How a new documentary captures the complexities of being a child of immigrants

“We inherit our the dreams of the family, but also their fears. It takes a lot of courage to chart your own path.

This line of narration from the new documentary “Mija” – spoken by one of its subjects, musician and musical director Doris Muñoz – has stuck with me for months since its release. Sundance Film Festival premiere in January.

The documentary follows Muñoz and two of his clients: first, singer/songwriter Cuco and later, singer/songwriter Jacks Haupt. Muñoz’s success as a manager representing other Latinx artists provided material support for his family. In the film, her parents go through the arduous and bureaucratic process of applying for green cards. Muñoz, the only US-born member of his immediate family, is also the liaison between them and his brother, who lives across the border in Tijuana after being deported.

In “Mija,” Muñoz and Haupt grapple with many complicated feelings that are familiar to many children of immigrants, especially those trying to succeed in a creative profession. They want to live up to their parents’ expectations and make them proud, and feel obligated to help them and honor their enormous sacrifices. In the midst of it all, they figure out how to succeed in a field where there aren’t many people like them.

Premiering Friday on Disney+, “Mija” is director Isabel Castro’s feature debut. Previously, she spent a decade in journalism, producing short films and documentary series for The New York Times, The Marshall Project and VICE, where she was nominated for an Emmy Award for “VICE News Tonight.” As she explained in an interview, the seed of “Mija” came from a desire to tell more nuanced stories about immigration — not just the act of immigrating or the policies behind it. , but the complex emotions it arouses and “the ripple effects across different generations. »

Isabel Castro, the director of “Mija”.

“The range of emotions that comes with immigrating to this country is really, really nuanced and complicated, and the spectrum is really wide,” she said. “Often, immigrant stories are very narrowly focused exclusively on the trauma of that experience.”

It’s the kind of story Castro has wanted to tell for many years, and the intersection of many of his creative goals. As a Mexican-American journalist covering immigration and civil rights during the Trump era, Castro “started to feel really disenchanted with the kind of aspirations for objectivity,” she said. “Just looking at how different government policies affected people on the ground, it was very difficult for me to try to stay objective.”

Castro, who has a background in film but cut his teeth in journalism and TV documentary to build a more stable career path, quit his day job and used his savings to get back into independent filmmaking. She took a filmmaking course so she could work independently and cut costs, as getting funding for a film can be a long and tedious process.

Reflecting on the story she wanted to tell, she recalled that “I’ve always loved music documentaries. So I thought, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a way to cross a musical documentary with a story about immigration,’ she said. “And that’s kind of the seed that was planted.”

In 2019, Castro met a California Sunday Magazine Profile about Cuco, which mentioned the work Muñoz was doing as a manager. After several phone conversations with Muñoz, Castro met her in person later that year at “Selena for Sanctuary», a concert paying tribute to the late singer and icon Selena. A few years earlier, Muñoz started the event as a way to raise money for his parents’ legal bills, then turned it into a fundraiser for immigrant rights organizations. Shortly after the two met, Muñoz agreed to be part of the documentary.

Doris Muñoz and Jacks Haupt lying on a multicolored blanket in the grass, in a scene from the documentary "mija."
Doris Muñoz and Jacks Haupt lie on a multicolored blanket in the grass, in a scene from the documentary “Mija”.

In deciding to step away from journalism and direct his own feature film, Castro also wanted to be able to make more specific stylistic choices. “There is also objectivity in the vernacular of imagery in which journalism is told. And I wanted to do something that felt really subjective, that felt really intentional about his point of view and about the image itself being part of the message and the story. she says.

For example, “Mija” features a vibrant color palette and dreamlike sequences, inspired by HBO’s “Euphoria.” “To try to respond to or deviate from the typical ways that immigrant stories are told, I really wanted to adopt a visual language that felt really youthful and exciting, and so I watched ‘Euphoria’ a lot,” a- she declared.

Choosing to have the documentary narrated by Muñoz, Castro was inspired by the voiceovers of characters like Cher Horowitz in “Clueless” and Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City,” whom she loved as a teenager. “I really connected with Carrie and Cher, despite our huge differences, just because of the VO. I felt like there was an intimacy that was established through the voiceover,” he said. she said, “So I always knew I wanted to emulate that in the movie’s voiceover.”

Like everything else in the world, the pandemic has changed Muñoz’s life and the course of documentary, forcing Castro to get creative with production limitations. I went into this thinking it would be a more traditional musical documentary. I thought I was on the road. I thought it was going to be an ‘almost famous’ Chicano,” she said. “But the pandemic hit, and my expectations completely disappeared.”

While we didn’t get that road movie version of “Mija,” the film’s intimate reflective moments lend themselves well to the complicated issues it explores — the kind that doesn’t fit into a concise title or neat narrative.

For the children of immigrants, in some ways, perhaps the ultimate gift to our parents is to be able to make choices they could not make and to be able to go beyond basic questions of survival and material needs. But it can also be difficult for our parents to understand our choices, and we can feel guilty for being able to focus on concerns less material than them.

“One of the emotions that I personally carry with me and most wanted to explore was feelings of guilt,” Castro said. “And I think that’s especially prevalent in immigrant stories because migration is inherently a traumatic experience. Whatever your story, it’s a decision to leave your home, and it’s a decision to leave your country and your culture and move to a new place. And it’s painful. »

“And I think as children of immigrants, you often see that pain or interpret it, and you want to honor that,” she continued. “And sometimes that comes with a lot of pressure, and that pressure often comes with feelings of guilt. So I wanted to explore those kinds of emotions. I wanted the film to not just live exclusively in the trauma of immigration, because that will always be present in our lives, in our stories and in our daily experiences.

Castro wants more immigration stories to capture those more complicated feelings and questions.

“The nuanced emotions are the ones that I think come up most often in everyday life,” she continued. “Having covered immigration for many years, that’s the reality of most people’s experiences that I see. It’s not a black and white thing.

“Mija” premieres Friday on Disney+.

Sharon D. Cole