Interview: Loira Limbal on Making an Essential Film About Essential Workers in “Through the Night”

Even though she had been well aware of the burden Deloris ‘Nunu’ Hogan lifted off others, Loira Limbal could still only marvel at how her days filming “Through the Night” at Dee’s Tots, the 24-hour childcare center that Hogan runs with her husband Patrick, never felt like work.

“It was so beautiful to watch and the crew would be there for really long shoots, trying to get kind of the full range of a day and different routines and even after a long day of work, members of the team would be like, ‘I feel that was somehow restorative. It doesn’t even feel like I worked for 12 hours,’” recalls Limbal. “The day care center became our happy place, even though we’re all adults, and the only way I could describe it is every time I was there, I felt like I was watching a really beautifully choreographed Alvin Ailey piece.”

With two kids of her own and a full-time job as the Senior Vice President for Programs at the doc powerhouse Firelight Media, Limbal had juggled plenty herself to make the time to pursue “Through the Night,” though you would never know it from the graceful film that emerged about the New York childcare center where an array of working parents know that having their kids well taken care of is one thing they won’t have to think about as they deal with a variety of other concerns. However, the fact that you don’t see the work is what becomes so poignant about Limbal’s feature debut when it exposes how much of the American economy has been built on the overworked and underappreciated who can no longer spend time with their own family if they are to keep a roof over their head.

Following single mothers Shanona, a nurse, and Marisol, who works a number of jobs at any given time, in addition to Hogan, the film presents a nuanced view of the women who run the world yet have no control over it, handling the daily operations of businesses that make everyone’s lives easier yet have enormous difficulties in their own lives when they are hardly compensated fairly for the services they provide and can’t have consistent hours to plan around, making Dee’s Tots essential as a place to drop off the kids at a moment’s notice. While Limbal allows you to stand in awe of what these women are able to accomplish under such enormous pressure, you are also left to question what kind of society leaves those working the hardest to keep it thriving to be its most vulnerable to living in poverty.

Naturally, the film that unfolds so effortlessly over a year took two in actuality to make and with its release in virtual cinemas this week, Limbal spoke about appreciating all the labor that typically goes unseen and how her own experience as a single mother and that of her own mother helped shape such a moving portrait of the Hogans and all the other parents balancing their professional and family lives.

You’ve said the film stemmed from an article about Dee’s Tots, but were you generally on the lookout for something like this?

I wasn’t. I was actually in a place where I’m a single mom and I was happily supporting other filmmakers of color through my work at Firelight, so I was thinking it would be a couple more years before I got back into production. Obviously, I had the desire and the urge, but I convinced myself that I couldn’t manage making another film while working full-time and taking care of my kids. But then when I read this article, it took me back to my childhood in such a visceral way and made me think about my mother and her experience raising us while she worked the night shift. It brought up so much for me that obviously both this was in the past, but also it was connected to my current reality as a single working parent that I found myself immediately obsessed with the idea of making a film about this daycare, and really this universe — an ecosystem of care and of interdependence that is very common in working class communities of color. That’s pretty invisible to the mainstream, so it wasn’t that I was on the lookout. It was just it connected so deeply with me that I couldn’t help myself.

Given your mother’s connection to this, did it guide you in how you wanted to tell this story?

It guided me from a very emotional place. When I say it made me think about my mother, I have a lot of questions about how my mother actually did it because now today as a working mother, I’m college educated and I have a bigger income than my mother had and my mother raised us as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, not fluent in English, working on minimum wage, working the night shift. And I have all these questions not from a financial or administrative perspective, but how was it emotionally that she was able to get up every day and have all the things that she had to pour into us when she herself was navigating so much harshness.

That question is a question that I have about the experience of working class women of color. The experience of living and working and raising your children in the U.S. means that you are consistently navigating systems that are hostile to you. You’re on the front lines of a lot of harm and a lot of violence yet somehow you turn around and you need to do your childcare or you have the presence of mind to remember that your child really wanted that one particular bow and that if you come home one day with that particular pack of bows, it’s going to mean the world to that child, so you have these emotional resources to nurture and to care give, but how is it that women do it? And how was it that my mother did it?

I feel that all grounded me, so I wasn’t necessarily trying to explain in the process of making this film. I wasn’t searching for exposition. I was searching for emotional truth that would resonate for women who are also in this reality themselves, so it was really thinking about if I’m sharing this film with this very same community — if my mother’s watching this film, is this going to resonate as an interior truth of what her experience has been? So the connection with my mother and myself shaped and influenced the approach to the storytelling.

I’ve heard that Dee’s Tots was the one featured in the article, but you were initially discouraged from making them the main subject. What was it about them that made them important to follow?

The article I actually came across in an online mothers’ group I’m a part of and one of the people that worked on it posted it, like, “Hey, this is my latest thing,” and I immediately reached out to her. We had gone to college together and I said, “Hey, I know we haven’t spoken in years, but since I’m a documentary filmmaker, I think this would make a great film. Would you make some introductions?” And she said, No, because in their process of working on the article on the daycare, she found them to be guarded and cautious, so she felt like asking them to connect with a documentary filmmaker was going to be a big leap. I initially took her no for an answer, partially because I wasn’t sure I really had the bandwidth to make a film, and [I thought] this just isn’t meant to be.

Then I found myself weeks later, washing dishes, thinking about the daycare and thinking about some random thing that happened when I was 12 and baby-sitting my own siblings while my mother was out at work. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with ideas of how I would shoot something in the daycare, so the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I actually then went out and found a few other daycares that either provided overnight care or what they call non-standard hours, which is essentially like extended hours, and I spoke to some of these folks, but they didn’t resonate in the same way that the picture I had in my mind of how Dee’s Tots did. The stories of Dee’s Tots are actually representative of a pretty wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

There’s a very reductive way in which our communities get portrayed and the image that people have in their minds are always the extremes. It’s the people that are living in extreme poverty, it’s the people that are not working and are on public assistance or this, that and the other and yes, there is all of that, but there are also people that are nurses that live in the same community. There are people who work at the post office. There’s a range of experiences and of professions and of status within black and LatinX working class communities that I know because these are the communities I’ve grown up in my whole life, but I also never see depicted anywhere. So it was important for me to have that complexity, particularly because this is partially a story that is about labor and about the economy, and that is why I insisted [on Dee’s Tots] and two years later after the initial “no,” I finally cold-called the day care and introduced myself.

I would ask what drew you to Marisol and Shanona, but did you even have the idea from the start that you’d follow a couple specific people or perhaps thought to take a broader view of things that ended up honing down?

I always imagined following two to three mothers and then Nunu as well. And when I met Nunu from the top, I said to her, “I want to capture what you do, but I also want to capture the experience of the mothers that you are supporting and the children you care for.” And I could’ve shared all the scenes and all the things I was thinking about, but Nunu said, “I think these following four mothers would be great,” so I joked that Nunu was the casting agent for the film because she helped me form relationships with the different mothers and because of that, I benefitted from almost immediate trust, which I was very aware of, so I was very cautious about that because I understood that people were extending me a trust that I hadn’t necessarily earned. Just by virtue of who Nunu is and what she means in their lives, there was this immediacy of trust that I was very grateful for, but also took very seriously and as we started filming, I initially thought there would be three characters with full arcs, but I think it’s very clear that Nunu is the heart of the film and that’s the truth, right? It’s very much an ecosystem where everyone plays a really critical and important part, but Nunu is like the beating heart of this thing, so it felt right that it would be primarily her story.

Time is obviously a major central character in this as well and I loved how you created a rhythm of seeing daily routines, but also of how time passes through a year – what was it like getting that?

That was the hardest thing to achieve in the film. We figured out the balance between characters, then we generally figured out the structure, but then we kept oscillating between this thing is way too long or it’s way too slow, so we ended up going to the complete other extreme where it [felt] too compact. It became so efficient that it became almost mechanical [where] we were trying to approach transitions between scenes and characters and seasons in these very on-the-nose ways. For example, if we were trying to figure out a transition from a summer scene to a winter scene, we were opting for things overly obvious, but when we let go of that and leaned back into emotion again, like where do we need to go next emotionally to get us to the next place where we’re going to be emotionally, that’s when we finally unlocked the rhythm and we were able to make the right visual choices, both selecting the right shots, but also landing on the right pacing. There’s a lot of feeling and intuition in our editing approach.

The pandemic has brought these issues to the fore. Has it been interesting to process when the film seems more relevant than ever as it goes out into the world?

It has. I feel like I’ve had the whole range of emotions that you could imagine from anger and rage at the fact that as a society, we’re so comfortable calling these folks essential even though we really treat them as sacrificial. Even eight months later, we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these are the people who do the work, they keep the world running even in the middle of a pandemic and still we can’t do anything to take care of them. All that we continue to do is demand that they sacrifice themselves – their safety, their health and their well-being and that of their family for the benefit of the U.S. economy. So there’s a lot of rage and anger about that and just the irony that they are being talked about, but they’re not fully seen as human beings in all of their complexity.

On the other side of it, I feel a real deep sense of purpose. There’s probably nothing I’d rather be going out in the middle of a pandemic than lifting up their story and trying to advocate and fight for our caregivers to be cared for. And I say that in the context of a pandemic, but also in the context of everything that’s been unearthed through the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, right around how this country treats black and brown folk. So the world is upside down, but I’m thankful I’m doing work that I do believe is really meaningful and that I’m in community with the people that I care about the most.

“Through the Night” will open on December 11th in virtual cinemas. A full list is here.