Though she is still a student at Montclair State University in New Jersey, formerly undocumented filmmaker Paola Ossa has already written and directed an impressive short film titled Catalina, which had its world premiere at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa, Florida.

Ossa moved from Colombia to the US with her family when she was 4 years old and was always aware they were from another country and not fully accepted. “All of my life immigration has always been a huge topic for us,” she told Remezcla about being conscious of their status from a young age and seeing ICE as the ultimate boogeyman.

In Catalina, she approaches these fears of deportation and family separation from a child’s perspective. The narrative is based on her own cousin’s experiences as the US-born daughter of an undocumented woman who suffers from schizophrenia. The fictional Catalina (played by young Latina, Sophie Tobias) doesn’t know about her mother’s legal situation, but has grown up learning to live in secrecy.

Diana (Mexican actress Idalia Limón), the mother, instructs Catalina to memorize a fake address she must recite when anyone asks where they reside. This carries a double meaning. It’s at once a safety measure to prevent anyone that could report them to Homeland Security to find them, but also a way to allow Catalina to have access to a better school in a more affluent neighborhood.

‘Catalina’ still courtesy of the filmmaker

Upon realizing that ICE raids are getting close to home, Diana’s mental health deteriorates to the point that the young girl is forced to make a drastic decision she thinks is for the benefit of her mother, but might have terrible repercussions for both. The ending is heartbreaking to say the least.

Ossa’s skill set of working with actors and to orchestrate a colorfully designed production is on full display. As a teen that benefited from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) before finally becoming a permanent resident, she knew that studying filmmaking at a fancy college wasn’t financially plausible, but that didn’t deter her from pushing forward to tell stories about her community.

“I knew that as a Latina, as a woman, as a person of color, things weren’t going to be handed to me. I had to open my own doors and strive to be a director,” explained Ossa, who self-funded Catalina and did a crowdfunding campaign to pay for festival fees and postproduction.

The overachieving young talent also worked as a production assistant on the award-winning documentary Chavela, about the famed Costa Rica-born singer, and is already planning her thesis project following a Latino family that moves into a predominantly white neighborhood.