Heidi Ewing on Documentary Filmmaking After Trump and How Biden Could Impact Immigration

The director of "I Carry You With Me" and a new Ronan Farrow-backed documentary addressed the way her work fits into changing times.
Heidi Ewing on Filmmaking After Trump & Biden's Impact on Immigration
"I Carry You with Me"
Sony Pictures Classics

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady know how to find compelling subjects. From the religious extremists of “Jesus Camp” to the abortion clinics of “12th & Delaware” and the ex-Hasidic Jews expelled from their community in “One of Us,” the documentary filmmaking duo have been capturing urgent scenarios for years. On Wednesday, while much of America experienced the presidential inauguration at home, Ewing and Grady were running around D.C. with their cameras, working on a new project. For Ewing, that was business as usual. “Two of our subjects are U.S. journalists, and we go where they go,” she said by phone the next day.

Co-executive-produced with Ronan Farrow as part of his HBO deal, with Loki Films producing, the movie has the working title “Endangered” and follows several journalists around the world. Amid working on the project, Ewing also premiered her narrative debut, “I Carry You With Me,” at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. That film, which Sony Pictures Classics is planning to release theatrically in 2021, tracks the real-life experiences of two gay men in Mexico who traverse the border at different times to reunite in America. The poignant, often heartbreaking story (which includes some documentary footage of the real men at the end) provides an intimate contrast to the blaring headlines about immigration that have kept it in the national conversation in recent years.

Ewing spoke to IndieWire about shooting during the inauguration, how the conversation about immigration has evolved since she started on “I Carry You With Me,” and why the shifting political climate won’t impact her impulses as a filmmaker.

What was it like to be in D.C. in the middle of such a seismic moment?

It was almost impossible to get security clearance, but we got pretty close. We were there for a week, so every day, it was like the city was closing down around us. The places we could go one day were suddenly off-limits the next day or an hour later, so we ended up walking nine, 10 miles to get at these places, but you couldn’t drive anywhere. There was just National Guard everywhere. And if you were willing to bike or walk, there were loopholes to get around until Wednesday, and then it was just like a police state. You could barely get near the Capitol.

What have you gleaned from shooting a movie about journalism right now?

We spent Wednesday with one of our characters, who is an African-American photographer for the Miami Herald, and he wanted to see how Black-owned businesses were receiving the news, so we were in this beautiful Black barbershop in a neighborhood with a lot of Black businesses in it. We were filming through their eyes as they watched Kamala Harris. She was the big story, obviously.

What is your read on how the change in administrations is playing out for the journalists at the center of your project?

Every single one of the journalists we’ve been filming all over the world — including those working in the U.S. — seem like they’ve been in an abusive relationship. They’re exhausted from the uncertainty of it all. Our journalists working in India, Brazil, and Mexico felt the same as the journalists working in the United States. That had never been the case before.

We’re filming a journalist who is basically in an all-out war with Bolsonaro, who does everything from the Trump playbook. So, what was really interesting was that a Muslim journalist and a Brazilian journalist under fire from their governments, as well as Mexican women journalists in the most dangerous country to be a journalist in the world, are in the same conversation with those working in the United States. That’s never happened before. We’re working with the Committee to Protect Journalists, and they were almost unable to handle the amount of complaints and requests for help they’ve gotten from American journalists. They had to start a whole security protocol for them. I hate the word, but it’s been unprecedented. It was very humbling for them, and for us as filmmakers, to realize that we’ve just been like everybody else in terms of abused journalists.

On his first day, President Biden signed an executive order pausing the emergency funding of the border wall. “I Carry You With Me” dealt with the challenges faced by Mexicans immigrants in America in such intimate terms. How do you feel about the evolving conversation about all this in the U.S. as a new president takes control?

I started writing the movie under Obama and filming the real subjects at that time. Then the movie came out during Trump, and there was a moment when Trump was elected where I turned to the characters the movie’s based on and I said, “Should we put it away? Should we shelve it? Maybe we should stop.” They said, “No.” I said, “Maybe we should change your names.” “No.” So really, the whole world shifted under our feet while making a film about immigration, and I feel a deep empathy with everyone whose on pins and needles waiting for some kind of answer. The film was supposed to come out in June during the pandemic, and that stopped it. So the irony is that we actually started the movie under Obama and premiered it at Sundance under Trump, but the public might see the film under Biden-Harris. There’s some beautiful poetry in that.

How would you say sentiments about immigration have shifted since you started?

Former Vice President Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe BidenClint Spaulding

When I started making the movie, people weren’t really talking so much about immigration. Obama didn’t do it a ton of favors. Beyond DACA, he had a mixed record on immigration. Of course he looked like an angel compared to Trump, and under Trump, it became something else. Of course, my film is a love story and not a political movie, but I do feel that people can relate more or are more empathetic to the subject matter than maybe they would have been if the film had come out when it was supposed to come out. Who knows? But I can only hope this film is relevant forever. When the president of the United States calls people rapists and bad hombres, it’s like, we’ve seen how pliable people are, we’ve seen how susceptible a lot of people are to the words of the president of the United States, so I think it’s a long, arduous way back to an appreciation of immigrants. Xenophobia seems to settle very easily in people and I think it’s hard to remove, to be totally honest.

You’ve got this perilous scene in the movie in which the characters cross the border. How did that change your understanding what illegal immigrants go through?

We had to be really careful because we didn’t want to get that wrong, which would just be humiliating for everyone. It was a lot of research and talking to people. As we were making our way to the location, we saw part of the caravan pass through, so we were actually filming that scene in the middle of the whole caravan “crisis,” and we saw them on the road. Everybody was just sort of speechless. We shot that scene over three nights, and I have to say there were a lot of tears. My entire crew was Mexican, and they were overcome with emotion. We stopped a few times and they said, “Right now, our own people are making this journey for real.” The lengths that people go and the untenable situations that people are escaping wasn’t lost on us.

It’s not an easy journey and it’s not a quick jaunt. Nobody wants to leave home. They’re either acts of desperation or acts of survival. I think we’ve lost that understanding. I don’t think people are told enough of these stories to be able to empathize, so I do think the arts — photography and cinema — can help bridge that gap in American understanding of how and why people come here.

After Trump was elected, there were a lot of conversations in the U.S. documentary community about what stories should be told. You and Rachel have been making timely movies for over 15 years. How do you feel about the way that dialogue has been unfolding?

We’re not really interested in the news of the day. We believe things need to be digested before chronicled. Some of our colleagues — and I have much respect for them — are making movies about Cuomo while he’s in action or COVID movies as it unfolds. I will watch those movies, and I will be extremely grateful to see those movies, but that’s not our bailiwick. It’s not our level of interest. Even my narrative is a love story. Does it relate to immigration? Hell yes. But that’s not why I made it.

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