Growing up in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, gave Christina Clusiau a fairly isolated view of the world. The filmmaker is now making up for lost opportunities.
Netflix’s “Immigration Nation” explores the current state of American immigration, a mission that sent Clusiau and her co-director Shaul Schwarz scrambling to locations across the hemisphere, including El Paso, Texas; Panama City, Florida; and Guatemala.
“Coming from a place without a lot of diversity made me curious about understanding and diving into worlds I didn’t know much about,” Clusiau said this month by phone from her home in New York.
What separates their six-part series from other documentaries on the same subject is how it tackles the hot-button issue from various perspectives, notably ones from employees of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Since the project debuted this month, much has been made of scenes in which certain agents round up people living in the U.S. illegally with the glee of cowboys roping up stray cattle. But the directors also spotlight agents who show compassion for those being arrested.
The team’s requests to be embedded with ICE date back to the Obama administration, which turned them down. But the directors were pleasantly surprised to get the greenlight shortly after President Donald Trump came into office.
“I think they wanted to show how unique and incredible these people were,” said Schwarz, who is engaged to Clusiau. “Never in a million years did I think it would wind up being so intense.”
The administration appears to have regretted its decision. In July, ICE officials tried unsuccessfully to block the film’s release until after the presidential election.
“The men and women of ICE perform outstanding work daily that often goes unnoticed or is misrepresented to the point of falsehood,” ICE press secretary Jenny Burke wrote in a public statement. “ICE is firmly committed to carrying out the agency’s sworn duty to enforce federal law as passed by Congress professionally, consistently and in full compliance with federal law and agency policies.”
Schwarz admits he was “somewhat slightly surprised” by the amount of anger that has come from certain ICE agents.
“But that’s OK,” he said. “I do hope viewers remember that they have a very difficult job. Any policing is a hard job, but especially one that had to shift so quickly under political pressure. Are there ICE officers that took the temperature of the country and got more emboldened? Absolutely. Is that all ICE is? No. There are a lot of good officers there.”
The controversy has given the film tons of free publicity, but it also threatens to downplay “Nation’s” other powerful moments — ones that show the impact of a zero-tolerance policy on the immigrants themselves.
There are several harrowing scenes of parents being separated from their children at detention centers. An ex-Marine, deported after being convicted of a minor crime, pleads his case to a court clerk through tears. A businessman takes advantage of workers without legal status by refusing to pay for their work.
“There’s the initial shock of seeing how ICE operates,” said Clusiau, who dedicated three years to the project. “But our hope is, in the long run, people will also be drawn to the stories of the human toll on individuals.”
Clusiau, a former Time magazine photojournalist, is no stranger to tackling controversial issues.
“Trophy,” the 2017 film she also co-directed with Schwarz, took an unflinching look at big-game hunting and conservation. The couple are currently wrapping up a documentary on wingsuit jumping, one of the world’s most dangerous activities, through their production company, Reel Peak Films.
But “Nation” may end up being the most buzzed-about project of their careers.
“We’re really amazed by the reach the series has had across the board,” Clusiau said. “There’s been a little bit of anger, but we’ve also seen a lot of organizations and people reaching out to offer support. It’s a hard series to watch, but hopefully it becomes a vehicle for change.”
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)