It’s easy to idolize, or even simply appreciate, both the heroes and villains in our most favorite tales because as soon as we walk out of the theater, those characters fade away from the big screen to exist in our imaginations only. There, they become dynamic and complex thoughts, concepts and, ultimately, figures to move a beloved story along. We can debate whether Thanos’ causes were just or if Rose could have saved Jack with little consequence because in the end, these stories will serve as talking points, not as narratives that directly impact our lives.
But, what if they did?
Laura Plancarte’s “Hermanos/Siblings” is a documentary that masterfully utilizes the benefits of staged depictions and effects reminiscent of fictional stories we love, while simultaneously presenting us with characters that go from the big screen to our neighborhoods, jobs, schools and who may even be mirrors of ourselves. The heart-jerking narrative follows a parallel story about two brothers, Chuy and Chato, living in Mexico post-permanent deportation and American Miss Montana winner, Vanessa, searching for stability in California. This documentary proves that while artistic liberties taken in Plancarte’s story-telling opens up a fresh interpretation of documentaries, they also make the challenge of responding to these true stories more difficult.
We can not escape the discouraging reality of the relations between Mexico and the United States by simply walking out of the theater. Chuy, Chato and Vanessa’s stories, though artfully shared, are real. And they are echoed by millions of others on both sides of the border.
We can begin to become active members in remedying this reality by first understanding the similarities that can be found in us all, both Mexican and American, and Plancarte does just that several times throughout the documentary. She does this by giving the audience scenes that serve to liken the characters more than our current political climate allows.
What’s interesting to me is that several of the mirrored scenes, both staged and not, were centered around a body of water. I think this alone stands as a symbol of the fluidity of our personalities and the fact that at the end of the day, no matter where we are, we are all somehow swimming in many of the same big oceans. There is always more that unites than separates us.
Plancarte establishes this concept without being deceptive. There are still differences in everyone’s thinking and lifestyles, and we have a social responsibility to pay attention to them, especially if these differences are founded in policies that are broken and circumstances that need healing. Here are some of the most profound parallels I noted:
The documentary begins with both the brothers and Vanessa gazing ahead, actively wishing for more, even though the brothers have a farther way to go to ever achieve all that they would want for their families. Sitting before television screens broadcasting Trump speeches, Vanessa and her friend applaud Trump’s inspiring words, while Chuy and Chato scoff at Trump’s actions towards foreigners with disdain. Vanessa is overtaken by the waves in California and can only come up by the aid of two Latina women, while Chuy and Chato dive into the waves of the same sea headfirst, unafraid. Vanessa’s unfortunate experience in the water solidifies her desire to return to Montana, and she easily does. However, the brothers have no such option. They are stuck in a country that does not satisfy them. While Vanessa travels through California at her lowest point, the camera takes beautiful shots of the bustling streets and the tall palm trees surrounding her. However, the setting surrounding Chuy and Chato while they are taking their mother, Omega, back to the border is a dismal sight of run down cars and buses chugging down a crowded street. Both the brothers and Vanessa made money from the drug industry. The brothers were dealing meth across the border illegally, and while Vanessa was prescribing prescriptions legally, she acknowledged that she had been a contributor to the drug dependency and overdose crisis in America.
I could go on for days about the closely related scenes Plancarte chose to demonstrate both the correlations and crucial differences between us all, but I’ll park on this last one for a moment.
It is critical to see that both Vanessa and the brothers were aware of the danger in their professions, and, arguably, the damage they may have been bringing into others’ lives. However, as a society, we accept Vanessa’s “evil” more readily simply because it is not as blatant. And while Vanessa, and several other conservatives like her, will brazingly support the law as something that should be defended and upheld no matter what, she still defends the allegations against the president by saying that we’ve all done things in the past that we aren’t “proud of.” Though this stance does not excuse the illegal actions Chuy and Chato were participating in, it still does nothing but contradict itself.
Plancarte said during a question and answer session at the end of the showing that she chose to tell the stories of these complex people with histories that are not as ideal as we’d hope so that we can begin building the bridge between these two countries, acknowledging the reality that there are bad apples everywhere and no one can demonize or idealize a country to a point of only having faults or being without any.
Though Vanessa is conservative, she is still a person. The same principle goes for the brothers. We can be sympathetic toward them, but in the end, their drug dealing was illegal and contrary to what a wholesome society needs. And these aren’t characters to analyze for sport; they are real people who we have to face and interact with, humans that deserve just as much of a say in how to make this world better. If that feels difficult to swallow, that’s because it is.
Political messages aside, the documentary itself is a refreshing reminder that works of nonfiction are meant to be poetic. I would never imagine that a documentary would hire children to portray the young versions of the main characters in flashbacks dealing with loss and family, but Plancarte values the benefits of showing, not telling, even when doing so with authentic stories that are, themselves, not staged. Plancarte took artistic liberties with dreams and memories because in our minds, the moments that we recall truly play out like perfect movies or horrific nightmares. Our memories are fond to remember because some of them feel almost too good to be true. And I don’t think any of us would say this is a bad thing.
I sincerely hope that “Hermanos/Siblings” encourages a discussion about the dilemma between the United States and Mexico. Plancarte described it in the session better than I ever could: “We’re neighbors. We can’t get rid of each other.”
This documentary provides a lens into the humanity of the issues we vote on and the topics our politicians debate about. We need this aspect of humanity to truly be able to make decisions about immigration in this country that we can all be proud of.
Edited by Alexandra Sharp | firstname.lastname@example.org