Jason Outenreath stopped by Solzy at the Movies for an interview to discuss his new film, They Live Here, Now, premiering at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival on March 11th.
Jason, thanks for joining us today. How are things treating you?
Jason Outenreath: Thanks for having me. With SXSW around the corner, things are going really well, thanks.
You went to film school in Austin. How much of a thrill is it to be able to premiere They Live Here, Now at SXSW?
Jason Outenreath: I received my MFA degree in Film Production from UT Austin last year, and I couldn’t be more happy to premiere my feature documentary, They Live Here, Now at SXSW. The story takes place in Austin, so it’s an incredible opportunity to share the film in the same city in which it was made.
Your new film is described as a doc-fiction hybrid rather than a documentary. What is that exactly and why did you decide to make the film as such?
Jason Outenreath: Doc-fiction hybrids blend elements of both a more traditional documentary approach with stylized fictional elements. One of the greatest questions within documentary filmmaking is: What constitutes social reality? As a filmmaker, I’m always interested in pushing the boundaries, and finding new, unique ways to tell stories. The fictional storyline of Nayeli and her father in the film would have been impossible to capture without the reality of the house and residents. In the case of They Live Here, Now, my decision to make it a doc-fiction hybrid was made for both artistic and ethical reasons. Artistically, I felt that the fictional storyline of Nayeli, the 16 year old Mexican girl who arrives at the refugee house, enriched the story, and created a common thread through which to weave throughout the complete film. Ethically, there were details of the immigrant experience at Casa Marianella that I wanted to share- like an interaction with a lawyer and the first moments upon arrival- that simply couldn’t be captured without risking the safety or legal status of actual immigrants. Still, I felt those details were essential to the character of the house as well as overall experience faced by many incoming immigrants.
Nayeli and her father are the only fictional characters in the story. Everyone else is real. Her fictional story added a different dimension to the film that allowed me to explore aspects of Casa Marianella that simply weren’t ethically possible otherwise. I also saw it as an opportunity to create a composite character based on my interactions with many immigrants from both Mexico and Central America. Creatively, I wanted to use the film as a way to give immigrants a platform to share their diverse voices with as wide an audience as possible. And I feel like blending Nayeli’s storyline into the predominantly documentary storyline was the best way to accomplish that at Casa Marianella.
In viewing the film, Casa Marianella is an important place for arriving immigrants. What drew you to tell their story but just as importantly, given the political climate today, what would happen if they were forced to close?
Jason Outenreath: Before I began filming, I spent almost a year at Casa Marianella talking with both the staff and residents. I was emotionally moved by the stories that I heard. I was also drawn to the unique angle of the story. So often immigration is sensationalized, with the focus being primarily on the journey between countries. I wanted to take a close look at a different side of the issue, exploring the question: What happens to immigrants once they have reached their destination? It would be impossible for a single film to define the immigration crisis that the world is currently experiencing, but my hope is that They Live Here, Now might form a necessary part of the tapestry around the conversation.
It is unlikely that Casa Marianella would close because it has such widespread support within the Austin community, and provides life-saving services that are recognized on a national level. With that said, in the absence of a place like Casa Marianella to serve incoming immigrants, a lot of peoples’ lives would be changed for the worse. The house is more than the sum of its services. It’s a community for people to bond, learn about one another, and embrace each other regardless of country of origin or circumstances. With all of that said, the hope is that it never closes, and that it continues to thrive as it has for so many years.
Immigration is such a hot-button topic today with federal funds potentially being withheld against sanctuary cities for protecting immigrants. If there’s a message that you want people to take away from the film, what is it?
Jason Outenreath: When I set out to make They Live Here, Now, I had no political agenda that I wanted to push. The reason was simple: I don’t think people are convinced by political argument. Instead, I think peoples’ beliefs evolve by listening, and empathizing with other people. My hope is that people watch the film and listen to what immigrants have to say, recognizing them as the strong, courageous human beings that they are. I see the immigration crisis in the US not so much as a failure of government as a failure of empathy. Through the film, my singular goal was to engender that empathy, and hopefully galvanize people to take a part in helping immigrants, if they don’t already. During the making of the film, it’s worth mentioning that I was constantly astounded by the monumental acts of kindness I witnessed from staff members and volunteers at Casa Marianella. It’s those kinds of acts that give me hope. There’s the cliché that every child has heard: “Treat people the way you would like to be treated.” It amazes me how many adults are so easily able to discard that basic adage when it applies to someone from a distant country or culture. There’s no ethical reason why it shouldn’t apply to every human being on the planet. If someone needs a glass of water, and you have the power to give them that water, there’s no sensible reason to refuse. And yet, we’ve arrived at a point, as a country, where, on a national level, that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s time to start recognizing all human beings as worthy of being treated with dignity, respect, and love. Period.
Thanks again for your time.
An official selection of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, They Live Here, Now premiered as a part of the Documentary Spotlight program.