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Q&A with the Filmmakers of Arizona Immigration Debate Documentary Two Americans

A police officer makes a traffic stop in the documentary Two Americans, which screens this Monday at Phoenix Center for the Arts.
A police officer makes a traffic stop in the documentary Two Americans, which screens this Monday at Phoenix Center for the Arts.
Courtesy of Dan De Vivo and Valeria Fernández

Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Katherine Figueroa could hardly be more different: One is an aging lawman nationally known for his pink-underwear prisons, who in unguarded moments regrets never taking voice lessons to improve his signature performance of "My Way." The other is the9-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants, born in Arizona, whose impassioned plea to President Obama when her parents were arrested in the raid of a local carwash made her a recognizable voice for reform.

But as the simple yet profound title of the award-winning documentary Two Americans suggests, the most important thing that Arpaio and Figueroa share is what stands them on equal footing in this country - entitled to the same rights, the same freedoms, and the same pursuit of happiness.

Screening 7:00 p.m. this Monday at the Phoenix Center for the Arts' Third Street TheaterTwo Americans combines intimate portraits of Arpaio and Figueroa to immerse viewers in opposing sides of the Arizona immigration debate, turning headlines and soundbytes into families and stories. 


Amidst skillful editing that adds layer after complex layer - punctuated by a tense musical score - these two figures ground the viewer in a debate that can otherwise feel chaotically contentious. 

In everyday moments, Arpaio reminds his wife, Ava, to tell her parents that he'll be on with Anderson Cooper at both 9 and 11 p.m. their time, while Figueroa washes a car to raise money following her parents' arrest, speaking for the first time that we've seen her with a child's brightness rather than an adult's steady resolve.

"At the end of the day, the film offers something for everyone; whether you are a supporter of the sheriff or not, you'll come away feeling closer to these two very different worlds," says filmmaker Valeria Fernandez. They're worlds that Fernandez and fellow filmmaker Dan De Vivo know well: Fernandez is an award-winning journalist who has reported on the state's immigration debate for 10 years, while De Vivo's 2006 documentary Crossing Arizona was an official selection at Sundance.

Fernandez and De Vivo, who spent three years shooting the documentary, answer questions about Two Americans:

 

Civil disobedience captured in Two Americans. The documentary took three years to shoot, amassing hundreds of hours of footage.
Civil disobedience captured in Two Americans. The documentary took three years to shoot, amassing hundreds of hours of footage.
Courtesy of Dan De Vivo and Valeria Fernández

Why did you decide to make this film?

De Vivo: The targeted criminalization of undocumented immigrants is a disturbing trend in recent Arizona history. We wanted to make a film that would allow viewers to decide for themselves whether or not they agreed with this trend.

Two Americans follows the role that the MCSO, under Sheriff Joe Arpaio, has played in this trend. Sheriff Joe is arguably the state's most powerful politician and when he began to prioritize the arrest of "illegals" in 2005, the entire community felt the impact. And in the city of Phoenix, where 30% of the residents are Hispanic, the impact was economic, psychological, and very cruel.

Katherine Figueroa talks with a friend on a park bench. In the film, she describes her fear of going out after her parents' arrest.
Katherine Figueroa talks with a friend on a park bench. In the film, she describes her fear of going out after her parents' arrest.
Courtesy of Dan De Vivo and Valeria Fernández

What drew you to feature Katherine's story?

De Vivo: Katherine Figueroa embodies everything that is wrong about the practice of criminalizing of undocumented immigrants. She is an American citizen yet both her parents were put in jail and still do face deportation for having worked at a local carwash. When her parents were arrested, she took the bold step of speaking to the press that's when we took notice.

 

Was there any moment you shot that you wish you had included in the film, but did not?

Fernandez: We probably shot over 400 hours of footage for this film. I think I personally wish we could get to spend more time in the film with the different family members of Kathy's family: Her uncle, an African-American taxi driver who explains how the politics of immigration in the U.S. are driven by economics and tells you that, "Being an American is in the heart." Her grandmother, who becomes the matriarch in the family and helps them through the rough times. Then there are the things you couldn't film. Our camera wasn't allowed in the courtroom, which was the only time Kathy's grandmother and her mom could see each other. Kathy's grandma would stay long after her daughter's proceeding was over, just glancing at her daughter.

There are of course so many more voices to the immigrant story in Arizona. We've encountered many other families and documented their testimony. But we felt Kathy's story embodied a bit of all of them.

The film opens on an event for Sheriff Joe Arpaio at Tempe Improv, a scene made all the more poignant by the comedy club's recent closing.
The film opens on an event for Sheriff Joe Arpaio at Tempe Improv, a scene made all the more poignant by the comedy club's recent closing.
Courtesy of Dan De Vivo and Valeria Fernández

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

Fernandez: We want to touch minds and hearts. That's why we made a film that has humanity in its center.

Two Americans offers audiences an insider's perspective on the experience of undocumented immigrants in Arizona and the hardships their U.S. children endure due to our policies of "attrition through enforcement" embedded in bills like SB 1070. Kathy, a U.S. citizen, will tell you in the film that "If they have to hide, I have to hide." That's her reality.

The film offers a window into the lives of these families to show that they're not criminal aliens invading our borders, but ordinary people that want a better life and more than anything want to contribute and be part of this society.

Presented by No Festival Required, Two Americans screens its downtown Phoenix premiere at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, June 18, at the Third Street Theater at Phoenix Center for the Arts. A Q&A with the filmmakers will follow. Admission is $6 at the door.

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