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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLA

UCLA professors shine light on border crisis in new documentary ‘Águilas’

(Courtesy of Maite Zubiaurre)

By Rania Soetirto

Sept. 4, 2021 8:54 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled School of Theater, Film and Television.

This post was updated Sept. 6 at 9:59 p.m.

Two UCLA professors hope to raise awareness about the border crisis and humanize the experiences of undocumented migrants who died trying to cross the United States-Mexico border in the documentary “Águilas.”

The film features the humanitarian organization Aguilas del Desierto and its missions in the Sonoran Desert to find missing migrants. The documentary has premiered in film festivals across the country since February, winning multiple awards for best documentary short film. Its next screening is planned to feature at the New York Latino Film Festival in New York City, taking place from Sept. 14 to 19.

The Arizona desert is notorious for the dangerous trek that migrants make to reach the United States. According to the nonprofit organization Humane Borders, 3,400 people have died trying to cross the desert since January 1999. As of Dec. 31, 2018, more than 1,000 remains are still unidentified, with many more expected to be unrecoverable due to the harsh and vast terrain of the Arizona desert, Humane Borders added.

“It is said that for each body found, there are five more that the desert will never give back,” said Maite Zubiaurre, a professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese and the department of European languages and transcultural studies and co-director of “Águilas.”

Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, director of “Águilas” and a professor of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, said filming began in November 2019. The crew joined Aguilas del Desierto on its search and rescue missions to acquire footage for the documentary and finished the movie by the end of 2020.

The film was influenced by Zubiaurre’s work with forensic empathy, a discipline born from urban humanities, an academic subject that Zubiaurre is heavily involved in that focuses on migrant death and border activism.

Zubiaurre said Jason De León’s book, “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail,” and its discussion on the tragedy of migrant belongings found in the desert were also another major influence to the documentary. “Águilas” features volunteers finding the belongings and bones of deceased migrants, which are then used by authorities to identify and locate the remains of victims.

Aguilas del Desierto consists of migrants who devote one weekend of every month to travel to Arizona to find missing migrants and bring peace to the victims’ families.

Zubiaurre began volunteering with Aguilas del Desierto in 2016. Her encounter with the volunteers – who mainly work as gardeners, factory workers and domestic workers – had inspired her to reach out to Guevara-Flanagan to create the documentary, she said.

Guevara-Flanagan said it was difficult to carry the filming equipment and ensure that they had enough battery life to shoot in the desert. Additionally, the extreme heat and the miles of rocky terrain they had to cover posed another challenge. There were also points where she and the cinematographer were separated while following the volunteers during their search, she added.

“It really made me think about how quickly people can perish in this environment and how brutal the terrain is and that this is happening because of policies that are pushing people out further into this territory,” Guevara-Flanagan said.

Since the 1990s, a set of policies instituted under the umbrella term “Prevention Through Deterrence” has increased military surveillance and policing of major urban crossing points between the U.S.-Mexico border. This set of policies makes it more difficult for migrants to cross the border, pushing many to seek more remote and dangerous terrain, Zubiaurre said.

According to USA Today, it takes around seven to 10 days to cross the border through the Sonoran desert.

Zubiaurre said migrants would make the trek believing it takes two days to cross the desert with only water bottles sold to them by “coyotes,” or smugglers. Many perished when they ran out of water.

The crew hopes to portray the missions across the Sonoran Desert with “sober dignity” and avoid sensationalizing migrant death, Zubiaurre said. In addition to the emotional stress of finding human remains, ensuring that the documentary portrays the work of Aguilas del Desierto and migrants’ real experiences was one of the film’s main challenges.

Zubiaurre, who has also been involved in other projects to raise awareness on migrant death and border activism, said the team has constantly tried to put themselves in the shoes of the victims’ families and exercise empathy when producing the documentary.

“The guiding question is: ‘What can we do and show that would not re-traumatize the (victims’) families?’” she said.

Nico Sandi, the film editor, said they deliberately decided not to give the documentary music to avoid sensationalizing the human remains found in the film. He said by removing music from the footage, it allows the audience to process and understand the documentary for themselves without any outside influences.

The crew had focused on using scenes in which the volunteers showed compassion and empathy to their fellow migrants who were lost in the desert, Sandi added. He said some of the volunteers shared their own experiences of crossing the desert in the past, which helped the volunteers understand the struggles of the victims they were searching for.

“That sense of community and that sense of belonging to the same family of migrants was something we were trying to find,” said Sandi, who also created the English subtitles for the film.

David Marquez, the cinematographer, said that although he wanted to be able to capture the most impactful shots, he was more focused on creating harmony among the film’s horrible images. He added that he wanted to convey that although there is much suffering, there is hope in navigating the border crisis and issues surrounding migrant death.

Marquez, who recently graduated from the graduate school at TFT in 2020, said he hopes the documentary will increase awareness about the crisis migrants face at the border.

Since the documentary’s release, several people have reached out asking how they can donate and support Aguilas del Desierto and their work, Marquez said.

Zubiaurre hopes “Águilas” appeals to the hearts of its viewers and inspires radical changes in border policies. Guevara-Flanagan said she wanted the documentary to give a human face to the border crisis and to remind the audience that the issue at hand is a global concern.

Marquez hoped the film would draw attention to the issue and ultimately inspire change.

“The most important thing is to keep the finger pointing in that direction,” Marquez said. “And keep saying that (the border crisis) is happening … We have to do better. We can do better.”

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