Weekender: Filmmaker, Tufts alum David Sutherland brings an intimate portrayal of deportation to campus

Promotional PBS Image for 'Marcos Doesn't Live Here Anymore' (2019) is pictured. Courtesy of David Suntherland's Vimeo

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker and Tufts alum David Sutherland (A ’67) will be screening his new film “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (2019) on Feb. 28 at an event hosted by the Tufts Film and Media Studies Program. The film, much like Sutherland’s previous films “Country Boys” (2006), “The Farmer’s Wife” (1998) and “Kind Hearted Woman” (2013), centers around those “living on the margins,” as described by Sutherland. The film revolves around Elizabeth Perez, a former U.S. Marine from Ohio, and her husband Marcos, an undocumented immigrant who is deported, leaving behind Elizabeth and their children.

Sutherland describes the film as a “parallel action love story.” The film follows Marcos in Mexico, where he reunites with his family after spending 20 years apart from them, and Elizabeth in Ohio, where she takes care of their children and works with HOLA, an Ohio-based grassroots Latino group, in hopes of getting Marcos back to the States. By taking on this parallel narrative, Sutherland explains that “you get a sense of what [both of them] are going through.”

The film itself focuses on the theme of deportation, but Sutherland remarks that the film is about much more. He states that the film is “a real statement about deportation”; however, an equally important theme that the film tackles is “the cost of deportation, and the cost for [Marcos] to live here. In a scene where Elizabeth is addressing a crowd about her struggle with losing her husband, she remarks that when her husband was arrested, “that was the day my home became a house.” In another scene, Marcos discloses that “the time is killing me.” Their pain and emotion resulting from the deportation is a key driver of the film.

When describing the primary themes of the film, Sutherland noted that “it’s a real story about immigration, but the bottom line is, will they remember how to live together?” 

Sutherland, known for creating remarkably in-depth films that capture incredibly fine details about stories and often take multiple to years to document (most notably “Country Boys”, whose production lasted seven years), crafted “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Any More” with the same employment of portraiture that he’s utilized in previous works. Sutherland removes his presence from the narrative entirely by not showing himself asking questions during the film. Instead, he focuses on capturing the fine details of his subject’s lives in order to give viewers an intimate glimpse into the lives of the characters. He described this as an essential part of his filmmaking process.

“My stories are told in the third person, extremely close up … my interest was to get closer and closer to the characters, so you feel like you’re living in their skin,” he said. “I’m a portraitist. You see all the elements of the portraits of [Marcos and Elizabeth] come together. Their roles change … and you make up your own mind.”

Marcos, a soccer coach and former English teacher, is “a tough guy” and “severe,” but “has a big heart,” according to Sutherland. He describes Elizabeth Perez as “a cross between Lily Tomlin and Olive Oyl from ‘Popeye’ … She’s heroic, she’s eloquent … she’s a character.” He also remarks that the former Marine is “loyal to this country, [she] love[s] this country, but sometimes [she has] to take a stand.”

In fact, Elizabeth’s patriotism is so fierce that the film’s original title was the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fidelis,” which translates to “always faithful.” Sutherland believes the phrase holds two meanings in Elizabeth’s case, first that “she’s always faithful to her husband,” and second that “[she’s] always faithful to her country.” 

Originally, the film was not centered around Elizabeth and Marcos. It was going to follow Elizabeth’s friend and her husband, but a chance encounter drove Sutherland to choose Elizabeth and Marcos as the subjects of this film.

“Elizabeth drove me to the airport as a favor, and I realized, this woman is really interesting, and her story is really interesting,” Sutherland said.

One of the most important aspects of the narrative was the fact that Marcos and Elizabeth are human, multifaceted and above all, imperfect people. Sutherland emphasizes that the film doesn’t try to cover up their imperfections or paint them as flawless human beings. Instead, the film emphasizes the human nature of the characters. He mentioned that “[Elizabeth] can lose it and start yelling at one of the kids, which might bother someone … She might scream at her kids in a scene, she might be heroic in [another] scene.” He also points out that Marcos possesses imperfections, such as having kicked a woman in the past. 

One key scene that Sutherland pointed out as characteristic of the imperfect nature of the characters takes place at a statue of the Virgin Mary on Easter Sunday, shortly after Elizabeth has an emotional breakdown and roughly drags one of her children outside. 

“She’s talking and says [to the statue] ‘I need you guys to help me’ and she’s crying, holding a baby … You see she wants forgiveness,” Sutherland said.

He makes the case that through their multidimensional personalities and their humanity coupled with the intimate use of portraiture,  Elizabeth and Marcos allow for more audience engagement and for viewers to draw their own conclusions about the characters. 

“These people are imperfect people … But there’s something redeeming about them,” Sutherland said. “There’s something more than redeeming about them. They’re more relatable. [The audience] can identify with them, and feel some compassion.”

Sutherland made it clear that he is trying to show people up close the effects of deportation through a humanized, real-life portrayal. He stated that the film will allow for people to reevaluate their preexisting beliefs, and, throughout the film, the conclusions that people may jump to in the beginning of the film may be proven false by the end. For example, at the start of the film, Marcos can be seen as a rough, severe man, but, as Sutherland explained, “you learn as the film goes along, he’s more emotional … You’re forced to change some opinions if you judged him by [looks].”

However, Sutherland emphasized that he is not attempting to tell viewers how to feel about the characters, nor is he telling viewers what specific conclusions to draw. Instead, he wants audiences to use their own agency to draw conclusions and opinions about the events and the characters of the film.

“It’s up to you to decide what you think of them. I’m not telling you what to think,” Sutherland said.

The film itself feels appropriate in 2019. With immigration and deportation being one of the most pressing political issues in the United States, “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” provides a human face to the news stories we hear almost every day, and it forces us to grapple with the human impact of such issues.

“Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” plays Thursday, Feb. 28 at 6 p.m. in Tisch 104, featuring director David Sutherland. The film, co-produced by Frontline, IndependentLens and Voces debuts to the public on April 15 on PBS.