‘Split at the Root’ Review: A Well-Meaning Doc About Family Separation Is Hobbled by Misguided Choices

SXSW: Linda Goldstein Knowlton's film about family separation at the border has powerful moments, but its framing leaves plenty to be desired.
'Split at the Root' Review: A Well-Meaning Doc About Family Separation
"Split at the Root"

A documentary meant to be a call to action and a reminder that, as bleak as things seem to be right now, there are always people trying to do the right thing, Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s “Split at the Root” is about the horrors of family separation at the border, and those trying to do something about it. But as effective as some of the imagery is, and as compelling as the stories of mothers whose kids were essentially kidnapped by the U.S. government at the border, the film puts them on the periphery and instead focuses on a group of white women who explain the border crisis and why these women left their countries in the first place.

It’s fine that the filmmakers want to aim the film mostly at those who are not familiar with the border crisis in order to get them to act, with a strong focus on the shame Americans should feel at this violation of human rights. The real problem: is Goldstein Knowlton already has the women who are actually affected by the policies in the film and could easily make the point themselves, but they are mostly otherized and shown only as part of a sad tale for white women to feel bad about.

The documentary focuses on the zero-tolerance policy at the border, which amounts to kidnapping children and separating them from their families. The film begins in 2018, when Julie Schwietert Collazo, a mom from Queens, started asking on Facebook for help in trying to get a Guatemalan mother, Yeni, reunited with her kids after being separated at the border. What initially amounted to a GoFundMe campaign grew into a full-blown rescue operation, with women around the country providing funds to pay the bond for immigrant women detained at the border, ground transportation to get them reunited with their kids, and eventually legal counsel and medical assistance.

“Split at the Root” is mostly interested in being a call to action. While we do see some of how the organization Immigrant Families Together operates, director Goldstein Knowlton is compelled to show the indignity the women of the organization feel at the way their country treats mothers who just want a better life for their children, and in broad strokes why their work matters. To that point, the film uses animation to bring to life the experience of Guatemalan women like Yeni, who faced violence and even a kidnapping attempt while trying to cross the border, to show the hardships of the journey.

The film is mostly aimed at Americans either ignorant of the border crisis, or disinterested in the human rights violations occurring there, as it explains why people would go through hell to cross the border, the kind of hardships they face, and what they find when they get to the other side. Likewise, a big focus of the film is the motivation these moms had to join the organization, and the shame and anger they feel over what is happening at their doorstep. For those who have knowledge of what’s going on in the news, or even about immigration in general, however, it is not particularly insightful.

Sadly, the film faces pacing issues, as its main goal of educating about the border crisis and the work of the organization is over and done in the first 40 minutes. The rest of the documentary feels aimless for this reason, as it struggles to find something to build toward. It doesn’t help that the only people with a narrative arc, the women that got separated from their children, like Yeni, are kept in the periphery. It is only at the one-hour mark that we first hear her talking about what she feels about the policies that took her kids away, while we spent the previous hour hearing white women speak about this on Yeni’s behalf.

Indeed, as well-intended as “Split at the Root” is, its biggest problem is that it is still a film in which a group of white women talk about the problems women of color face when entering the country, and express their anger on their behalf. The one time it dives into the violent history of Guatemala that led to women like Yeni making the trip to the border, it is a white woman telling the story, rather than the woman who actually came from that country and escaped that violence in the first place.

“Split at the Root” may focus on the zero-tolerance policy that started during the Trump administration, but the film makes it quite clear this is a problem that doesn’t just end with a new government. The people that separated Yeni from her kids are still working at the border, and they still think of immigrants as some invading army. These are systematic problems that will take a lot more work to fix, and the film does a good job of reminding its audience of that.

Sadly, good intentions aren’t enough, and as good as the organization’s work is, the film feels like a letdown to the very women whose stories kickstarted the whole thing in the first place.

Grade: D

“Split at the Root” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution. 

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