Heather Courtney's Letters From the Other Side, which Variety's John Anderson has described as "sensitive . . . effective and emotionally potent" as well as "a much-needed examination of the collateral damage of illegal immigration" is sadly informative. It is painfully frustrating to watch at times, but not for any lack in the documentary itself as much as for the heartfelt plight of its abandoned subjects. Letters From the Other Side is testimonial documentary that puts a human face on the individuals—wives, mothers and children—often neglected and betrayed by husbands, fathers and sons who have unwittingly succumbed to the lures and lies of exploitive globalization, only to become victimized themselves by unsurmountable circumstance. "Every year," William Goss writes for E-FilmCritic, "statistics continue to rise as more fathers and sons make their way across the border from Mexico into the United States, in hope for providing a better life for their families back home. However, the harsh reality of the American dream comes to light when those who survive the journey are lucky enough to find jobs that barely sustain themselves, let alone their kin. Rural families separate only to find themselves in a financial and emotional stalemate, with children never seeing their fathers or brothers again, mothers never seeing their sons or spouses."
"Even though documenting such hardships usually lends itself to an inevitable sense of emotional manipulation," Goss continues, "Courtney avoids such blatant exploitation with an evenhanded approach, and the resulting empathy is damn near impossible to avoid."
Courtney has been praised for her "unobtrusive" and "steady" camera and Jette Kernion concurs: "While the film doesn't disguise its political leanings, it isn't blatantly manipulative or preachy. Some viewers might consider Letters from the Other Side to be left-wing propaganda in favor of changing immigration and trade laws. If it is propaganda, it is certainly effective without being heavy-handed." Kernion further observes: "Letters from the Other Side brings up one of the perennial questions about documentary filmmaking: how much should you involve yourself in your subjects' lives, and to what extent? Should you run the risk of potentially affecting the outcome of your film, or is it more important to help people you encounter while shooting? . . . Heather Courtney, director of Letters from the Other Side, obviously decided to help—in fact, the stories in the documentary hinge on Courtney's ability to deliver video 'letters' back and forth between women in small Mexican towns and their male relatives working in the United States."
It is Courtney's ability to move freely back and forth across the border delivering these "video-letters" that illustrates the unjust truth of border-restrictive regulations. Her "central project" of providing communication between estranged families via video letters amplifies into a "dialogue" between Laura Almanza Cruz—a Mexican woman whose husband died in 2003, along with 18 others, in the worst immigrant smuggling case in U.S. history—and Russell Knocke, a U.S. Homeland Security official who listens to her concerns and offers paltry condolences. The project further diversifies into a "dialogue" between women in a sewing collective and a wealthy Texan woman who wants to buy more of their work because it's so cheap. The lack of parity is chillingly bittersweet.
As the press notes attest: "The immigration debate is heating up again and as the U.S. Senate begins to debate this divisive and heated issue, Letters focuses on a side of the immigration story rarely told by the media or touched upon in our national debate. In this way, Letters offers a fresh perspective, painting a complex portrait of families torn apart by economics, communities dying at the hands of globalization, and governments incapable or unwilling to do anything about it."
"Every day," the film advises, "thousands of Mexicans line up to collect money sent to them from family working in the U.S. In 2004, Mexicans in the U.S. sent back $17 billion, almost twice the amount sent in 2000. This is more than Mexico makes from tourism and the country's second largest source of income after oil. These remittances have grown nearly 300% in the last decade."
Eugenia Gonzáles asks, "What does the United States have that they forget about Mexico?" Her son Enrique left home at 14 to find out whatever became of their father Héctor, who he found living with another woman. Eugenia, needing to provide for five children, resiliently learned to cultivate cactus with which she makes soap and jellies to sell at local markets, proud of her self-sufficiency. The cactus has become like a dear member of the family that helps sustain them. It's the message she sends her husband who, along with Enrique, watches the video letter. Enrique is obviously moved by his mother's salutations, brought to tears, while Héctor impassively listens. It's painful to then watch Enrique berate his father for not sending more money home and Héctor's feeble attempts to justify his own entrapment and to admit he has failed. He swears he has sent money home every month or every few months but Eugenia, watching his response, shakes her head sadly and in disbelief, stating she receives money at most once a year. The video response makes her both sad and mad. Even though Héctor pleads with her to wait for him and promises to return as soon as he can save enough money, Eugenia isn't sure she really wants him back. Self-sufficiency has grown on her and she is concerned that Héctor might return wanting things to be the way they were before, with him wearing the pants in the family, asking Eugenia to be subservient, which she can no longer do. Her hope for her daughters is that they gain careers that will allow them not to be totally dependent upon their husbands. So Héctor stalls on returning because he hasn't saved enough money and Enrique honestly admits that he does not want to return because all that's back home is desert and he doesn't want to risk his life for that.
"Beginning in the 1990s," the film tells us, "free trade agreements promised gains for U.S. and Mexican businesses and workers. Despite some successes, U.S. and Mexican government statistics show that by 2002, the number of farming jobs in Mexico had fallen by 1.3 million, while U.S. corn exports to Mexico had increased by 240%, and Mexican corn prices had fallen by more than 70%. Meanwhile, the average hourly income in Mexico decreased by 40% in the 1990s. In 1990, there were 2 million undocumented Mexicans working in the United States. By 2004, there were 6 million."
Along with farming corn and beans, Maria Yañez embroiders pillows for a women's cooperative in nearby San Miguel. She gets 40 pesos for a pillow, which takes her three full days to complete. The collective sells them for 150 pesos (roughly $15). The owner of the cooperative states that, though the government does much to help these women learn skills, it does nothing to help them learn how to market what they have made. The hope is that by developing marketable skills, husbands, sons and brothers will be less motivated to leave their families for jobs in the U.S.
Sally Berkshire, a wealthy Texan woman, bravely exposes her privilege, guiding Courtney through her "cave" home. Maria jokingly complains that Sally has lots of money and that she decorates her home as a cave because she likes it, whereas they live in homes that are like caves whether they like it or not. It seemed to me that if Sally Berkshire favored Maria's pillows so ardently, she would purchase them directly from Maria for the price she buys them at the collective. But it's too easy to target Ms. Berkshire for being naïve enough to gloat her privilege before the cameras.
"Since 1994," the film adds, "the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents on the U.S./Mexico border has nearly tripled to 11,000. In 2004, the U.S. government granted 56,280 temporary work visas to low-skilled Mexican laborers, while some 400,000 undocumented Mexicans came to work in the U.S. that same year. In 1994, the average smuggler fee was around $300. By 2004, it was $2000. In 1995, the recorded number of immigrants who died crossing the U.S./Mexico border was 61. By 2005, it was 464."
Carmela Rico and Laura Almanza Cruz, who both lost their husbands in the 2003 immigrant smuggling tragedy, attempt to reconstruct their lives by starting a bakery. The government provides them equipment that is so large that a wall of their house has to be knocked down so the equipment can be placed, but then nothing is done to teach them how to use the equipment, how to hook it up, how to purchase the gas necessary to run the ovens, or the ingredients necessary to bake their goods. It is an "empty blessing" that goes nowhere. What good is it, Laura asks Courtney. It's like you bringing your camera and not having a lens. Though assured by U.S. Homeland Security that the smuggler who transported their husbands across the border to their deaths has been apprehended and will be brought to justice, the women are worldweary and aware. They know that if one smuggler is apprehended, another will take their place. They don't understand why, with an obvious demand for cheap labor, the U.S. government doesn't make it easier to secure work passes instead of driving men to means that risk their lives. Brought to testify against the smuggler in Houston, Texas, the women were conflicted about how easily the government can provide papers when they want to and when it's for their purpose. Insult was added to injury when, during the screening of Letters From the Other Side at this year's South by Southwest festival, the US Consulate in Mexico City denied visas to the women featured in the film despite letters from SXSW and Congressman Lloyd Doggett.
The West Coast premiere of Letters From the Other Side will take place at this year's San Francisco Independent Film Festival's Fifth annual DocFest on Sunday, May 14 at 1:00 p.m. in the Womens Building and Tuesday, May 16, at 7:00 p.m. at the Little Roxie.