Film and TV

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

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 the 9-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:

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.

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.

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.

Follow Jackalope Ranch on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amanda Kehrberg
Contact: Amanda Kehrberg