América the Beautiful

Directors Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside discuss their exquisite and thought-provoking new documentary.

A scene from "América." All images provided courtesy of the filmmakers.

In their sensitive documentary América, directors Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside turn to a 93-year-old Mexican woman to deliver a film that brims with humanity, while at the same time exploring such socioeconomic issues as negligence of the elderly and the gig economy through tourism. The directors follow 20-something Diego, who leaves his job in sunny Puerto Vallarta to help his brothers, Rodrigo and Bruno, look after their grandmother, América, who lives in Colima, after their father goes to jail for failing to take care of her.

With an attentive camera and ethereal storytelling, Stoll and Whiteside vividly capture the fading life of América as she radiates light on those around her. The documentary marks a departure from their politically active work for New Left Media, including their interview with an undocumented immigrant working in one of the properties of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

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In América, by contrast, the filmmakers find a tenderness lacking in political conversations. The question is how to look after those who need our help the most, whether they’re men in prison, or 20-somethings who seem aimless due to earlier generations that failed them, or a nonagenarian clinging to her last memories as her body begins to betray her.

América has been shown in festivals and had a commercial run in NYC at the Museum of the Moving Image. As América becomes available to stream on PBS’ POV, I spoke to Stoll and Whiteside about the themes of their documentary and their memories of making it.

Jose Solís: How did you end up in Puerto Vallarta? Were you trying to be far from the political mess unfolding in the States?

Erick Stoll: We had done some work on immigration politics here for the immigrant rights movement, the Dreamers movement and stuff going on in the Obama administration. So we were interested in our country’s relationship with Mexico — and contrary to what you said, we weren’t running away. We actually thought everything was chill. Obama beat Romney and although obviously plenty of things were still screwed up, it seemed like a period of relative political calm. So we decided to pause the domestic, focused, political work and look at a different aspect of the relationship between the US and Mexico, and the US and Latin America, through the lens of international tourism. That’s took us to Vallarta.

JS: How did you know that you had a story? Though once you see this particular film, it’s more like “How could you not tell that story?,” right?

ES: In our first months in Vallarta, we were talking to whoever we could, meeting people here and there. We met Diego randomly at a birthday party and connected, talking about film and music and common interests. We were looking for stories and people that were points of intersection — people who are oftentimes visiting international tourists, or local workers who moved to Vallarta or work there seasonally. We became friends with Diego little by little over time. And then, as the film reveals, suddenly his whole life was uprooted back to his grandmother in Colima. By that point we’d filmed with him a little bit as part of his work in the tourism industry. It was only after going to visit him in Colima and meeting América and seeing their relationship that we decided to commit ourselves to being there in the house with the brothers and América and everybody.

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JS: I’d find it very hard to know when to stop shooting and when to let go — when I’d have everything I need to make a nonfiction film. How did you know when you had a film?

Chase Whiteside: It wasn’t always clear to us that we did have the story even after we got it. I think there were a couple of key moments. One was when we met América for the first time: she was immediately more compelling than the tourism-industry film we were working on. At that time it wasn’t known to us that Luis, her son, was going to be in jail for many, many months. In fact, we thought Luis might be in jail for a few weeks. Even that said, once he did get out of jail, it wasn’t still clear to us that that was the story. We had the story of brothers coming together to take on this extraordinary task of caring for their grandmother. It wasn’t really until we started in the editing room, picking out what were the fullest and most complete scenes and saying, “You know what? We’ve got the story” that we had the story. In the film, things can seem tidy and obvious, but it was not at all obvious at the time.

JS: I love the scene when América sees the camera and asks “Who is this?” Can you describe the process of making yourself invisible as you’re filming?

ES: I was living in the home with everyone while we were filming. And so there would be some days where I moved fluidly between being just another member of the house, down to hang out and help out just like everyone else, and moving into filming when I got the sense that a scene was unfolding, that something important was happening. I integrated into the daily lives, habits and rituals of everyone. It would’ve been very different if Chase and I were like, “OK, we’re going to come by at 3pm tomorrow to film you taking América to the doctor — see you then!” Much of the time I was alone while filming, which makes a big difference for “invisibility.” I would usually shoot at some, but not a great, distance, so people had their space to do their thing.

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JS: Journalism is usually objective. Yet I felt you were so in love with your subjects — I was sure that, at some point, the camera was crying also. Can you talk about the contrast between trying to remove yourself, doing journalism, following the facts — and doing a film where you can feel the heart of the piece?

ES: I really appreciate what you’re saying because when we’re asked questions about the film and try to speak about it in technical or theoretical or political concepts, sometimes it betrays the fact that what drew us was a kind of love. I truly fell in love with everyone in the film while making it. It was hard to think strategically about story because I was just so in love with being there, with everyone. I’m really glad that the love we felt is something you feel in the lens, in the camera.

CW: I don’t think we took journalistic objectivity at all. But I do think there’s an aesthetic objectivity that we’ve always been attracted to. Some of our favorite filmmakers have also had a certain kind of distance in terms of how they present images in the world. We’re not editing for a certain kind of artificial momentum or peek.

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JS: I love that title, América. Just the fact that you found someone with that name is incredible. Watching the movie, I thought, wow, I wish this was what the America I live in looked like. It’s sad because America is Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Fox News — everything lacking the humanity that América has. Why do you think people in the era of reality TV lack empathy — that it’s all about spectacle and crassness and almost humiliating people?

ES: That’s a good question — and hard for me to answer. I appreciate your attention to the title — I’m surprised by how little we’re asked about it. Obviously it’s a woman’s name, and she’s the center of the film, so it’s a very practical title in that sense. But then I think of all the chauvinism, imperialism, masculinity, capitalism — everything we associate with that “capital A” America. Here we could re-center what that word, that name, can mean: a 93-year-old Mexican woman living with her grandchildren. It totally reframes where we locate America and American stories.

CW: When we were working with our title designer, we asked him to make the accent over the e bigger — still bigger. I think the weirdest thing about the title choice is how often people say “That’s the immigration film, right?” It’s weird when you use the word América in the Spanish language context, people immediately think it must be about immigration.

ES: By the way, I don’t have a whole lot to say on reality TV. I think despite the popularity of it, people have responded so wonderfully to our film. Those are people who are cinema lovers. We’ve shown to broad swaths of audiences, and I find people totally down to watch a feature-length film full of love, concern and earnestness — and not cynical. A film not edited at this totally insane, breakneck pace to amplify conflict and hysterical narratives.

CW: Also without music.

ES: It’s all a matter of distribution and access. If people had more regular, routine options — if I could just flip to MTV right now, América would be on and that would be great.

CW: A lot of the aesthetic of TV is based on advertising, which runs on an attention span of 30 seconds or a minute. It’s true that our film busts out of that, although it is going to play on PBS — a TV edit, but still all the way through.

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JS: I’m glad you brought PBS up because there’s always a debate about what’s a movie or not, based on where it plays. I grew up in Honduras and we only had multiplexes with Disney and superhero movies, so I appreciate streaming — it opens up the world for people outside the States. Even US movie theaters don’t necessarily always play movies like yours. What do you think about this idea that a film should be either this or that — do you find that undemocratic?

CW: I feel right now we’re in such a weird place, with media distributed every possible way to reach you. I don’t know that anyone really knows what they’re doing right now. I also agree with Erick’s thought that right now as long as most media reflects big intellectual properties, things like Marvel movies or superhero stuff is a race to the bottom. It’s really uninteresting that when anything is possible in cinema, everyone tries to have the craziest action scene ever. Doesn’t that just get boring? Part of this is also industrial: movies can no longer be successful in the US; they have to be successful all over the world. How do you do that? Well, if you need to appeal to kids in the US and Mexico and India and China, you can’t make movies about anyone at all. So you make movies about superheroes and about hobbits and about Harry Potter because no one is any of those things. Eventually people must watch movies about real people. That’s going to be more exciting because it’s not just unlimited CGI.

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JS: If you’re comfortable sharing, do you remember the last time you saw América before she passed, and maybe something you got from your last encounter with her?

ES: The last time we saw her, she was not doing that well. She wasn’t speaking much. She was sleeping a lot. I recall some glimpses of the person you see so vividly in the film. So I don’t have a moment or memory like that from the last time we saw her. But the last time I’d seen her before that, I actually traveled with Diego, Bruno and América to Mexico City, where she’s originally from. We visited some of her extended family. I was used to seeing her hanging out with mostly 20-something men and suddenly I was seeing her at a table with a group of middle-aged and older — mostly women. I felt like she transformed a little bit in that moment. She just really came alive. With her grandsons, she was oftentimes asking for help. Suddenly surrounded by peers and elders, she was worried about their needs; she assumed almost a matriarchal role at the table. It was so neat to see her in this context. She was at the head of the table. It was such a treasure to see her and imagine her that way.

América is currently streaming on PBS; screening dates are here.