PRISCILLA Gonzalez Sainz’s short film Room 140 follows immigrants just released from detention centers as they spend their first night in Oakland at a motel, paid for by one of the workers.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Priscilla, a first-generation Mexican-American and IDA David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Award nominee, to learn more about her film.
Q: How did you hear about the room being offered at the Oakland Motel and how did the film come to be?
A: When I was doing research about sanctuary being offered at different churches in the Bay Area, I met with a Presbyterian pastor who has been active in Oakland. He told me about Pastor Gomez, who leads a small, indigenous Guatemalan parish on the other side of Oakland.
I met with Pastor Gomez to ask him about his work helping recent arrivals. For an hour, we talked about the community and the struggles, why indigenous people were leaving Guatemala, and what he does to try and help people once they arrive to Oakland. He told me that he would pay for people to stay at the motel if they were desperately in need.
Although he works at the motel, he still had to pay the normal rate to secure the room. It was always the same room when I went, probably because it was one of the bigger rooms and also in a corner. I believe the pastor knew that this room would be going under construction and the owners did not book it very much. The room has been completed reconstructed since filming.
Q: What background, if any, did you have on the people in the film?
When I met Pastor Gomez for the first time, we talked about his experience immigrating to the US about nine years prior. He is also indigenous from Guatemala. He told me that his community faces additional challenges in Guatemala because of the internal racism against indigenous people. They have a harder time finding work, they don’t hold positions of power and they are often the target of violence.
Since I filmed with individuals who had just arrived to Oakland after being released from detention, we met on the day of filming. Pastor Gomez was the middleman; I would only show up if they had already agreed with the pastor to participate. That also meant that I usually had a day or a few hours to prepare for a shoot.
Q: Under Trump, immigration has become a more divisive topic than ever before. Was it this political climate – or something else – that led you to make Room 140?
A: I started working on this project in the summer of 2016 with an interest in sanctuary cities in the Bay Area. There was a big sanctuary movement in the Bay Area in the 1980s and I was interested in seeing what that looked like today (in 2016).
At the time, like many, I never expected Trump to win. While the election did not fuel the project, it did steer things in a different direction. I started interviewing people in October, and after November it was very different task to find participants. They were scared to be on camera. The pastor didn’t lose hope in the project, since there were people who wanted to share their experiences. There were less filming days than I had anticipated and I think this led me spend more time focusing on the space itself and what it represents.
Q: What was the nature of the interactions you had with the people in Room 140? Did you try to keep a distance so you could just observe?
A: I feel that my role evolved with time. At first I tried to interfere and direct as little as possible. I thought this would be more respectful. But in watching cuts with my peers, I realized that my distance was creating more of an objectifying effect, and that wasn’t what I wanted. I had to get over my own discomfort and guilt and direct.
Most of those who agreed really wanted to tell their stories. Capturing the observational footage was sometimes challenging because many expected and were comfortable giving an interview, more like what they’ve seen on TV, so did not initially get why I wanted to film them resting or watching TV in the room. Fortunately, we were able to maintain constant communication because most of them spoke Spanish. The indigenous Guatemalan language is Mam, so the pastor would translate when it was needed.
Q: There are some powerful images in the trailer and I think the motel setting lends its own symbolism. Do you think about/plan for these images before you make a film like this or do you wait for them organically?
A: Thank you. They could only stay at the motel for a night or two, depending on what the pastor could afford, and then had to move on. There is a direct connection to the fleeting, cyclical nature of guests at a motel. People will continue to seek asylum outside of Guatemala and other countries if their lives are in danger.
I knew the motel would have a role in the film, but I didn’t foresee how much it would add. I think the imagery of the hotel helped to convey that state of limbo and even loneliness, but there are also hints of life and hope. We hear trains and traffic, emphasizing the obscure location of the anonymous motel, but we also hear children playing. There is something very stagnant about everything as if you’re holding your breath. Many immigrants in the country today don’t know where they stand or what will happen tomorrow because immigration policy keeps changing.
Q: Given the current political climate, do you feel more charged than ever to go out and make documentaries?
A: I am developing my next project, also centered on immigration in the US. As an artist, I am inspired and moved to make more work during this turbulent time. Making films is one way I try to make sense of something. But I think it’s also important to take some space from the politics because it can be so overwhelming, especially when it affects you and people you care about directly.
Q: I believe Room 140 is your University thesis film. What are you looking for in the next chapter of your life as a filmmaker?
A: Room 140 is my thesis for my MFA in Documentary Film and Video from Stanford University. Since graduating I have worked as a freelance producer and story editor and I teach film. I’m interested in continuing to explore documentary and non-fiction storytelling formats. I think it’s a fascinating time for documentary. And I just hope to continue making films.
Upcoming screenings of Room 140:
Los Angeles Film Festival
New Orleans Film Festival
Oaxaca Film Festival (International Premiere)