Sansón and Me is a film-in-progress that weaves together the stories of two Mexican immigrants in California’s Central Valley with parallel but starkly contrasting lives: one is a country-boy serving a life sentence for a murder conviction, and the other a middle-class intellectual from Mexico City. We recently spoke with California Documentary Project grant recipient, Guggenheim Award-winning filmmaker and Merced High graduate Rodrigo Reyes about the film.
Please tell us about yourself. What is your connection to California Humanities?
I am a filmmaker working in documentaries. I’m connected to California Humanities through their funding initiatives and their support of complex projects that reflect on our multi-layered experience.
Please tell us about the project – what’s the story? Where did the idea come from? What’s your relationship to the story?
My project tells the story of a young, undocumented immigrant from Mexico who was convicted of first-degree murder in the rural heartland of California’s Central Valley. I came across this story because I worked with the subject in court, helping him as his interpreter during his murder trial.
The project is incredibly personal. More than an interpreter or even a filmmaker, I have become Sansón’s friend, mentor and one of his last connections to the outside world. In a nutshell, the film tries to make sense of his personal story and the larger, systemic inequalities and challenges that affected his life. What is the boundary between personal and social responsibility? How do we address terrible crimes involving individuals who were themselves subjected to constant violence?
The humanities ask us to move past our expectations; they incite us to push beyond our comfort zone and confront our reality with a bold perspective.
What’s been your process for producing this film? How has it unfolded? What were the challenges? What has been surprising?
The film has followed a long and difficult production and is still in process. One of the biggest obstacles has been overcoming the bureaucratic barriers to telling the story of an inmate in the California prison system. Essentially, when an individual is taken into the system, their voice disappears, like a ghost and it is very difficult for them to tell their story. Thankfully, this lack of empowerment has led us to an unexpected solution.
Since we cannot interview Sansón, we have worked together to write a script about his life story, based on his own letters. We have begun shooting this script, with the help of his own family performing as actors in the story of their loved one. This unique experiment in re-imagining Sansón’s life and making him a creative participant in the story is ongoing. I am hoping the results will be surprising, full of energy and insight that really uplift the heart of the story.
What do you hope will result from the project – what sorts of impacts are you hoping to see or have seen already? What do you hope people take away from the project?
I’m hoping the film will allow us to experience the painful contradictions that impact real people in the criminal justice system, capturing how lack of opportunity, inequality, immigration and the prison pipeline intersect in the lives of individuals like Sansón.
What’s next for the project?
We are currently focusing all our energies on editing and shaping the story.
What does this project tell us about life in California?
I am deeply convinced that this project takes us into a very small but incredibly significant story, the kind that happens every day across rural communities in California, on its streets and inside its courtrooms. Young men like Sansón embody the fractures of California society in an incredibly prescient and devastating way. This story helps us question our approach to punishment, rehabilitation and take a hard look at the challenges faced by our young men of color, whose voices are so often erased and forgotten.
What does this project demonstrate about the value and importance of the humanities?
Without the humanities, this project would lose depth and nuance, and stay on the surface of the story. The humanities ask us to move past our expectations; they incite us to push beyond our comfort zone and confront our reality with a bold perspective.
Sansón and Me was supported by California Humanities through the California Documentary Project grant program.
For more information on Sansón and Me and Rodrigo Reyes, please visit RR CINEMA.