It hadn’t been planned this way, but Matt Ogens found himself inside a classroom at Bowie High in El Paso on the first day of shooting his latest documentary, “Home and Away,” as students were watching the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump.
“It was pretty powerful watching a classroom full of all Mexicans and Mexican-Americans standing 50 yards from the border much more powerful and resonant watching them see it than myself,” said Ogens, who knew he was onto something when he began plans in the summer of 2016 to make a film about students who have to cross the border every day just to attend high school, yet saw January only as the start of baseball and soccer season, not as the dawn of a precarious new era for those who attend Bowie High.
However, Ogens already knew that no matter who the president has been, life has never been easy for those living along the border and rather than focus on their hardship as so many other filmmakers have, he found a unique opportunity to give new dimension to people typically defined by where they reside by following them into the transcendent space of sports. “Home and Away” spends time with three teens — seniors Erik Espinoza Villa and Shyanne Murguia and junior Francisco Mata — as they not only negotiate complex family situations with relatives on both sides of the border, but face uncertain futures, with Shyanne looking towards joining the military as a way to pay for college while Erik, who struggles to speak English, is concerned with just getting his diploma. Yet being under intense pressure elsewhere makes them unfazed when it comes to sports, whether it’s soccer in Erik’s case, wrestling for Shyanne, or baseball for Francisco, who’s only outside concern on the diamond is that his father will never be allowed to watch him play, and Ogens is there to capture a season that is just as unforgettable for audiences as you know it is for them as has observes all three bloom during one spring.
Like Ogens’ debut “Confessions of a Superhero,” which memorably profiled the people who dress up as Superman and Wonder Woman on the corner of Hollywood and Highland to make their living, “Home and Away” showcases the director’s deft touch when it comes to upending expectations of the people who appear before his lens, resisting judgment and letting them reveal themselves with time. Shortly after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Ogens and his producing partner Nathaniel Greene spoke about how they achieved such a nuanced portrait of life between Juarez and El Paso, working with crews on both sides of the border and doing justice to such a complex subject – not simply the border, but being a teen in general.
How did this come about?
Matt Ogens: Tribeca Studios went out to filmmakers they wanted to work with, looking for inspirational sports stories where socioeconomics were an issue. They left it up to the filmmakers to come up with ideas and pitch it to them and they’d choose the ones they wanted. I thought something on the border had never been done before and obviously, Trump had been talking about the wall and immigration, but so often times in the news, we hear about a macro topic and politicians and regular citizens alike often have a knee jerk reaction without checking in with the people that those decisions affect. I always start with curiosity and I was curious what the closest high school was to the Mexican border and found Bowie, called them up and they invited me and Nathaniel down there.
Nathaniel Greene: We went to El Paso and Juarez December of 2016 just to do a research trip to see what was going on on the ground there and after that trip, we both said, “There’s absolutely a movie to be made here.”
How do you find the three kids?
Matt Ogens: We knew sports was going to be the narrative arc, just following a season of sports, so we met with all the baseball kids, all the soccer kids and Nathaniel and I just had conversations [with them] about what they were dealing with in their lives, would they be open to letting us into their lives, and going home with them? Was there conflict in their lives? There’s 1200-plus students at Bowie and we couldn’t film them all, but we felt that these three encapsulating the school in different ways.
We didn’t want to pick three kids that had the exact same story, so you had Francisco, [where] the border divides his family — he lives with his mom during the week so he can go to school in El Paso, and he goes back to live with the dad back in Juarez on the weekends. You have Shyanne, who only lives in El Paso, but her relationship with the border is that her mom went to prison for three years [after she] got busted smuggling drugs across the border, and you have Erik, who mainly lives with his family in Juarez. They each have a different relationship with the border, which was important [because] we wanted these three kids to have different relationships with the border.
I also really liked the fact it was three separate sports they pursue – was that part of the original conception, as opposed to possibly spending a season with the baseball team?
Nathaniel Greene: Right at the beginning, Matt and I said, “Should we follow one team?” A conventional sports doc where you pick two or three kids on that team and then you’re on the ride of that season with these kids? We kept going back and forth and said, “Well, it’s been done,” and we let the characters that we found down there really motivate which sports we were going to be involved in. It happened organically.
Matt Ogens: Yeah, you jump on the band wagon of one team and you don’t know how far they’re going to go, so if they don’t make it to the playoffs, you’re kind of shit out of luck. Like [Nathaniel] said, we’ve all seen sports docs where you follow one team, so we’re like, hey, why don’t we follow multiple teams but for each of those teams, instead of following the whole team, it’ll be through the point of view of that one character, so it still is one season of Bowie sports, just different points of view and different sports.
The coaches also really seem like an entry point for telling those individual stories. Were they always as prominent?
Matt Ogens: Yeah, the coaches at Bowie are more than just coaches. They’re father or mother figures, they’re mentors teaching them life lessons. The sport is just one facet of what they teach and sports, to me, is a metaphor for life. Each game has a story. Each season has a story and in this case, when you’re a poor kid living on the border, sometimes sports is all you have. You come from a broken home and for that hour or two hours in a day when they play sports, they can just be American teenagers, and it’s an outlet and an expression for them.
Nathaniel Greene: Most of the faculty at Bowie are really going above and beyond to help these kids because they know the struggle. There was one guy who even says, “Don’t judge these kids unless you really know what’s going on in their life.” And [the coaches] were able to contextualize some of the feelings that these kids had that as a 16-, 17-year-old kid, you probably aren’t able to express because you haven’t had the lens of looking back at that time. Coach Camacho went to Bowie, so he was in the shoes of these kids, and it was great to get that POV from a guy who can now reflect on his own experience at Bowie and as a coach reflect on what he means to the community and the team.
For you, was it interesting to be working with teens?
Matt Ogens: It was challenging at times [because] they’re just teenagers living their lives and there’s things I see as a director and Nathaniel sees as a producer that’s going on in their lives that they haven’t been able to process yet, so you’ve just got to spend time with them. Sometimes it means asking the same questions over and over again throughout the months of filming because you’re planting seeds and it gets them thinking about something they may not have thought of before, so when you go back and ask them again the next time and the next time, maybe that answer is going to be different and maybe it’s going to be deeper because it may be things they haven’t thought about.
Nathaniel Greene: And that’s a credit to Matt, just being down there and getting these interviews. Any time we would shoot a day, we’d make sure we’d get a few interviews, just Matt there talking to the kids and never stop mining things because we never knew at day one or at the end of June [when we stopped filming] what we were going to get at a certain point from the interviews.
Matt Ogens: I always say you schedule your scenes, you can’t schedule emotion, so you have to just be embedded with them and just be there ready. It’s like a National Geographic photographer that’s there shooting a lion attacking a zebra. What you don’t know is that photographer has been sitting there for a week every day all day to get that moment, so you just have to be there ready and be in it with them. When these kids see that you’re with them — [when] you’re running up the stairs with them when they’re running the bleachers to train, [you show] you’re in it with them. You’re not just popping in and out of their lives. So we earned their respect. They knew we were there to stay.
Also, with these kids, their lives may seem extraordinary and have lots of obstacles and challenges, but to them it’s normal. It’s normal to maybe only have one parent in their life. It’s normal to not have a lot of money. It’s normal that other schools look down upon Bowie. So when I ask, “What’s that like?” [they don’t say], “Oh, this is crazy and they can articulate that,” because this is their every day lives.
Logistically, was it challenging to cross the border as well?
Nathaniel Greene: We got into a routine. At the beginning, there were some issues of going into another country. You have crew who are waiting over there for you and some of the crew won’t be able to cross over, so there was a ballet that happened at the border, but we got into a routine and not have that affect the filming.
Matt Ogens: Yeah, that scene at the beginning where you see Erik waking up and crossing the border, that’s not something we stole. We had permission from Homeland Security – it actually took a couple months of filling out forms and getting reference letters and permission to do that because that was very important to be able to see that process of watching Erik or anyone at Bowie going back and forth to see the whole process, [where] they have to show a passport and go into another country to go to high school.
What was putting together this crew like?
Nathaniel Greene: We couldn’t have had a better team down there who opened their doors to us and really granted the access necessary to get what you see on the screen. The high school was great to us. They ended up giving us a little room that they had for production, so we had a base, a place to go everyday to check in with people and we ended up bringing on people who had gone to the high school…
Matt Ogens: One of our coordinators went to Bowie High…
Nathaniel Greene: And then her brother came on and helped as a PA. He had gone to Bowie High School.
Matt Ogens: So they knew all the coaches. They knew all the teachers, so we really had no obstacles on campus. We really could go wherever we wanted. They really trusted us.
Nathaniel Greene: Having that familiarity with some of our crew with the administration and some of the teachers helped us a lot. But we were a small crew.
Matt Ogens: Yeah, we were as little as a shooter and a sound guy on our light day to two or three cameras and more on other days. Except for me and Nathaniel, our DP and our line producer, everyone else was local, so they knew the lay of the land and they filmed on the border. They had gone back and forth, which was very valuable to have people that were used to that process.
What was it like getting to the finish line and premiere the film at Tribeca?
Matt Ogens: It was a race to the finish.
Nathaniel Greene: Like all filmmakers getting it here, we were finishing it right up to the last minute, just putting the final touches on it and I would say a week later we’re here premiering the film, and we were so focused on the task at hand, that to come here and take a step back and see it for the first time because we hadn’t seen it on a screen as big as the screen we premiered on, it’s a really great feeling because both Matt and I have seen so many cuts of this.
Matt Ogens: You lose perspective.
Nathaniel Greene: Yeah, we lose perspective on it and to have it reinforced that there’s something here by having the audience there respond to the film is really impactful.
Matt Ogens: And this is my first time playing at this festival, but it’s really meaningful to me because I lived here for seven years and I lived here on September 11th. I saw everything because I lived downtown and the Tribeca Film Festival was created as a response to that to revitalize businesses here, so 17 years later, it was really personal for me to be able to come back to this amazing city with our film, and two of the kids, Erik and Francisco had never been on a plane before and they’d never been anywhere, so they got thrown right into it.
What was it like to show to them?
Matt Ogens: It was amazing. That was the best part. For Nathaniel and I, we want [the film] to be successful, but it has to pass muster with them and they’re who we’re honoring, so as long as they like it, I feel I’ve done my job. And it’s like what I said at the beginning, you have politicians, even our president, and [other] people making judgment calls on immigration, but [we should stop to ask] “Hey, let’s check in with the people that are affected. At least have a dialogue. At least have a conversation.” Nathaniel and I tried to create some empathy to humanize the border through these kids, through their sports. It’s really important to be well informed. Then you can respond instead of react because immigration and the border is a complex problem. Just “Build a wall” is a very simpleton kind of solution, although I don’t think it’s a solution [at all], for a complex problem because we’re talking about people’s lives.
“Home and Away” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the Dallas Film Festival on May 6th at 2:15 pm and May 7th at 3 pm at the Magnolia Theater.