For close to five years, Undocumented Tales has been a passion project for Armando Ibañez. The web series, which is currently wrapping up postproduction on its third season, was borne out of the budding filmmaker’s desire to see stories about people like him on screen. A self-described Latinx queer filmmaker and activist from Mexico, Ibañez writes, directs and stars in this candid look at what life is like for Fernando Gutierrez, an undocumented queer Mexican immigrant living in California. Attentive to how those various identity markers intersect with one another UndocuTales finds both humor and drama in Fernando’s everyday life as he tries his hand at dating, juggles a day job as a waiter, and dreams of making it big as a Hollywood filmmaker.
To watch the first two seasons of Undocumented Tales, Ibañez will be the first to admit, is to see DIY filmmaking in its roughest if purest form. Without the backing of a studio (the second season was crowdfunded), the shoots and episodes carry with them a gritty feel that reminds its viewers that, like Brown Girls, Brujos and Grown before it, authentic takes on marginalized populations are often grassroots efforts. But what always guided the young filmmaker and activist was the notion that he was breaking ground, that he was shedding light on a kind of story that so easily gets folded into salacious statistics or hate-mongering headlines. When he first envisioned Undocumented Tales he imagined its purpose being one of education. Produced and released in the wake of the 2016 election, Ibañez saw his episodic series as a chance to speak to a general population and enlighten them about the plight of undocumented immigrants.
With an ensemble cast that truly celebrates the diversity of the bilingual LGBTQ community in Los Angeles, offering a kind of West coast DIY modern-day take on Pose and Tales of the City, Undocumented Tales is hoping to find new fans once its third season premieres. Keeping mum on the show’s upcoming plots, Ibañez did promise a more polished final product, courtesy of a grant from Immigrants Rising which suddenly made this crowdfunded effort have the sheen of a professional project. Moreover, and in keeping with the project’s sensibility, the grant allowed the filmmaker to create the kind of crew he’d like to see in the world.
“I got to hire undocumented LGBTQ filmmakers to be on the main crew. I got to hire my people who believe in the project and who are deeply connected to these stories. We are like a community. We are like a family, the whole team. Like, if you are on set, you’ll see me doing a very dramatic scene, and I’ll be crying and then I will pause the scene and then I will turn around and in the whole set, everyone was crying! Because they know what the character is going through. Because they have gone through that themselves.”
He estimates that close to 80% of the crew was made up of undocumented filmmakers. A rare feat in an industry that struggles to be inclusive in its hiring practices, especially with regards to a population whose employment prospects are so often limited by their immigration status. “That’s one thing that I told that my crew when I got the grant. I told them, Here, you’re gonna get hired even if you don’t have experience. Which, in Hollywood is the opposite. You need to have experience, you need to have a resume to come and work with us. But for me it was the opposite. Like, I’m going to give the job to the people that don’t have experience because I want them to learn.”
The third season shoot served as a learning experience for him as well. Working with a solid budget that allowed those hires also meant he had the chance to hire, for the first time, a music supervisor — a role he admits he didn’t know too much about but that now he can’t imagine not including in future endeavors. If Fernando dreams of going to film school, Ibañez has made that a reality by building one for himself from scratch, driven as much by his ambition as by his activist zeal.
“This project has changed my life,” he shared. “But also, it has helped me grow, learn and find my voice in the movement and as an activist. And to grow as an artist, and as a human being. So for me, there have been moments where I’m like, ‘My god, What’s going to happen now?’ But I always remember that, historically, this online visual platform has the power to change lives, change minds and hearts. When I started I wanted to educate a general audience about who we are, what we go through. That was my main goal. But in this political climate, my goal has changed a little. I just want to remind my people that we are powerful. And that we are badass. And that we are beautiful.”
Undocumented Tales season 3 premieres on December 17, 2019.