SXSW 2018 Film Interview: Human Rights Filmmaker Jason Outenreath

Making its world premiere at this year's SXSW was the feature-length documentary They Live Here, Now, conceived and directed by human rights filmmaker Jason Outenreath. Shot on location at Casa Marianella, an emergency homeless shelter in East Austin, it depicts the daily lives of recently arrived immigrants as they relate their frequently harrowing stories about their journeys to the United States.

With this film, Outenreath pushed the boundaries of the documentary format by blending actual portraits of immigrants who live at Casa Marianella with scripted characters who were drawn from real life. Here, he explains the reasons for this unorthodox approach.

Your feature-length documentaries, They Live Here, Now and

Country Kids, as well as a number of your short films, have focused on immigration.

Can you tell us about why this is frequently your subject?

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua for a couple of years. I studied in Mexico, and I also lived there afterward. I developed close relationships with the people there. When I came back to the U.S., I sought out groups that were immigration-oriented. As a filmmaker, I felt a social responsibility to respond to what was happening and how people were being treated. Immigrants deserve to be treated with the same dignity as any other human being.

How did you locate Casa Marianella?

I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. Someone in passing mentioned Casa Marianella to me and said, “You might be interested in this place.” I began visiting it on a fairly regular basis, not with a camera or anything, but I was just blown away by the community and the diversity of people coming there. When I was pitching my project to them, it involved talking to the entire house, just standing in front of immigrants from 20 or 30 countries.

It was something that left a really deep impression on me. As I realized the gravity of this place in Austin that deserved more attention for the services it was providing, it also needed to be celebrated for the immigrants and what they had gone through to get there.

How long did it take to secure the subjects and make the film?

It took about three and a half years. I make relationship-based films, and I'm very concerned with the connections I make. So I spent the first year, you might say, in preproduction, forging those relationships and learning about the house before I began filming at all. The editing process took about a year and a half to complete, and I edited it myself.

Filmmaker Jason Outenreath talks about his new film, “They Live Here, Now" at SXSW. Photo: Kurt Gardner.

 

Were there some people who were afraid to come on camera and tell their stories?

Yes, they were divided along two lines. There were a lot of people who didn't want to appear on camera or who were very afraid of what that would mean to their legal status or their families in their home countries. At the same time, there were also people who wanted to be heard. My job as a filmmaker was to work with the people who wanted to share their stories while also respecting their privacy.

I didn't set out to make a political film, but I have my political ideas, and they're embedded in it. I think it goes back to the respect that people deserve, regardless of where they're from or what their circumstances are.

In terms of adding the narrative story to the piece, what was the purpose?

There were two main goals I had with interweaving that story. As a documentary filmmaker, one of the questions that I ask is, “What constitutes social reality?” I'm always interested in pushing the boundaries and asking both myself and the audience, “What really is documentary?” I had artistic reasons for doing it, too, and it does enrich the story of Casa Marianella.

I had ethical reasons as well. I wanted to show aspects of the house that were essential to that experience, but I couldn't get conversations with lawyers and recent arrivals who just came to the house. Those are things you just can't film without putting someone's actual legal status at risk, so they were some of the reasons I decided to weave in the fictional narrative.

The storyline of the fictional character [Nayeli] would have been impossible to film without the reality of the house and the reality of the people she was interacting with. She was a composite character of a lot of people I'd met, working at the border and living in Mexico and Nicaragua. The actress [Regina Casillas] brought a lot to the role. I feel like I've met that character before.

She blends quite well into the film, too.

Right. Nobody was told that she was an actress. I wanted it to appear as if she was coming to Casa Marianella for the first time. She went through all the actual steps that someone would go through to be taken in. I had in mind the arc for her story, but a lot of the scenes were improvised. I just gave general direction, like, “You're going to cook rice,” and she would say, “I don't know how to do that,” and I would say, “Figure it out.”

What do you want to inspire in viewers who see the film?

I'd like people to identify with the immigrants in it who were brave enough to share their really personal stories. Hopefully, they'll take a stake in the next chapter of this story, since it's not really a culminating project so much as it is ongoing. I hope people will watch it and think, “I really need to do something about this. I need to be a part of the solution.”

It's obvious you're going to continue to tell these stories.

Right. I wouldn't say solely immigration, but I can see myself continuing in the specific vein of human rights films. I feel a very strong need to use filmmaking to tell humanizing stories about people.

Where is They Live Here, Now going next?

That's in process at the moment. I'd personally love to see it shown in schools and educational institutions. It's so important to humanize the issue, especially with younger generations, since they are the people who will be making some of the decisions in the future.

The PBS documentary series Independent Lens would be a great place, too.

Absolutely. Other festivals as well.

What other projects do you have in development?

I'm working on my first fiction feature film, which I'll be shooting this summer. I'm also working on a web series about the indigenous cultures of Oaxaca, Mexico.

 

Featured photo: 'They Live Here, Now': Refugee Teo sits thoughtfully before lights out at the Austin based refugee house, Casa Marianella. Photo: Jason Outenreath.


BILLY HAYES ALERT - IT'S "MIDNIGHT EXPRESS" WEEK IN LOS ANGELES!

Don't look now, but Billy Hayes is back in town.

The "Midnight Express" man left Los Angeles in 2014 and hit the road with his one man show for a time, then settled down in Sin City, where he's been negotiating with various pot enterprises who want to market a "Billy Hayes" brand of high-end weed.  Billy has become the poster guy for the booming industry there, as he has been smoking for 50 years and has no ill-effects to show for it.  "On the contrary," he says, "I'm the happiest and the healthiest person I know."

Billy is the subject of a fascinating documentary by Sally Sussman, MIDNIGHT RETURN: Billy Hayes and Turkeywhich is finishing up its run at the Laemmle Music Hall on Friday, and is an absolute must-see if you want to understand why Billy Hayes is such an iconic figure to those of us over 50, and also if you want to get all the juicy behind-the-scenes info about the making of the landmark film Midnight Express.  This film - which would never get made today in the era of political correctness - boasted the collaboration of some very talented and large-ego'd men: David Puttnam, Alan Parker, Peter Guber and Oliver Stone.  When you hear their recollections, it boggles the mind that the movie turned out as well as it did.

Oliver Stone bares his soul about his triumphs and regrets

As a screenwriter myself, I was fascinated to hear about how much the Brits, Parker and Puttnam, hated Stone, even after they were in awe of his screenplay; and how shabbily Stone was treated throughout.  Of course Oliver Stone got the last laugh, winning the Oscar and launching his career, which had basically been stalled to that point.  Stone has some very interesting things to say about the reasons why he related so personally to Billy's story, and how he feels about the film now.  I was shocked to learn that the famous ending of Midnight Express was not in fact his creation... but enough.  I won't spoil the many other revelations.  I will say only that Alan Parker's comments deepened my respect for him as a film artist.

Billy at 23 years old is arrested for trying to smuggle out 2 kilos of hashish

But the center of the story is Billy Hayes, who comes as a deceptively complicated figure - at times he's straightforward and almost an everyman who loves his family and wants to make everyone proud of him, at other times he's an adventurer, a daredevil and, well, "crazy," as his brother and sister keep saying.  Fate chose Billy to be an actor in a drama about American innocence caught in a web of foreign intrigue, and that story has proved to have staying power way beyond anything Billy himself ever expected.  Much like the film of his life that became a cultural phenomenon for young Americans in the 1970s and '80s, and which continues to exert enormous influence over those who've seen it, down to the present day.

Billy and his dad, shortly after Billy's escape

Billy's true-life escape from an Alcatraz-like Turkish island prison still boggles the minds of the Turkish authorities, a few of whom show up in the film still insisting that he must have had help from the CIA.  The escape came after the Turkish court had changed Billy's sentence from four years to 30 years, just as he was about to be released.  (The film makes it clear that Billy was a pawn in Nixon's war on drugs, and that Nixon was happy to have Billy's freedom sacrificed to his law and order policies.)  Given all this, there seems to be some justice in the terrible publicity that the country of Turkey reaped from Billy's harrowing escape.  But Billy himself was disturbed by the anti-Turk tenor of the film and the devestating effect this had on the Turkish tourism industry and on the Turkish people's image in the world and self-image.

The Turkish newspapers depicted Billy as endowed with superpowers

The central theme of the documentary is the return of Billy Hayes to Turkey in 2007, as he attempts to heal the wounds created by the Hollywood film made from his story.  Over the objections of his lawyers and most of his friends (though not me), "crazy" Billy puts himself into the hands of a branch of the Turkish police (of all people) as he holds several news conferences, expressing his love and admiration for the Turkish people.  Then he goes on a tour of his old haunts, including the prisons he spent time in.  The municipal jail has been converted into a Four Seasons (no kidding!), but the infamous Birkakoy prison for criminally insane is still there.  Though it's closed down now, slowly rotting in the hot Turkish sun, they open it up for Billy in an unforgettable sequence, in which all the terrifying memories begin rushing back.

Billy back at Birkakoy - "you are a broken machine."

It's an extraordinary experience, part of an extraordinary story which Billy himself has been trying to come to terms with ever his escape.  He has gradually come to recognize the unique role he's been chosen by history to play, and he has stopped trying to be an actor or director - I met him when he directed my play Break of Day about the young Vincent van Gogh, 18 years ago - and embraced his public persona, taking control of his own story.

Toward this end, Billy brings his one-man show, Riding The Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, to the Odyssey Theatre for four performances this weekend.  The 73 minute show is followed by a Q&A with the audience and then Billy will sign his books for you, including his brilliant Letters from A Turkish Prison, which has not received the amount of attention that I believe it should.  I've seen the show six or seven times in various iterations, and I highly recommend it.  By embracing his "criminal" past, Billy has achieved a philosophy of self-acceptance which feels earned and authentic, and quite the opposite of all the self-help gurus out there who claim to have the answers on how to find your true self.