Interview: Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera on Getting Inside in “The Infiltrators”

“Like a Florida motel, you can’t check out,” Marco Saavedra can be heard saying in “The Infiltrators, with a little gallows humor when describing the scene at the Broward Transitional Center where none of the residents had a choice in checking in as undocumented immigrants who had been captured and detained by ICE. Except that is for Saavedra and Viridiana Martinez, two legally savvy immigrants rights activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance who hatched plans to turn themselves into the authorities — their own immigration status wasn’t in question when protected under the DREAM Act — in order to gain a greater understanding of what happened inside to relate to the public.

Their story reached filmmakers Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra, who amplify it even further in their provocative new film, in which they follow Saavedra and Martinez’s lead in more ways than one in outsmarting the system currently in place to expose its flaws. Rivera, who makes a triumphant return to the big screen after last directing “Sleep Dealer,” the clever sci-fi drama which envisioned borders as a state of mind in a future where physical geography had been overtaken by tech capabilities, and Ibarra, a nonfiction filmmaker by trade, have teamed up on a thriller that transcends the limitations of the form, observing the real-life Saavedra and Martinez make plans to spring wrongfully detained inmates while recreating the detention center to detail what happens inside, though the hybrid nonfiction/narrative eludes the trap of most documentaries that lean on restating past events, having it all taking place in one fluid timeline with actors engaging with real-life subjects.

“The Infiltrators” comes to focus on Claudio Rojas, an Argentinean who made America his home for well over 20 years before being apprehended by ICE while taking out the trash, leaving relatives to wonder about his whereabouts until Saavedra locates him at Broward. What transpires is bound to surprise far more than Rojas’ family as Saavedra offers himself up to officers at Broward, claiming to be looking for his cousin, and cultivates an underground network on the male side of the detention center while Martinez takes the same tact on the women’s side. Although the two can only take on a limited amount of cases at a time, revealing the ins and out of the detention center unearths a litany of injustices, both in terms of present treatment and inexplicably ambiguous reasoning for their confinement. Ibarra and Rivera operate with the same sense of urgency as their subjects, placing the story firmly in the present tense, even when recounting events that took place in 2012 and during a day and age when there’s been so much media attention around America’s immigration and deportation policies, but it remains a process shrouded in mystery, “The Infiltrators” brings it into the light brilliantly.

While the film had planned to follow its strong festival run following a premiere at Sundance last year with a theatrical release, “The Infiltrators” is sneaking into Virtual Cinemas as a result of the coronavirus, with Oscilloscope generously splitting the proceeds with your local arthouse while we remain in quarantine, and we were fortunate enough to connect virtually with Ibarra and Rivera to talk about how they figured out the most affecting way to tell this story, working with their subjects so that even in moments that were scripted, it came from a real place, and the importance of being able to showcase immigrants in a positive light.

How did the two of you join forces?

Cristina Ibarra: Alex and I had been making work alongside each other separately for about 20 years, but I’ve just always been interested in what he’s been up to. I’ve always shared work, which is mostly about race and class and gender issues as it related to the border, and when I saw him working on these videos of these young people, I was just so inspired. I really thought it was a perfect opportunity for us to blend our two skills – mine coming mostly from documentary grammar and Alex more experimental and narrative based.

Alex Rivera: Yeah, It was really exciting when we came across this story of the Broward Detention Center because the story was a kind of heist with these undocumented activists taking these incredible risks. We started to work with them to try to understand their strategies and what they were doing and how the government was responding, and it was an incredibly dramatic political action, but it was also challenging as a filmmaker because we could only film outside the detention center. We couldn’t film inside, so half of the story was invisible. In dialogue with Cristina, we started talking and came up with this idea of blending our strengths to use documentary outside the prison and recreation or on the inside, so it felt like a really natural way to blend our skills to confront a visual problem.

What kind of groundwork needs to be done on the documentary side before getting to the fictional side, for lack of a better word?

Cristina Ibarra: The way we ended up figuring this all out was a real process, but after collecting the observational footage, the first thing we did was some really in-depth sit-down interviews with the protagonists of the film, which were the infiltrators. We also interviewed detainees who were inside during the infiltration and we gathered a collection of internal government documents through a freedom of information act request that really corroborated much of the storyline. We also found this Department of Defense upsite that has archival footage to really use as placeholders as we tried to put the story together in the edit room, using these voiceovers that came directly from the interviews, this evidence that we obtained through documentary strategies.

Really, it was in the edit room where we started to understand where were these rules and one of the things I’m still surprised we did is when we had this kind of assembly of some footage that wasn’t really ours because we just had this Department of Defense footage and some of Alex’s storyboards to represent scenes that we wanted to illustrate, we showed this to the infiltrators. That was this make or break point for me was a make or break because we really needed them to be our focus and collaborate with us to tell this story in this way that we were designing it. Luckily, it went well and they gave us some great feedback and they worked with us through these memory workshops and feedback sessions to really put the script together. At that point, we really knew exactly where our holes were and that’s where we wanted to go to shoot the fictional side of it, obviously based on the documentary side of it.

Cristina, you’ve spoken about ideas of performance as far as the infiltrators playing a role to pull off their plan. Did that bring down that wall of nonfiction and narrative for you in the feeling of this?

Cristina Ibarra: Yeah, one of the things that drew me to this project was the way that we were seeing immigrants as real agents of social change with power and dignity and sophisticated political thinking. That was really exciting to me and part of that was using performance strategy for political protest. Now it seems natural that we ended up using actors because of the skills that the protagonists had in just performing these cases of detentions and deportations that they’ve learned in their deportation defense work, but it’s looking back that we can say this because at the time I feel like we were just trying to figure it out.

Alex Rivera: And when we confronted this problem of not being able to see inside detention and how to deal with that, we thought about animation or just using audio, a variety of techniques, But at a certain point, it just hit us on the head that the activists themselves, as part of this kind of heist, use wardrobe and a sort of script in order to trick the authorities to get into the detention center, so they were casting themselves and using the language of performance as part of the activism. So it felt really natural to take it a step in that direction as filmmakers to recreate what we couldn’t see and it all ultimately lined up in a really nice way. ultimately. But it took a long time to get to that epiphany.

In restaging this, was there anything that you may have heard, but understood better once it was being reenacted?

Alex Rivera: There were all these dimensions of learning the story. The first was being there and just following it unfold in real time — that’s the observational footage. Then we interviewed [the infiltrators] for two days just to get everything – it was a long interrogation. [laughs] That fed into the first draft of the film, which we did these memory workshops, but when we were in preproduction of the recreations, Claudio, the Argentinian father who’s the main character in the film, came out here to California to be like our on set advisor. He helped us decide what color the walls should be with the art department or help to talk about wardrobe – every element.

And when we were there, walking through this space [where we would recreate the detention center], going through [Claudio’s] memories, all of this new information came out that was incredibly helpful to us — information we didn’t get at any other stage during this very long process. For example, Claudio’s faith was a very big element of his experience and when we were there in the recreated detention center, he would talk about how he would walk around the detention center and scream every morning for the walls to come down. We were only a few days away from shooting, but we loved the story and added it to the script, so it was amazing that after years and years of preparation, it was being physical and present inside the recreated space that brought out all these new memories that impacted the final production.

One of the things the film does so well is illustrating how the detention center works while never breaking from the narrative in order to explain things. Did those things go hand-in-hand?

Alex Rivera: Yeah, my last feature film was science fiction and in a sense, there are some similar challenges here because you’re taking an audience into a world they don’t understand the rules of because we all grew up seeing courtrooms and prisons and jails and [we have] a baseline understanding of that system, but as a culture, we really don’t have much familiarity with immigration detention. It is different than the criminal justice system, so bringing in an audience into this altered world, you have to do a lot of exposition to get people to understand the rules of the game and it was definitely a writing challenge. It just took a lot of time in the screenwriting and the edit to find that balance between exposition and drama, buying time to do a bit of exposition.

What’s the last year been like for you traveling with this?

Cristina Ibarra: One thing I have seen as we go around screening the film is that people who are very involved in issues of immigration and immigration reform are drawn to the film because of the context and what the film is about, but then they end up talking about filmmaking. That’s been really wonderful that there is this crossover and I’ve been pretty pleased to be able to talk about the filmmaking side of the problem and Alex has been able to lead these conversations because all of his work is about immigration.

Alex Rivera: It’s been a really wonderful tour through festivals and it makes us happy because the film is an experiment. It’s a formally wild film. We studied a bunch of hybrid films that mix documentary and fiction and most of them, what you have is an interview with your subject and they recreate events that person lived through in the past. I actually don’t love a lot of those hybrid films because it feels like they’re all a flashback and in our film, we have observational footage real time and then we cross-cut with the recreated space inside detention and I’ve never seen a film that works that way. We’re very excited about doing a film that is breaking new ground formally, but then when we screen it for audiences, there’s often tears and it’s an emotional film. So it was a part of our mission to do a film that was formally fresh and takes creative risks, but also just tells a great story and hits you in your gut. It’s not a brain film, it’s a heart film. That was our challenge and it feels so far like we might’ve pulled it off.

“The Infiltrators” will be available to watch online through Oscilloscope’s Virtual Cinemas, with proceeds split to support your local arthouse. A full list of participating theaters is here. It will be available on VOD starting June 2nd.