What does it mean to live in fear? Not just fear for yourself but for your neighbors, your friends, your family? A question many of us have the privilege of asking in the abstract is very much a daily reality for those who are undocumented in the United States since heated anti-immigrant rhetoric got the president elected in 2016. In between fears of ICE raids, news of families being separated, and horrific images from detention centers all over the country, not a day goes by when someone who’s made a life for themselves in this country without legal documents worries about seeing it all disappear. That sense of persecution is all over Paloma Martinez‘s recent short documentary Sanctuary City Hotline. Presented as part of the New York Times‘ Op-Docs section, the film chronicles the work of the San Francisco Rapid Response Network, which has a 24-hour hotline run by volunteers all over the city.
Having grown up in Houston among a bustling documented and undocumented immigrant communities, Martinez got to see firsthand how the specter of losing everything weighed on these already marginalized people. She’s seen how even a sanctuary city like San Francisco has been reduced to a fear-riddled place where persecution is at the top of everyone’s minds. Rather than interview those who’ve dealt with ICE or those worried about being rounded up, Martinez has trained her eye on rather common scenes around the city: a nighttime shot of The Mission, a bus making its way through Chinatown, a group of women singing and protesting with signs that read “Build Bridges Not Walls” at a BART station.
Over this throng of mundane San Francisco images are recordings of actual phone calls the hotline has received the past couple of months. They range from the nondescript (a quiet caller asking how this all works, another realizing the ICE patrolmen he saw were just grabbing lunch) to the aggressive (one threatens the operation and suggesting they’re breaking the law by “harboring illegals,” another hopes to keep the line busy to disrupt their work). Together, they offer a portrait of the vast immigrant populations in the California city as they grapple with the uncertainty that guides their everyday life. As Martinez writes in the Times, “My film explores this abstract, faceless world. Anonymous callers, their intentions unknown, punctuate the unpredictable movements I film across San Francisco, representing the sense of heightened uncertainty pervading these communities.” Check out the full short film below.