Christy Wegener on a Search for Justice in “I Am Vanessa Guillen”

"I Am Vanessa Guillen"
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When Gloria Guillen traveled to Fort Hood, the U.S. army base in Killeen, Texas where her daughter was stationed, she recalls in “I Am Vanessa Guillen” that the place smelled of death. It had been her daughter’s dream to serve in the military – either that or become an astronaut, and as Guillen confides in director Christy Wegener, she told her daughter it would be better to shoot for the moon. If applying for NASA was slightly beyond Vanessa’s imagination, what would happen to her in Fort Hood was surely beyond Gloria’s when her daughter was reported missing in April 2020, her disappearance made all the more confusing by the military’s handling of the case, providing few details to the family about any progress made and remaining tight-lipped even after her body was found in a nearby river.

“I Am Vanessa Guillen” tracks two searches for justice that the Guillen family undertook – one for the culprits behind the staff specialist’s murder and the other to rectify broader issues in the military where a lack of transparency and accountability have festered for far too long, particularly in regards to sexual harassment and assault. As Wegener finds out from the Guillens, who received text messages from Vanessa that alluded to her disenchantment as she pursued a specialty in firearms repair, there were warning signs that the 20-year-old might be in harm’s way well before ever being asked to defend her country, leading Gloria’s other daughters Mayra and Lupe to begin asking the public for help on social media to find their sister when they ran into a wall with the military. Fearful of the implications of pushing too hard when members of the family’s immigration status could be put in jeopardy, the Guillens nonetheless ignited a movement online that spilled over to protests in front of the halls of Congress demanding legislation that would not only provide answers to them, but to so many others who have found themselves in this unfortunate position.

If the Guillens’ activism online was galvanizing to many, there are bound to be millions more inspired watching “I Am Vanessa Guillen” now that the chronicle of their experience has arrived on Netflix with Wegener telling of their travails with unabated urgency. Even as the family retains the services of attorney Natalie Khawam, an expert at navigating the military system of justice where chain of command imposes a different set of standards than civilian court cases, and collects bipartisan support for a bill that would prohibit commanders from being involved in sexual harassment and assault investigations, their tireless efforts can be deeply admired while also seeing the considerable cost it has on them, leaving no time to grieve when taking action appears to be more pressing and one would hope the film unburdens them of feeling as if they are shouldering this responsibility all on their own. Recently, Wegener spoke about how she felt her own call to action when following Vanessa’s case with great interest and making a film that would give audiences a different idea of what justice looks like.

How did you get interested in this?

Vanessa had probably been missing for about a week [when] her sister Mayra Guillen started posting online, asking for help from the public. I saw her post and it really struck a chord with me, just the desperation in her voice and I’m an older sister myself and I always felt very protective of my younger sisters, so I related. There were some harrowing situations we were in and when I saw Mayra online, I started following the case. They were searching for Vanessa for almost three months and the story kept escalating [to become] an international headline. Every step of the way, everyone, myself included, was hoping that she would be found and it was devastating when they found her remains.

The Guillen family ended up going to DC, advocating for legislation that would change the way the military handles sexual misconduct cases, so I started going down to DC to support and over the course of many months in doing that, we realized there would be a lot of value in a film.

You make a real distinction in the film between military justice and civilian justice, but in your own background, you once studied racial and gender discrimination in police departments. Was that anything you could draw on?

Yeah, before I started working in film and TV, I was in the nonprofit world, focused on racial profiling and gender discrimination within departments. This has always been a topic I care about — systematic injustice or corruption, so this was really full circle for me. It was something I wanted to get back to and it was a very long path to connect these two things, but this film really does that for me. Because you give so much to these film projects, it’s important to do something you care about and this was something professionally I’ve been trying to do for quite a while.

When you arrive to this in DC, but the story starts in Texas, was it tricky to figure out a structure for it?

We started filming in March of 2021 and I had been meeting with [the Guillens] – some of the footage in DC at those marches, I filmed on my iPhone before it was officially a project, but we didn’t actually start filming until the first bill had failed. In deciding upon a narrative, it was always agreed that we didn’t want this to be a traditional crime film and we didn’t want to sensationalize the horrific nature of what happened to them, but we also wanted to make sure we told what happened because you have to be honest about the horrors of what went on and why the family was fighting [for change]. What was so exceptional about this story for me was the fact that this family, in a time of the most traumatic grief-stricken moment of their lives, actually made this choice to fight for the greater good. That is such an exceptional step for human beings to take rather than retreat into their grief, so we focused on that and followed the natural progression of events as they tried to navigate DC and pursue legislation.

Did going back to Texas help you figure anything out?

Yeah, the community in Houston in particular really came together in a beautiful way to support the family and to really stand behind the issue of sexual misconduct. We were moved to tears literally when there were vigils and marches. All the murals are in the film, but just to see the way that community united in support of this family was really just a testament to how tight-knit and how close they were. It was beautiful to see that.

This might not have been much of a decision on your part since everyone is interviewed individually, but the family all appears separately. Did you find they had different attitudes towards what was going on?

Each family member had such a unique trajectory and was in such a unique emotional place as we were making the film, we wanted to make sure they each had their moment to share their experience. From [Gloria] the mom’s perspective compared to Mayra, the older sister, or Lupe, the younger sister, they were all just in different places, so it was really important to show that because everyone deals with grief differently.

Did anything happen that changed your ideas of what this could be?

There were a lot of moving parts. There was an active investigation about the crime, and there was always the hope that maybe there would be more information that would emerge about the crime or if there were other individuals on the base that were helping cover up [the murder]. There were a lot of unsubstantiated information and rumors that we didn’t feel would be appropriate to put in, but we were following this whole family and we showed this in the film – Lupe Guillen, who is an incredibly powerful speaker and a force to be reckoned with, she was really struggling emotionally and actually got to the point where she had to step away from the fight. We didn’t anticipate that, but the focus became a little bit more about Mayra and Natalie finishing the goal and we just wanted to be true to the facts and to the reality of what was going on.

Towards the end, you take a slight detour to film with Natalie and her parents, immigrants from Lebanon. How much did you see this as an immigration story?

It’s very much an immigration story and it’s one of the ways in which Natalie relates to the Guillen family most closely. Natalie’s first generation [American] as are the Guillens and they’re doing one of the most patriotic acts you can do, which is trying to actively utilize democracy to make the country better, and we all felt it really is such an emotional and American story in that way.

What’s it been like to see it resonate so strongly these past two weeks?

It’s honestly been surreal to see. This has just been so close to my heart and my team’s heart for two years and it’s really been such a wonderful experience, just to see the reaction on social media and people are really moved by it. I’ve watched the film 300 to 400 times – I literally cry every time and I was wondering if it was going to resonate in that way with the audience, but that’s people are really emotionally impacted by it and it’s become an important issue to people that didn’t realize this was an issue at all, so it’s been gratifying in that way.