In Ted Roach's documentary, 120 Days, the fate of a family is put on notice as father Miguel Cortes faces deportation proceedings and the toughest choice of his life, to self-deport or disappear. We talked with him about the film, which airs on World Channel, Sunday, April 8, at 9 PM ET, and on UNC-TV and SCETV, Monday, April 30, at 9 PM ET.
What inspired you to make this film?
I feel strongly that the United States should always continue our tradition of accepting new immigrants who are pursuing the same goals and opportunities that drove every single one of our forefathers (unless you are Native American) to make their own journeys in pursuit of the “American Dream.” I also feel that our neighbors to the south are increasingly discriminated against when we set our immigration policies, even though their economic and cultural contributions to our society are vitally important to keeping the great American machine running. This discrimination is mostly due to the language they speak and the color of their skin, and detractors constantly use stereotypes and misinformation to further closed-minded and short-sighted agendas. Most of them have no idea how Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented, effect their lives every day. I wanted to make an objective film that would show everyone who these people are that are being forced to live in the shadows of our society, and what we lose when we rip families like these apart.
What makes this a Southern story?
120 Days is a Southern story about one undocumented family living and working in Raleigh, North Carolina. Every scene shows a slice of Southern Americana on many levels. I am also very proud and blessed to call Raleigh my hometown, so this story comes from the perspective of a Southern storyteller examining a national issue as it plays out in his own backyard.
What were the challenges and blessings in making this movie?
The biggest challenges in making the film revolved around the language barrier. While Miguel and Maria Luisa do speak some English, it was much more comfortable for them to answer my interview questions in Spanish. This created many obstacles both during production, and then later on in the editing room as I cut the footage myself. I also knew this documentary needed to be interesting and accessible to non-Spanish-speaking Americans in order help further our understanding of the plight undocumented immigrants face. This tragic, mixed-language story had to be framed in an entertaining, heart-warming film, infused with as much English as possible if I wanted American audiences to embrace the message.
The biggest blessings were the people who helped me overcome these challenges. I found an amazing cinematographer, Brad Allgood, who spoke fluent Spanish and we worked as a 2-man crew throughout the shooting process. The Corteses' teenage daughters, Yael and Saydrel, are also bilingual as they had grown up in the US from a very early age, so they were instrumental in helping me understand everything that was happening. And finally, I put together a small team of bilingual graduate students from American University who translated many hours of raw footage so I could subtitle everything before I started editing. Without these dedicated crew members I could not have made this movie.
How did the story change you?
When I started the project I felt that most of the mainstream media coverage focused on only negative stories about undocumented immigrants, which unfairly creates stereotypes and overgeneralization. At one point during the filming, when the Cortes family received a civic service award in front of a room full of Americans who had no idea they were undocumented, I realized the real reason we never hear these stories is because their best and brightest are unable to share their immigration status with the Americans they meet in everyday life. No matter how much “good” they contribute to our society, it mostly goes unnoticed because they are forced to hide the fact they are here illegally. This was the most impactful realization for me, and truly changed my understanding of the challenges they face.
What do you hope will happen after people see this story?
I hope that advocates who see the story will have the ammunition they need to continue debating the naysayers with concrete, real-world examples of who these people are, how much they contribute, and how their families are being painfully split apart. To those opposed to allowing these families to stay together here after years of US residency, I hope they will open their minds enough to realize that there is no legal “line” for them get into, as I too often hear. The US does not give lottery visas to Mexicans. There is a strict quota on Mexican immigration which is quickly filled by those who already have family here, or who have specialized skills. So families such as the Corteses have no legal option for escaping the violence, danger, and economic hardship in their home country. If the United States cannot offer refuge for families such as these, then we have strayed way too far away from our founding principles. When people watch what our current policies did to this one family, which represents millions of others in similar circumstances, I hope they will agree we should strive to do better as Americans.