Produced while she was a 2006-2007 WGBH Filmmaker-in-Residence, Monika Navarro
’s Lost Souls (Animas Perdidas) is a documentary that explores the tragedy and triumph of her family history — a history of immigration and deportation, substance abuse and absent fathers, old patterns and new beginnings. In this touching account, Monika manages the pain of her own father’s neglect by reconnecting with her Uncle Augie, a drug addict and distant father who had been deported to Mexico and was trying to forge a new life in the wake of his brother’s tragic heroin overdose. Taking viewers from San Diego to Guadalajara, on to Tijuana and back again, Lost Souls demonstrates the complex struggle drug addicts and their loved ones must endure, and the importance of forgiveness and support in breaking the generational cycle of substance abuse.
Lost Souls is Navarro’s first documentary film and airs on WGBH 44 on Sunday, March 28 at 10pm as an installment in the Independent Lens series. Here, Navarro shares her own story with us and takes time to reflect on the process she took, what inspired her, and what this film means to her.
What motivated you to move to Boston?
I initially moved to Boston in order to attend art school, and have now lived in Boston for more than 10 years. Boston has such a strong documentary film community, which gave me an opportunity to work with very talented people and also nurtured me as an emerging filmmaker.
Where did you go to school?
I studied painting and printmaking at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Tufts University. At the Museum School, we were given an incredible freedom to design our own studies, and were encouraged to develop our ideas and use whatever medium we deemed most appropriate for our artistic vision. At Tufts I was also free to choose courses that reflected my areas of interest, and studied art history, history, and American studies.
What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
I was a second-year art student when my uncles were deported to Mexico. I immediately knew that I wanted to tell this story as it was unfolding in my family, and that a film was the best form to tell the story. I was working with family photos and stories in my visual work, but to make a series of prints or even to write a book would offer only my perspective and limit my audience. I wanted to tell this particular story from multiple perspectives, and I liked the democratic nature of documentary film and how accessible it is to people. I’ve also found in making a film that there is a similarity between documentary filmmaking and painting, in striving to balance form and function.
What inspired you to make “Lost Souls (Animas Perdidas)”?
I really felt that this story was one that had never been told before. After my Uncle Augie was deported back to Mexico, I wanted to explore why my family had immigrated here and what had brought my family to that moment of having one of our own exiled. I found my Uncle Augie to be an incredibly interesting character to follow, because he was cast out of the US — and I discovered that he had long ago been cast out by the family. This brought a lot of questions to the surface for me about the history of addiction and abandonment in our family, and the ties one has to one's family. Ultimately, the film ended up becoming a much bigger story than the effect of deportation on my family, and I was inspired by each person in my family.
What was the process of producing and filming the documentary?
I started in 2000 when I was still a student, and had absolutely no filmmaking experience. A year after my uncles were deported, I took a leave of absence for a semester and went to Guadalajara, Mexico, to start interviewing my Uncle Augie while he was still adjusting to the language and culture of the country he was born in. The very first interviews with Augie were shot with a consumer HI-8 video camera. I ended up using that very rough footage in the film, but after that first shoot, I realized that not only was I not emotionally ready at 21 to make this very personal film, but that I needed a crew to help me with the technical aspects. I returned to Boston and focused on my studies, knowing that I would be making this film once I finished school. I took some production classes, as well as anthropology and Latin American history classes. After I graduated, I received an Emerging Artists fellowship from my hometown and raised additional funds for my first shoot with a small crew. For a few years, it was just my DP Jason Mann and me, working on the film, shooting, assembling footage, and eventually putting together a trailer got us into the 2006 IFP Market to meet with folks in the industry. Every success gave Jason and me more confidence and determination to complete the film, and we continued to shoot Augie’s life in Mexico and my family in California. In 2006, I became a WGBH Filmmaker-in-Residence, and that relationship gave me leverage to raise finishing funds and work with an experienced editor.
How did you become a WGBH Filmmaker-in-Residence?
In 2005, I joined Women in Film and Video/New England, and was given a mentor through their Media Mentor program. My mentor was La Plaza producer Patricia Alvarado-Nunez. She gave me wonderful feedback and advice on shooting at the border, and she encouraged me to apply to be a WGBH Filmmaker-in-Residence. Joseph Tovares mentored me during my residence and I was quite fortunate to work with a talent like him and to be able to ask his advice on everything from story structure to hiring an editor. During my residence, Chris Hastings supervised the filmmakers, and he really believed in me and my story. The support that WGBH gave me throughout the process of making my film, by every definition of the word, was invaluable.
What is your proudest accomplishment with this film?
I am really proud that I finished it and it’s airing on PBS! It took me 10 years from shooting the very first interview to now airing on Independent Lens. For me, half of being an artist or filmmaker is the work and the other half is sharing and celebrating your work with audience. I am beyond happy that my audience is PBS viewers.
Since this documentary was a learning process for you, what are some valuable insights you learned from the experience?
At times, there definitely was doubt about whether I could finish this film. I was incredibly self-conscious about the first footage I acquired, when I was interviewing my uncle on essentially a home video camera. Over the course of filming, however, as I got more adept with the filmmaking process, I realized that the technical qualities don’t necessarily matter when you have a good story to tell. After seeing A Healthy Baby Girl I realized that a home movie could be the most fascinating way to tell a story.
But mostly I learned about who I was, having spent this incredible time with my family interviewing everyone and hearing their life stories.
Did the direction of the film ever change for you throughout filming?
The end product that I have now is pretty much how I envisioned it would be. I was surprised, however, by the way the story produced multiple layers. On one hand, it’s a story about immigration and my uncle’s deportation. On the other hand, it’s a story about addiction. In another way, it is about family and the wounds that haunt them. I am really glad that I was open to letting this story go in any direction it needed to. This story, which could’ve solely been a film about the impacts of immigration, became universal in being about a family, because the themes that emerged allowed people to relate to the film on different levels.
What do you hope people will take away from this film after watching it?
I really hope that people connect with the film through my family’s story and reflect on the costs of breaking up American families with the strict immigration laws we currently have, and take some action to get Congress to reform immigration law. On a personal level, I hope people also reflect on the effects of addiction for addicts and their families. Too often there is a focus on the addicts, and in making this film I learned to what extent addicts affect their loved ones and children. For my family, talking about the cumulative effects of generational addiction — about the frustration, pain, anger, and guilt — helped heal us.
Are you working on any future projects?
I am in pre-production on my next film, following a group of elite American runners who were all born in East Africa.