The premise for Zoe Salicrup Junco‘s short film Marisol will feel disturbingly familiar in today’s heated political environment around immigration. Marisol Fuentes (Emma Ramos) is a young mother trying to make a life for herself and her young daughter. To do so she sometimes borrows her friend Luisa’s car and pretends to be her as she picks up passengers via a ride-sharing app. As an undocumented immigrant, it’s one of the few ways she can make some quick money. But as we follow her during one day picking up fares, her worst nightmare comes to life: one of her passengers, a young white guy named Frederick (Tim Eliot), becomes increasingly suspicious. When the police pull her over, it may well all be over for Marisol.
Eliot, who wrote the screenplay for Marisol, admits that the anti-immigrant rhetoric that’s become all too mainstream inspired the film. “Right after the 2016 election, I had a nightmare about being pulled over and not having the ‘correct’ papers, and I realized that authoritarian, dystopian nightmares for white people like me are lived realities for too many of our Latino friends, neighbors, and countrymen and women.” Similarly, Salicrup Junco found in the simple story a way to shine a light on the fears that undocumented mothers live with every day. In tight close-ups as she drives, we see how terrified Marisol becomes the more her life as she knows it might be destroyed in a split second. Marisol places current immigration debates squarely in the lives of actual people, not soundbites or statistics.
We chatted with the Puerto Rican filmmaker about shooting this New York City-set film, why it’s important for her to tell varied stories centered on the Latina experience, and why a line from an Obama speech closes her film. Take a look at our conversation below.
How did you first get interested in filmmaking?
Growing up in Puerto Rico, art was always a big form of expression for me. Ballet and writing were my two main passions. I eventually got into choreography and started to fuse my storytelling tendencies into corporal movement. Looking back now, that’s probably what encouraged me to explore directing; I feel like there’s a lot of crossover between the roles. But the decision to go into filmmaking didn’t really happen until I saw it as an option in my college applications. I never realized I could actually pursue this as a career. As soon as it was presented to me, it felt right.
I studied film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. It was probably one of the best learning experiences I’ve had so far. I was constantly pushed to write about what I knew, which at the time was kind of confusing. It was the first time I had lived outside of Puerto Rico on my own. I was going through these exciting creative growth spurts while at the same time noticing an inevitable uprooting process from where I came from. I became hungry to find stories and characters in film that presented a similar journey to the one I was going through, but I couldn’t find much I could relate to. That’s when I think I started to write about the Latinx female experience.
You’ve been working on these short films focused on women (Gabi, Marisol, Fluff): what excites you about telling their stories?
All of these films are female-led but it’s never been my intention to just focus on female-led stories. I guess it’s just my way to continue to explore that [Latina] experience. Every time I see a female character that feels real and raw, I get excited. I’d love to more roles like that for [them]; at least, that’s what I try to do with my short films. What excites me the most about telling their stories is the chance to share different portrayals of a Latin[a] woman. There’s so many of us, and while I’m sure we share many things in common, we can’t be all represented under one type of character.
How did Marisol come about?
I didn’t write Marisol. It’s actually the first film I directed, but didn’t write. The writer is Tim Eliot, who also plays Frederick in the film. When I first read the script, the character of Marisol really drew me in. She read vulnerable and valiant at the same time. She was relatable and inspiring. As a Latinx woman myself, Marisol felt like the kind of character I long to see onscreen. I immediately wanted to dive in as a director and explore and learn more about the complexities of her world. This exploration was carried through all the way to the very end of making this film. I felt like the deeper we could get, the more authentic she would feel to our audience. Once I was brought in as a director, we did some rewrites together, but nothing major. I was mainly focused on giving Marisol a lot of backstory in order to fully round her out.
Talk to me about the closing Biblical line in the film “for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too.”
You’re the first person who picks up that it’s a Biblical line! The first time I actually heard this line was during a speech about USA’s broken immigration system given by President Obama. The line serves as a reminder that this nation was built by immigrants, therefore we shouldn’t be oppressing some more than others. But what I also like about this line is that regardless of your religious or political views, it delineates the concept of empathy so clearly. It doesn’t necessarily pertain just to immigrants, because truth be told you don’t need to be an immigrant to understand another immigrant. As humans, we’ve all experienced a sense of displacement at some point in our lives. We’ve all felt like outsiders or strangers. We know the fear, the anxiety, and even the sense of danger that can cause. So why are we making it more difficult on others?
What do you hope audiences take away from Marisol?
To me it’s more about sparking up a conversation that can potentially lead to some type of understanding and initiative in your community. This film strives to put a complex, political situation in a relatable setting. Most people can relate to what it feels like when your family is threatened, regardless of whether you are an immigrant or not. When you’re able put yourself in the same scenario as Marisol – a mother who fears she will be taken away from her daughter in a foreign country – all the political layers of her being a threat, her being [undocumented], all of that strips away. You can connect with her as a human. There’s power in that connection, power to change and to progress.
Marisol screened as part of the San Diego Latino Film Festival 2019