArthur 'geniuses' explore border policy and immigration


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Last year's MacArthur Fellow recipients were among the most diverse since the foundation started giving the so-called Genius Awards 40 years ago.

Two of the recent grantees are married Latino filmmakers who focus on immigration and U.S. border policy.

Jeffrey Brown visited them at their California home for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Speaker: My mom belongs to the Society of Martha Washington.

Jeffrey Brown: A documentary that examines an unexpected slice of Mexican-American life, an annual debutante ball, in the border city of Laredo, Texas.

The 2014 film, titled "Las Marthas," was directed by Cristina Ibarra.

Cristina Ibarra, Documentary Filmmaker: There was something else going on here. There was this deep history that was playing out still today. I felt like it needed to be told in this new way.

Jeffrey Brown: A sci-fi thriller set in a near future that looks at the tangled web of technology, migration and labor. "Sleep Dealer," from 2008, was directed by Alex Rivera.

Alex Rivera, Filmmaker and Media Artist: Science fiction has always been used to sort of talk about the fears in our society, fears in our economy. And "Sleep Dealer," I hoped, was kind of part of that tradition.

Jeffrey Brown: Ibarra and Rivera met on a film project 25 years ago, and have been making films, mostly separately, ever since.

Cristina Ibarra: I'm Cristina Ibarra.

Jeffrey Brown: Now they have become the first married couple to be named MacArthur Fellows in the same year for their individual work, both recognized for exploring borderland issues and socioeconomic injustices.

Cristina Ibarra: From the outset was this idea of, how can I help my family?

Jeffrey Brown: Ibarra grew up in the border city of El Paso, watching both Mexican and American television, but feeling invisible.

Cristina Ibarra: And I discovered the power behind images. And I started to get this turmoil inside of me, because I realized I had never seen myself.

And if I could grab a camera and just go and tell stories that resonated with me when I was a child growing up, then I feel like I would have been a different person. So, in some ways, my filmmaking is a way of going back home to speak to that young girl.

Jeffrey Brown: Rivera grew up in an immigrant family in New York. His father is from Peru.

Alex Rivera: When I started to think that I might make films, I had the question, what are you going to make the films about? And this was in the mid-1990s. And there was anti-immigrant vigilante movements here in California. There was anti-immigrant proposals at the state level.

And so I sort of felt like, wow, these people that are being talked about in the news, these immigrants, these aliens, that's me. And that's us. So, I'm going to make films right there. I'm going to go and intervene in that conversation.

And I thought it would be a film. Instead, it's been a life.

Jeffrey Brown: She, 49, has focused more on documentaries. He, 48, has mixed in dramas and video collaborations with immigration advocacy groups.

Speaker: Most immigrants pass or kind of purgatory on the way out of the country, a detention center.

Jeffrey Brown: In 2019, they came together to co-direct an unusual hybrid, part-documentary, part-dramatic reenactment called "The Infiltrators."

Speaker: One question. How can I get in?

Jeffrey Brown: Again, immigration was the focus.

The film followed a group of undocumented activists who infiltrated a Florida detention center to bring attention to detainees awaiting deportation. It featured actors, plus interviews with the real people they're playing, the documentary part of the film outside the detention center, the dramatic portion inside.

Alex Rivera: When you start to think about immigration in our society and really look at immigration enforcement, there's so much of it that we're expected not to see, that we're not allowed to see.

Cristina Ibarra: But it was a form that was born out of necessity, not necessarily out of wanting to be an art film, but out of wanting to create a powerful story.

Jeffrey Brown: There are rules about these things, right, but there are also ways to creatively break them sometimes? It sounds like what you're describing.

Alex Rivera: The creativity of it was balanced by research and just really trying to confirm the facts everywhere we could. And so we're going to have to go into uncharted terrain, perhaps, in terms of documentary filmmaking.

And we have never seen a film that operated the way this one started to. When we were building it, we're like, wow, that's really weird, like taking observational footage of a real person who walks away from the camera into detention and turning them into an actor who's going to continue their journey?

And we don't know if we're going to make it, premiere it and get attacked, and fail. But we felt like it was exciting to us to see that.

Jeffrey Brown: They also want to challenge the status quo in the film industry and bring new voices behind and in front of the camera.

Cristina Ibarra: To stay on your path and try to do something that's bold and creating almost like a new cinematic language is incredibly difficult.

But I do see that there are opportunities to impact the system with this knowledge that we're building as we're struggling to tell our stories.

Alex Rivera: Our whole generation of Latino filmmakers in this country has really been shut out of Hollywood. It's a consequence of living in a country where our realities are not reflected in the mass culture.

So that's been our situation, is trying to build this culture, build a cinema without support from the film industry.

Jeffrey Brown: Now, in this double-genius household, both filmmakers are working on new projects, Cristina Ibarra on a more personal documentary about her own family history in El Paso, while Alex Rivera is set to write and direct a drama called "Zorro 2.0," updating the masked avenger to a contemporary undocumented hacker.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Pasadena, California.

Judy Woodruff: Two MacArthur Geniuses.

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