Spotlight: Brenda Ávila-Hanna, New Day Films

We recently had the chance to speak with Brenda Ávila-Hanna, an award-winning filmmaker and educator. Born and raised in Mexico City, she creates films that focus on transnational stories between Latin America and the U.S. Brenda is currently a Fellow for the National Minority Consortia Lab through LPB and a recipient of Bay Area’s Video Coalition National MediaMaker Fellowship. Brenda is a member-owner of New Day Films, where she serves as Team Lead for Equity and Representation. Brenda received an M.A. in Social Documentation from UCSC in 2013. In this interview, Brenda talks about her film Vida Deferida which, “tells the story of Vanessa, a teenager born in Mexico who has lived in the United States with her family since she was six years old. Once an excelling middle-school student with big dreams of becoming a doctor, Vanessa begins to be haunted by her undocumented status as she reaches high school. Vanessa’s story offers a window into the DACA generation, the impact of this policy on a young person’s life and the new challenges ahead.”

RM: Hi Brenda! We’d love to hear more about your background and how you started doing this work.
BAH: I was born and raised in Mexico City. After a late start in college there as a journalism major, I received a scholarship to study in the U.S., where that major turned out to be more challenging because English is my second language. That’s when I found film as an opportunity to show when it was still difficult for me to tell a story. I also found that documentary also involves lots of listening and opportunities for co-creating stories with the people in them. It was a chance to listen, learn and share.

RM: Thank you for creating Vida Deferida, it’s such a powerful film. What brought you to Vanessa and her story?
BAH: Thank you for your kind words about my work! I actually worked as a Spanish teacher and Community Liaison at a middle-school for a few years during and after college. Making videos for the school community was part of my job duties, so I filmed many moments in my student’s lives during that time. Vanessa was one of my students and part of a very special group of children and families who opened my eyes about life as an immigrant in this country. We were all immigrants but our stories and struggles were so diverse. As an educator, I saw how many of these children’s dreams and aspirations declined over the years in spite of their amazing potential. In most cases, these changes were tied to their immigration status or the status of their caregivers. As a teacher, how can you encourage your students to work hard when you all know there is a barrier between them and their aspirations in our system? Also, as first or second generation immigrants, many of them have to learn how to be their own advocates and pave unknown territory in so many aspects of life in a system that is not necessarily designed for them to succeed without other adults advocating for them and their parents.

RM: What were you trying to convey? Who was your intended audience and why?
BAH: I was trying to convey an educator’s point of view that reflected my own learning experiences as an educator in Vanessa’s community. The subtle but steady decline in expectations, navigating the unknown and coming-of-age in between cultures and languages. At the same time, there was so much joy, love and universal experiences in Vanessa’s story that hopefully will make viewers connect with her and care about her right to thrive and succeed. My intended audience is mostly educators, but really anyone who wants to have a better insight on the lives of undocumented students and their families beyond the noise of polarizing headlines. It is very family-oriented and I also envisioned churches and K-12 classrooms using this film to foster empathy and solidarity in their communities.

RM: We know you would love for educators to use the film with students. What do you want them to reflect on? What do you want them to understand?
BAH: I would love all educators to bring this film to their classroom! We have a free study guide on our website and I want to encourage them to download it and use it. It includes links to articles, fact sheets, and suggested bibliography. Among other questions, there is an activity in the guide before watching the film for students to think about DACA/undocumented students and what they think they already know and what they would like to know. After watching the film, students reflect on their preconceptions, the lessons learned and further research to be done. This is a good opportunity to get students on the same page about immigration facts, regardless of opinions. It is also a safe space for everyone to discuss findings or realizations without putting undocumented students in the spotlight, especially those whose status is not publicly known. This is also an opportunity as an educator to let students know that you are committed to all of them and their education and safety, regardless of their immigration status. Having this lesson can be very affirming for undocumented students when teachers are clear and intentional about this commitment.

RM: As you see contemporary discussions of migration for news and social media, what do you see as the role of a documentary filmmaker? How is it similar and different to the role of a journalist?
BAH: I think our jobs overlap at times because we are both reporting on real-life experiences. We also work from an angle of storytelling, looking for readers to connect to the stories, testimonies and places we are reporting on. I believe journalists are vital to a healthy democracy and the information and stories they provide are necessary for the stories documentarians follow-up on. I think the basic difference would be the amount of time our mediums allow for us to invest in a story. News reports can come and go in the blink of an eye whereas documentary films can be completed in a few days or over the course of a decade. Vanessa’s documentary is 23 minutes long, yet it took me 7 years to film and complete it. I think the role of documentary film these days is to use the flexibility of the medium to tell stories with and about human experiences that cannot be conveyed with mere facts but rather through a human connection. This takes time, commitment to the issue(s) and communities portrayed and a genuine relationship where the protagonist(s) have agency into how stories are told. With an overload of information (and misinformation) at everyone’s fingertips, documentary films – at least those that address social issues – must be intentional about captivating an audience during the making of the film and long after the film’s release through tangible action and impact for the communities that are being portrayed. We can reach audiences more than ever before, raise funds, awareness, work together remotely…and I see this as a golden era for documentary films and social justice.

RM: Why was it important to tell this story?
BAH: Just like a lot of issues of our time, it’s easy to see a story about an issue and make opinions or take sides solely by the information provided by a few stories at a given moment. We have to look at issues like immigration with an open mind and a broader perspective. When it comes to the lives of DACA recipients and undocumented students, we have to look at what life was before DACA, what applicants went through and what life was after DACA for those who received it and for those who didn’t make the cut. This story provides an opportunity to look at the life of a generation that became of age during this policy. I hope that this is a roadmap to understanding background, present challenges, stakes and needs for educators and anyone working with the DACA generation.  Vanessa’s life and friendship has been that roadmap for me. We also have to find common ground with our neighbors and acknowledge their existence and right to thrive. Every interaction with Vanessa’s family was so full of love and relatable moments. I hope that getting to know her through the film brings people one step closer to this acknowledgement, especially for viewers who might not normally interact with immigrants in their everyday lives. Only then can we have productive conversations and move forward with humane and realistic immigration policies.

RM: Finally, how can educators get access to the film so they can share it with their students?
BAH: The film and study guide are available through New Day Films for streaming and DVD purchases for educators and organizations. Individuals with a public library card or college library account can also stream the film via Kanopy. The film is also part of the project DREAMer Docs along with Corey Ohama’s short documentary I Was Born in Mexico, but… Both films are often paired up in classrooms for units on DACA and share public screenings frequently.