Tribeca 2021 Interview: Jefferson Stein on Looking for the Silver Linings in “Burros”

There was only one time of year that Jefferson Stein could film “Burros,” knowing that he couldn’t film the endless big, blue sky in Tucson without some clouds in it.

“That means shooting in monsoon season, so you’re just hanging out and all of a sudden, a monsoon comes and then it’s gone an hour later and then we had border patrol helicopters that would fly over our set and blow everything around because they had to check on us to make sure we were okay,” recalls Stein. “We shot it over the course of four days and probably could’ve gone into five, but I tried to shoot each scene as much in one take as possible because I think when you cut, it subtly pulls you out of the film for a second.”

Anything that would distract from full-on immersion into the curious young mind of Elsa (Amaya Juan) has been carefully excised from the touching 14-minute short just as Stein removed such barriers for himself to understand the precarious situation unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border on the land of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Following the six-year-old Indigenous girl through a day in which she is left on her own by her father (Rupert Lopez) who needs to run into town to take care of some business and her grandmother (Virginia Patricio) is unavailable to watch over her, the film sees Elsa befriend Ena (Zuemmy Carrillo), a Hispanic girl the same age as she is, as she wanders around the open range. The two may not speak the same language verbally, but they connect on a more playful and instinctual level, haranguing a local street vendor for tortillas to munch on and sneaking onto the floor of the reservation’s casino.

Yet there’s a reason why Stein wanted those clouds on the horizon beyond their beauty, and as it becomes clear why Ena’s parents are nowhere to be found, “Burros” exquisitely conveys a wrenching reality faced by those living on the border every day who can only help those who attempt to cross over so much. While Elsa shouldn’t be old enough to know better yet, the film suggests her innocence may enable her to see things more compassionately than the adults in the room do and Stein brilliantly clears away practical considerations to look at moral ones as Ena faces a treacherous future that she had no hand in creating for herself. Having the same overwhelming power in its simplicity as the landscapes that are captured so beautifully by cinematographer Cole Graham, the film hardly took an easy path to production as Stein explained just before its recent premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, though surely worth it given the end result and the writer/director graciously took the time to talk about how it all came together and working with the Tohono O’odham community to craft such a lovely drama.

How did this come about?

I’m from Texas and I spent quite a bit of time growing up on fishing trips that my dad used to take me on [that] happened in and around reservations. He was — and is still a huge movie fan, so I was able to see tons of films growing up and I always just remember feeling this disconnect between the people that I would meet on these fishing trips as a kid and what we would see on the screen, so that always stuck with me. This movie is an indigenous story set on indigenous lands and people I’ve gotten to know well over the past few years. It’s also set on the border, and what thing that struck me the most was when I discovered the land [of the Tohono O’odham Nation] is about the size of Connecticut, but what’s really unique about it is it’s bisected by the border, so they have land on the Mexico side and on the U.S. side and after 9/11, the border was militarized and the families were cut off from each other and didn’t see each other for years. Then that happened again over the last four years with the previous administration, so people just couldn’t go across. You couldn’t see your mom for a couple years and things like that, and that really hurt my heart, so it’s a confluence of those two things.

I actually wrote the script years before making it and [I thought] how do I even go about getting this produced? I wanted to have people from the [Indigenous] community be in the film and everyone in the film had never acted before. Liz [Cardenas], my producer, and I would literally drive from either Dallas or L.A. multiple times over the course of months, going down there and meeting people. We really wanted to become ingrained in the community as much as possible. I [reached out to the Sells Community with an e-mail with the script] and said, “Hey guys, what do you think?”

One morning, it was a Saturday morning at 8 am, we finally got on the agenda for the community counsel meeting, drove down there eight-and-a-half hours from L.A. and had the Powerpoint out, and Liz and I talked to them for an hour about it. They already read the script and they actually ended up passing a law to approve the film, so it was really special. It went all the way up to [Larry “Bear” Wilson] the chairman of the entire nation because in each of those communities there’s pretty autonomous districts and all those districts together make up the nation. Then there’s a chairman of the nation, so [it passed] at the legislative level, then at the chairman level, and it meant a lot that they really backed it. But this process took a a very, very long time, as you could imagine.

You find a brilliant way into the story through the eyes of a child and it must’ve been difficult to tell such a complex story while staying in that perspective – exposition is often cleverly tucked into what you overhear the adults talking about in the other room. What was it like to figure this out?

That was one of the main things I was trying to accomplish. It doesn’t really matter what your situation is growing up when you’re a little kid. You just want to play, you want to connect, you want friends, and you want to play outside and run around and if you’re in a situation like Elsa is, you still want to do that, so it was important that the camera angles are always from her eye. When you go down to the casino [on the reservation], you’ll see the elementary school sits right on Main Street and hundreds of yards away at night, there’s activity. That’s so surreal to know that when we were down there, so it was important that we didn’t get distracted from what a kid might want to do in each of those situations. You see trash on the ground — cans of food from people who have just passed through — and Elsa’s just going to hit it around and practice her toka [a game played with a stick like field hockey], right? She’s not going to be like cognizant to what’s happening, but as an audience, that’s what we read about in the news. We don’t really see the child’s perspective as much. We see the stuff in the background, but a lot of people I meet don’t really know about the situation in what they call the tri-nation area where you have Mexico and the United States and then this reservation. So it was special to be able to tell that story from her eyes and how it might impact her.

How did you find these captivating kids to center the film around?

We got so lucky. They were amazing and it took a long time, driving down to the nation and meeting people. I ended up living there for a month with Liz, my co-producer, and to find Elsa, we ended up getting in with the [toka] community, and what’s cool about that sport is that only women play it and there’s no age levels, so a six-year-old is playing on a team with a 70-year-old. Amaya Juan, who plays Elsa, her aunt is the coach of the teams and we went out to a practice and they waited for us because we were running late — like I said, [the reservation is] the size of Connecticut, so it takes a long time to get across — and we had met a lot of girls, but we found her at the end of [toka] practice. I just had her do an audition in front of her whole team and she did the whole last scene right there and she cried, and we’re like, “You’re it.” It was pretty special.

And for Zuemmy Carrillo, we basically contacted principals of schools in Tucson and we would go to these schools at lunchtime, the kids would come in and we would do the auditions in the principal’s office. We’d stare at the aquarium with the bearded dragon next to us, being on the floor doing scenes with [the kids] as Corey [Howard], my co-producer is filming it, and that’s how we cast her. She didn’t speak too much English, but I know a bit of Spanish and luckily a lot of people on the set spoke Spanish, so it was easy. But they were both just a pleasure to work with and both so naturally emotive and talented.

Is there anything that happened that changes your ideas of what this could be?

I didn’t anticipate how powerful the role of the grandmother would be. [Virginia Patricio] in the film for a fraction of the movie and I didn’t anticipate how much that scene would really affect the movie. Because we did auditions at the rec center, she actually came, but she refused to audition and she refused to be in the movie. And I’m like, “But you’re a singer in church and you’d be perfect,” and she [said], “I won’t do it. I won’t do it.” So we just kept looking and meeting other people and in the back of my mind, I was like I wish she would just do it, so I just kept hounding her about it. We’d hang out and she drives a giant black SUV around town, so eventually one day, I just called her up and said, “Virginia, please. I need you to do this.” And she said, “Okay.” And I’m like, “What?!?!?” I’ve been stressing out about this for weeks and weeks, and she’s just like, “Sure, I’ll do it.” And she and I wrote the song that’s in the film together. We wrote the lyrics and she helped me translate them and our our other EP wrote the melody because often songs are very protected. Each family has their own songs and we wouldn’t even think about asking for permission to use a song in the film because they’re all family songs, so we had to make up our own.

What’s it like to get the film to Tribeca?

It’s unbelievable. I never thought it would play a festival like Tribeca, much less Tribeca itself. It’s such an honor to be at this festival with this film and this is the first time anyone’s seeing it. I’ve only seen it in a color correction suite, so I don’t know what it’s going to look like up there on the big screen, but Amaya’s coming up with her mom and dad, and she hasn’t seen the film yet, so she’s going to see herself on a theatrical screen with an audience. I’ve been waiting because I wanted her to see it in person, and our [executive producer] Larry is coming, so it’s really special. I can’t wait for everyone to experience it with me.

“Burros” is available to stream online via the Tribeca Film Festival through June 23rd.