Film and TV

Mikaela Shwer Debuts Undocumented Immigration Documentary on PBS

Phoenix native Mikaela Shwer's Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie) premières on the PBS series POV on Monday, September 21. The documentary tells the story of Angy Rivera, whom Shwer met in New York when Rivera was undocumented. Rivera grew up in New York City after her fleeing Colombia at 3 years old with her mom. From living in constant fear of her status being discovered to a childhood secret of sexual abuse, Rivera’s story caught Shwer’s attention and the two developed a friendship.

In a 90-minute documentary shot in New York, Rivera talks about what her life as an undocumented young woman was like, including details surrounding the abuse she suffered from ages 4 to 8. It’s an incredible story that has been well-captured by Shwer, an award-winning editor and filmmaker whose credits include work for HBO, the Sundance Channel and even a project with Ken Burns. New Times talked with the 33-year-old director on the phone to get more of her story, including how she handles such a hot button issue without losing her cool. She was calling from Los Angeles, where she's working on her next projects.

What part of the Valley are you from?
I grew up in Central Phoenix. My family is originally from South Africa, but I’m the only American-born. I was born in Phoenix and went to school at Central High School then to Tucson at U of A.

Did growing up here lead you to working on a documentary about the undocumented community?
The documentary is based on topics that are close to Arizona. Obviously there’s a large undocumented population there and it’s a very big issue, but also at the same time I felt a little separated from it; I never actually knew anyone who was undocumented. So when I was living in New York and found Angy’s story and I met her, there was something about knowing a little more about her that intrigued me. Having my roots in Arizona where I was surrounded by a lot of immigrants and being the child of an immigrant, I feel like it pushed me to find out a little more about this community that I didn’t know much about. These people were my neighbors and surrounding me in my daily life.

Was there anything you learned on this project that you didn’t expect?
I was surprised a little bit about how integrated the undocumented community are able to be in our society. I think people have some preconceived notions about them being house cleaners and gardeners, but there were people who were at Harvard and certainly at University of Arizona when I was there. To know they were working so hard and putting themselves through school and once they were finished with that, they really didn’t have an opportunity to use that degree. To understand that they were working harder than most people have to do just to get through school, but then there’s a lot of mental anguish in a sense that went with that because no matter how hard you worked, it almost didn’t matter. It was shocking to me to kinda understand the depth of that. Also to discover what it meant to not talk about it or tell anyone and the toll that takes on you on a daily basis. If you’re a 16-year-old kid and you start dating someone, the pressure put on you to decide if you should tell them that you’re undocumented is tough. And things like going to the Post Office or applying for financial aid, it was just so much more complex than I’d really realized before.

What would you say to people who are against undocumented people being in our country?
I’d say it’s a complicated issue and I feel mostly that we are a nation of immigrants. My family emigrated from South Africa, but it was a luxury for them to be able to do it that way. Not everyone has that option. I at least want people to understand that these are humans at the end of this. Part of our film is trying to put a face on this issue, to understand it’s not easy to come here. People are risking their lives. People are leaving their families behind never to see them again. It’s not an easy decision by any stretch of the imagination. At least have some empathy to what people are going through in order to make that decision. People are leaving their homes because they are unstable, because there is poverty. It’s not something that people take lightly in order to make the decision to come here. It’s a complicated issue. To dismiss an entire community of people that are really here to do good work is just not fair.

How does Angy feel about the documentary coming out now?
I think it’s been a really emotional experience; I think she’s also felt timid about being a voice for so many people. She’s very aware that she’s one voice of many. In showing it to a lot of people, we’re getting a great response and she’s getting a lot of people contacting her to say thank you for doing this, this is my story, too. Even if those people aren’t ready to talk about it publicly, which some of them aren’t, if they’re at least looking for lawyers and counselors to get help, I feel like that’s something that Angy can be really proud of. That struggle is something she understands. The fact that her story is getting that kind of response is kind of incredible.

Do you have any expectations as the film comes out?
I think we haven’t seen many immigration stories that’s a woman’s story. I feel like by somewhat telling the story of her and her mother, our hope is that it will be something everyone can relate to. Every mother has a child that they are worried about, but the risks in this family are much greater than in most. As we start to dive into the 2016 election with all the politics and media rhetoric, I want people to fully understand the ramifications of the community that’s being talked about. That’s what I’m hoping for with this film.

Do you always stay so calm when talking about this issue?
I’ve learned a lot from Angy in that respect. There’s no way to battle with someone that has any different point of view if they are stuck in their ways. The only way you can really talk with them rationally is to keep calm and tell them your story, and to show them more examples that might be different than what they thought. Everybody can quote different statistics and I don’t know if all that research is correct when they are spouted in the media. I feel like people can take certain sound bites and run with them and not everyone does full research. I feel like that happens a lot in certain news stories, so I feel like the only way to combat that is to come back with deeper stories that tell a more full tale. Obviously, they’re not telling the story of the entire undocumented community, but it’s an example that I’ve met and through her entire community I’ve found everyone to be almost as incredible as Angy. Especially among the youth. One of the first shoots I did with them was an open mic event. I was blown away. These are 20- and 21-year-old young adults and they are covering really tough topics. I feel like I’ve learned to think about the issue from watching Angy at events or in interviews. I see people talk to her in a certain way and I watch her calmly talk it through with them and try and lead them back. I’ve learned a lot of lessons from Angy.

To learn more about Rivera and see how the abuse she suffered as a child eventually led to her receive a visa, watch the full documentary on PBS on Monday, September 21, at 11 p.m. local time or stream it online from Tuesday, September 22, to Wednesday, October 21. For more information about Shwer's documentary and Angy's story, including details for streaming, visit the POV website