The US-Mexico immigration documentary is now almost a genre unto itself. Feature films like Home+Away (focused on high school kids in border towns), The Wall (on that most promised of immigration policies) and explainers like Vox’s “Borders: How the U.S. outsources border security” and Frontline’s “Separated: Children at the Border,” have been trying to put stories about the border into perspective for American audiences. That’s partly what prompted producers Elena Fortes and Daniela Alatorre (of No Ficción) to want to create works that gave a different side of this issue. Their most recent production is the short film A 3 Minute Hug, which screened as part of Los Cabos International Film Festival and will be available to stream on Netflix next year.
Directed by lauded Mexican documentarian Everardo González (La canción del pulque, La Libertad del Diablo) the 30-minute film chronicles last May’s #AbrazosNoMuros #HugsNotWalls event at the border between El Paso, Texas and Ciudád Juárez. Run by the advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), this event allowed families torn apart by deportations to be reunited along, quite literally, the border that now divides them. Parents could hug the kids they haven’t seen in years, grandparents could meet their grandkids for the first time, partners could kiss one another as passionately as they wanted. But only for three minutes.
González, who heard about the event from a lawyer friend, recruited four different film crews to cover BNHR’s gathering in May of 2018: two on the US side, two on the Mexico side. Just like everyone attending neither could cross over. Their footage of all these families hugging makes for an impactful short that has plenty of tears and very little dialogue. “In three minutes you can’t say much,” González explained at the fest’s Q&A, “You give a blessing. You give a hug. You give a kiss. And you cry.” He explained why the montage of these close-up images has been set to orchestral music that turns a brief reunion into an immersive cinematic wonder: otherwise, it’d be worse than a melodrama! But trust us you’ll be in tears even before a hushed silence precedes the moment when families are given the go-ahead to hug one another.
Rather than offer interviews with those involved or offering us background on why these families are stuck on separate sides of the border, A 3 Minute Hug just presents us the teary-eyed moments when they’re reunited in the very place the wall is now set to be built between these two border towns. Without backstories, you’re allowed to dream up what’s behind each of these hugs. “I think that’s how you need to tackle immigration issues,” González added. The goal is to “get to know who’s behind, say, these 5,000 Honduran, Guatemalan, Salvadoreans who are walking through Mexican soil to get to the US border.” To try and find an empathetic lens through which to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Asked whether he felt an event like this (which is ongoing; BNHR is currently recruiting participants for their next one) is more cruel than helpful, González was unequivocal. “I don’t think it’s cruel,” he said. “It strikes me more as a very complex political decision made by both governments — the border patrol was guarding the entire thing. It’s a unique event centered on solidarity with border migration. What’s cruel is that such solidarity is not permanent. What’s cruel is the political landscape that keeps families divided this way.”
The Q&A answers have been translated from Spanish by the author for Remezcla.