My main motivation in making Letters from the Other Side has been to give a voice to these amazing women I was meeting all over rural Mexico, to give them the recognition they deserve, and to provide a way for people on this side of the border to hear their stories and learn from them.
I became interested in the other side of the immigration story while making my first documentary, a story of undocumented immigrants working in Texas (Los Trabajadores/The Workers).
While making that film, I met the wife and daughters of one of the men whose story I was following, and I realized that the pain and struggle of the immigrants here in the U.S. extended to and intensified with the family and communities left behind, communities that were losing men every day to jobs in the U.S. This was a part of the story many didn’t know about — how many Americans realize that the man waiting on the street corner for work is doing so for the wife and children he left behind in Mexico?
Two years later, I left for Mexico, armed with a Fulbright fellowship, a prosumer video camera, my 1989 Volvo station wagon, and a vague idea of telling the immigration story from the perspective of the women left behind. I had no plan for how the story would fit together, what the narrative arc would be, what the women would be like. To me, that is the beauty in documentary filmmaking — finding your story and your characters as you make the film, taking cues from the people in the film and interacting with them, letting go of any pre-conceived notions or ideas you might have had about how the story should go, and being as open as possible to the unexpected.
After a few months of filming several Mexican families, I was about to drive back to the U.S. for a visit, when one of the women asked if I would show the videos I filmed of her to her sons, undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. When I offered to shoot and bring back videos of them, I realized how messed up it was — I could visit the sons she couldn’t, and shepherd messages over a border she wasn’t allowed to cross. And that’s how the video letter idea was born, an idea I was a bit hesitant to pursue at first. All directors have an effect on what is happening in front of the camera, but in setting up and delivering the video letters, I was becoming a much more active participant in the film. But despite my initial hesitancy, I forged ahead, and I feel these video letters help convey, in a much more visceral way than an interview could, the pain of families torn apart just to survive economically.
I expanded the video letter concept to exchanging videos between women in Mexico and Americans on the other side of the border. These videos created connections that might not have existed before, illustrating how we are all a part of a system that allows products and services to move across a border freely, but makes it nearly impossible for some people, particularly those without resources or power, to cross that same border.
Ultimately, that is what I am trying to do with documentary filmmaking — make connections and help people see a bit of themselves in each other. The hope is that maybe someone who sees my film might think differently about something than they had before, or question previously held assumptions, or even be moved to DO SOMETHING. I have no illusions that a film can change the world, but I do hope it might change some people’s minds, or maybe their hearts.
— Heather Courtney
Heather Courtney, Producer
Heather Courtney is a filmmaker, cinematographer, and photographer based in Austin, Texas. Her recently completed Letters from the Other Side, which uses cross-border video letters to tell the immigration story from the perspective of the women left behind in Mexico, premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January, screened at the South by Southwest International Film Festival (SXSW).
Her previous film, Los Trabajadores/The Workers, won the Audience Award at SXSW in 2001 and was broadcast nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens in 2003. In addition, it has screened at over 40 national and international film festivals and conferences, as well as at countless grassroots screenings in conjunction with immigrant rights groups all over Austin and the rest of Texas.
She is currently producing the Texas segment of a national PBS documentary on the health insurance crisis. Prior to receiving her graduate degree in film, Heather spent eight years writing and photographing for the United Nations and several refugee and immigrant rights organizations, including in the Rwandan refugee camps after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.