Award-winning short film, A Line Birds Cannot See, brings an intimate and devastating story to the US immigration debate.
EL (whose name has been reduced to initials for the protection of her family) was just 12 years old when smugglers separated her from her mother at the border. This was just the beginning of a lonely and harrowing journey to the US for EL that included near starvation and kidnap.
Director Amy Bench joins us on Close-up Culture to tell us more about this eye-opening story.
Q: How did you come into contact with EL and her story?
A: For about a year prior to meeting EL, I had been wanting to tell an immigration story from a female perspective. I wanted to give voice to a single person, explore the ideas of trauma, loss, and rebuilding, and the emotional journey that she is on. I found EL though an organisation that is working to empower the Latinx population of Texas to have more of a say in issues that matter to a historically disenfranchised community.
When I met EL, she had an openness and a fragility that resonated with me. I knew that she had gone through a lot, so was careful to peel back the layers a little bit at a time. I knew that she was special, and that the story would come, through time and mutual trust.
About midway though the interview process – we talked several times over the course of a few months – the narrative I wanted to tell began to sharpen. I was interested in telling her story in a way would resonate with viewers in a short amount of time. While some might give me a bit of flack for trying to encapsulate such an excruciating journey in less than 10 minutes, I thought that it could reach a wider audience, and get the film out faster, if I did so.
Q: We can hear the emotion in EL’s voice as she recounts her story. How did you support her through this process?
A: We recorded each interview in her bedroom, which felt like a safe, comfortable space. Each interview lasted around an hour or less. I checked in with her throughout each interview, making sure that she was ok. The voiceover is culled from several of these sessions – she was not emotional the whole time we spoke, just in certain moments.
In each interview, we would go a little further along her journey, and if it seemed like she was up for it, I would revisit some of the earlier moments we spoke about. I didn’t want to push her too far during any one interview, or rush the process, as it was more important for me to nurture her trust and respect her boundaries. I never wanted the interview process to be too painful for her.
Q: Were there any moments of EL’s story that particularly struck a chord with you?
A: I think her mom leaving was very tough for me to comprehend. As a mother myself, I know how strong the bond can be between mother and child, and for her mom to leave three children behind – I can’t even imagine. As a victim of domestic abuse, the choices her mother had to make defy my own comprehension.
Q: Can you talk about working with Steve West (animator) and Curtis Glenn Heath (composer)?
A: Carolyn Merriman, who is one of the producers, and I started working with Steve once we had a fine audio cut of EL’s story.
I didn’t set out to make an animated film, but once the story structure was in place, we felt it would be the best way to capture the memories she had as a child – some very clear, some more fragmented – and reminiscent of how a 12 year old might play back the story in her mind. It was really exciting to see the narrative come to life as we worked through the storyboarding and animation process.
I also didn’t want the film to be unwatchable – even in the most dire of situations, I think there is room for beauty. Hopefully the animation allows the viewer some relief in even the most excruciating moments of her journey.
In terms of music: I started working with Curtis before the animation was finished – we basically had a fine audio cut and storyboards, and we started exploring music well before he even saw an animatic. It was all about capturing the tone, and identifying instruments that felt right, to make EL’s journey transcendent.
Everything she went through, I think, goes beyond most people’s expectations of what childhood can be, and I wanted to music to bring us to that type of space. I wanted the music to feel like it didn’t come from a particular place, that it was spiritual at times. A reference I kept coming back to had this amazing cello, and we were lucky to get a few hours with the cellist, Shawna Hamilton, for the film.
Throughout the scoring, Curtis was really great. I had a child while we were in post production on the film, and we didn’t finish the music until about three weeks after my daughter was born, so the final touches were done via email and phone calls. I was in Austin, and Curtis is out of Fort Worth.
I would have loved to be in the room when Curtis was recording the musicians, just to feel and respond to what was happening in the room more immediately, but he worked hard to get me as close as he could to that experience. The music is one of the things that excites me most about the film.
Q: The film ends on a somewhat uncertain note. What would you like to see done to help people like EL?
A: I think part of it is communicating that uncertainty – that the story doesn’t end when you reach US soil, when you are reunited with your mother, or when you graduate college.
As a DACA recipient, you have in some ways won the lottery – but the “winning ticket” is good for just 2 years. I would like people to understand this – that there are 700,000 people in the US right now, just like EL, who are in a sort of limbo. They came here as children, are college educated, are holding good jobs, and are still fighting to belong.
I think the more people understand this – really let it soak in and empathise – the easier it will be to craft bipartisan immigration policy, and to reframe our culture as one that welcomes immigrants, rather than stigmatises them.
Q: The film won Special Jury Recognition at SXSW. How special was it to see the film get this reaction?
A: I’m so happy that the film struck a chord with the jury. I’ve had a few people come up to me after screenings and say: “everyone should see this film.” It means a lot because it means that what we did with the film – bringing the audience on an emotional journey with EL – is working. And if we can bring people along, we can change hearts and minds.
Q: How has your background as a cinematographer informed your outlook as a director?
A: To me they are so related. I’ve always had a director sort of mind, and have had the luxury of putting all that energy into one facet of production – the camera and lighting – in order to support the narrative.
Directing this film was a refreshing way to exercise and carry out a vision beyond the picture, and to harmonise all the elements: story, voice, picture, pacing, music, sound design.
Q: You were recently involved in the ‘Running With Beto’ documentary. Are you optimistic about the future of American politics?
A: Spending time with Beto O’Rourke and his family made me incredibly optimistic. They are so welcoming, down to earth, real honest people. That, and seeing the makeup of the newly elected House of Representatives – with historic numbers of women and people of color gaining the vote – and the number of people who came out to vote during the midterms, are really reassuring.
Q: I also saw you worked as an intern of Terence Malick’s‘Tree of Life’. Can you talk about that experience and any other notable ones in your journey as a filmmaker?
A: I will always be grateful for the time I spent on Tree of Life. Terrence Malick is a fairly private person, and did not want a lot of extra people on set, so the moments I was in the room with just a handful of other people were really extraordinary.
At the time, Chivo (cinematograpger Emmanuel Lubezki) had not won an Academy Award – now he has 3. I think he’s always been that talented, but during the filming of the Tree of Life, he was not quite the cultural phenom that he is now, so it was easy to not be intimidated. The whole set was really not intimidating – even with Brad Pitt just a few feet away. There was a lot of improvising – both from the actors and the camera. And the use of natural light was masterful.
Being on set each day really was like watching magic happen. You can’t really explain an experience like that, you just hold it inside of you. It certainly does continue to inform my decisions on set, and in my approach to filmmaking as a whole, in terms of being present in the moment, working with intuition, and using light and imagery to immediately connect to the film’s and it’s character’s spiritual state.
Q: Lastly, what are your hopes for ‘A Line Birds Cannot See’ as it reaches wider audiences?
A: My hope is that people start to think of immigrants as neighbours, many of whom have experienced incomprehensible levels of trauma. That we realise there are deep social and political fractures in the world that are causing people to leave their home country, and they need our help.
There is a poem by Warsan Shire that I think of often, called Home, which begins: “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” I hope EL’s voice and this film touch a nerve for people, and gives an authentic understanding of the immigrant crisis.