Documentary filmmaker David Sutherland, A67, talks in a Tufts podcast about his new film and his deep dives into his subjects’ lives
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Documentary filmmaker and 1967 Tufts graduate David Sutherland is known for creating intimate portraits of people living on the margins of society. His most recent film, Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, premiering on PBS on April 15, shows the human cost of U.S. immigration policy by following Elizabeth Perez and her husband, Marcos, as they fight to reunite their family after Marcos is deported.
In this episode of Tell Me More, Sutherland talks about how he met Elizabeth and Marcos, why he found them so appealing, and what he hopes viewers will take away from their story.
HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.
In this episode of Tell Me More, Sutherland talks with Tufts University’s Heather Stephenson about how he met Elizabeth and Marcos, why he found them so appealing, and what he hopes viewers will take away from their story. Let’s listen in.
HEATHER STEPHENSON: Filmmaker David Sutherland, thank you for speaking with us today.
DAVID SUTHERLAND: I’m happy to be back here.
STEPHENSON: Your new film, Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is described as “a love story that puts a human face on America’s immigration debate.” In the film, you tell the story of Elizabeth, a decorated U.S. Marine veteran living in Cleveland, who fights to reunite her family after her husband, Marcos, is deported to his native Mexico. Were you hoping to affect the national political debate when you decided to film their story?
SUTHERLAND: I was interested in immigration because my older sister was a painter in Mexico, and so I knew Mexico, and I’ve had a lot of undocumented—not a lot, but a number of undocumented interns on earlier films. I was interested in the topic. But this film—immigration, at the same time—didn’t draw me from the point of view, like, it’s super-topical. I just got interested in it because I’m interested in immigrants.
STEPHENSON: You weren’t out to do a political film per se.
SUTHERLAND: Well, I never—although I have strong political beliefs, I’m not somebody that, in my films, tries to stress a point of view. I consider myself a portraitist. So, if I can get a likeness of the characters—but they’re often people living on the margins, sometimes, mostly, rurally, but there’s a lot of issues that come out of the characters. I wasn’t looking to make a large statement on immigration. It would be more, I guess, the cost of being deported. I was interested in that.
STEPHENSON: How did you first meet Elizabeth and Marcos? And did you know right away that you would be spending years filming them?
SUTHERLAND: No, I met them by a very indirect route. What I often do is, if I decide I want to do something about, say, in this case it’s immigration, deportation. I like to find a group, and somebody in a group, of this topic, that you can follow. Because I’m a portraitist, my stories come out of the characters, and a lot of the issues are often, they can be related to money, rural poverty.
Behind the scenes, this story was actually driven a lot by lack of money: why Elizabeth lives where she does, and why even at the end, in the epilogue, they are living where they are, even in considering maybe going other places.
By coincidence, I was reminded by my son, whose best friend worked for the National Council on Race, that one of his best friends was working for them in Washington, D.C. So I called his friend Loren, and I always got along well with Loren; he knew my films, and he used to be a labor organizer and then got into immigration and all of that. He said he knew a woman in northern Ohio who, he thought, the way I am, would get along personality-wise with me, because he knows me quite well.
So I went and saw Veronica Dahlberg, who runs this group in northern Ohio called HOLA. They’re like a last bastion of a place where you can, if you’re ready to be deported, or now live in a sanctuary, like in a church or something, and the immigration or ICE is coming to get you. So ultimately, I met tons of undocumented people—witnessed a lot of deportations with ICE, and there were a lot of things like that. If I said that I was in, maybe, 200 different undocumented workers, where they were living, I was. And these were really people living ready to be deported. And so that led me to meet Elizabeth Perez.
I had trouble getting cabs, and Veronica Dahlberg, who ran this group, said, “Well, there’s this woman that’s a Marine, she’s white, she’s not Mexican, her husband was deported.” Just deported. And she drove me to the airport. We had lunch on the way because she was early. And I got very interested in her story. They Skyped a lot, they had kids that were interesting. And Elizabeth was a high-school dropout, but she was a cross between Olive Oyl from Popeye cartoons, and Lily Tomlin, the comedian. And she’s very funny, very articulate, and she was a decorated Marine in Afghanistan and the military for ten years. And so that’s how I got involved with her.
There’s a scene in the film where you see her as one of the few white people at this giant march for workers’ rights at the Raleigh Tobacco Company in Winston-Salem, and she’s one of the keynote speakers. What’s interesting about her—first of all, she stood out as the only white woman speaker. But in this group of people, speaking with a strong accent, who looks totally different than everybody else, and she’s talking as a Marine.
And she will never say anything bad, she’s very patriotic. And she says, “I love this country,” and she’s very—and had nothing bad to say, in spite of what’s happened to [her] husband. But then she’ll say, every so often, and she quotes something from the Marines, that you have to take a stand, and stand up for your country if it’s wrong, and what you have to do. I’m badly paraphrasing.
And they go wild over her. And that’s basically how she is. She’s trying to get her husband back, and she’s working with these groups doing all types of work. And we follow her story and her disappointments until she ends up over there. Anyhow, that’s a very long story, so I’m sorry.
STEPHENSON: It’s a fascinating story of how you find the right character to follow.
SUTHERLAND: I know what I’m looking for. Someone that will go the distance, that has hopes and dreams. They’re always imperfect, because we all are. But someone I know that if they have to, no matter what happens to them en route, that they’ll go the distance and let me keep filming.
STEPHENSON: And they give you tremendous access to their lives. Your documentaries are so intimate. You’ve said, “The sound is designed so the viewer hears my subjects breathing, sighing, and groaning from 100 yards away. My objective is to make you feel that you’re living in their skin.” How do you create that intimacy?
SUTHERLAND: Everyone has a radio mic. So when you would have a Hollywood film, they put radio mics on them. Then they re-record all the lines. I’ll give you an example of what I’m trying to say. The Farmer’s Wife is a story about a young farm family on the brink of bankruptcy. They are looking for a loan in the beginning. And it’s basically, will they save the farm, will they save the marriage?
In The Farmer’s Wife, Darryl, the husband, used to have to work off the farm. He’d drive a pickup home, you could see him, I’d have one of my associate producers or an intern looking in the distance. You can see in that part of south-central Nebraska—oh God, almost a half a mile or a quarter of a mile because it’s flat plains.
So what happens is, I need to know when they’re coming, to turn on the radio mics. She might be in the house or sitting outside, and so here’s the scene. He’s been working off the farm all day—working on irrigating machinery for a company, because he’s a family farmer and doesn’t have enough money to farm all day. So he has to farm at night, so he has to do both.
She’s sitting on the front steps, this is the end of part one. And she’s got to tell him that the landlord doesn’t want to rent them the land, and they won’t have enough for the loan anymore. And he’s coming home because his ears hurt, he’s tired of farming at night, and working all day. And everything’s going wrong. And then they have trouble with the loan.
He comes home. We need to alert the sound man to get ready and start recording. We know he’s going to get out of the truck. Someone runs up and greets him and say, “How is she?” I might say, “Just ask her yourself.” So we film her sitting on the front steps. He comes over to her, and asks them, and they start talking at each other. But they’re not talking to each other. She’s complaining about her stuff, he’s complaining about his stuff, and then she shuts the door and continues. And the girls—they have three girls—say, “How’s Dad?”
So if you don’t have enough mics, you’re going to miss that conversation inside the house. But early on, I didn’t have enough recorders to do that, so I had to get—at that time we used to use DAT machines that do extra recordings. So, we’d have about five soundtracks, and this isn’t a studio movie, like I’m sitting in a studio recording sound, this is all live. So I might be running six radio mics at the same time. And that’s hard. That’s harder than Hollywood.
Not every scene has six mics. But many scenes have six, and you divide that into so many soundtracks. Remember, this isn’t voiceover. If the characters talk, and want to narrate, they’ll narrate it themselves. There’s no omniscient narrator. The only time they’re first-person if they’re looking at the camera or talking to the camera.
The Farmer’s Wife, which was six and a half hours, had more audio tracks than Apocalypse Now, and that’s saying quite a lot. It took us six months to do the sound mix with it. But if you want to catch those moments, that’s how you do it. But then you get all the nuances, “How’s Dad?” And she said, “You know him. He’s got his own stuff, honey, just go do this or go do that.” But you get all the disappointment, all the sadness, and all of it. And all you’re doing is looking at the front door, or you might get a shot of him walking away, putting the tractor away, or getting into the combine after they leave. But you’ve got it all.
STEPHENSON: How long does it take for people to get so comfortable with these microphones that they are letting…
SUTHERLAND: They forget…
STEPHENSON: ... you see them?
SUTHERLAND: Do you want to know? That’s a good question. Sometimes they usually don’t even think about it, and sometimes, after a while... I should shut this off, but I’ll wait. Sometimes what they’ll do is, if they have to go to the bathroom, they’ll instinctively know to shut it off. But sometimes they get an agenda. They want us to hear it. Does that make sense? They want you—because it’s a way to speak. Sometimes, like the wife, at first, can’t tell him everything; she’s overpowered. You watch them change.
STEPHENSON: You were talking about finding characters that can go the distance, but as you were saying, to make your films, it takes years. I’m wondering how you stay in it for the long haul.
SUTHERLAND: Well, The Farmer’s Wife, no one wanted to fund me. And at the time I got some grants. It took me a long time to get grants, and I’ve done everything—and this last film was hard—the topic was hard—to raise money. And then a lot of people, when you get known, will start to think, “Oh, well, his stuff has been shown. He’s had millions of viewers. And he’s got funding anyhow, let’s fund somebody else.”
I’ve gotten a lot of funding from PBS, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a couple of challenge fund grants. But then these funds change. And, early on, I always have trouble getting funding, because it’s been five years since you’ve seen the last film.
So how do I do it? Well, this one, I went through a lot of retirement money, and then people started to fund me. It’s terrible to say. It is. It’s terrible to say. I’m not independently wealthy. But if you have a passion to do it, then you can do it.
STEPHENSON: I read a writer for the Baltimore Sun once wrote, “No one makes documentaries the way David Sutherland does, and perhaps no one ever will. The toll is too great.” What you’re describing is part of the technical and financial difficulty of it. I’m wondering if it’s also emotionally difficult to get so close to…
SUTHERLAND: It’s emotionally—yeah, Country Boys—about two boys, the last three years of high school, growing up in eastern Kentucky, at a school for kids that helps kids that are sort of—if they don’t have learning disabilities, they haven’t had a lot of opportunities, so they have learning deficits. Some of them are incredibly smart, and it really gives you—it really follows the idea of the hopes of dreams, and what are their chances of realizing them.
Country Boys took me seven years. I probably would’ve been in more trouble, it’s terrible to say, if 9/11 didn’t happen, because there were so many shows done on 9/11 that the fact that I was running so late, they were backed up on what they were putting on television. I got divorced over that film—not directly over it, but related to it.
And I didn’t want to finish that film. And then, when I did finish it, and didn’t work for about six months to about a year, then I realized how much I missed doing it. So yeah, it did. Every so often, there’s one that catches up with you.
STEPHENSON: I’m curious how you know when you’ve gotten to the end of a narrative arc. In your new film, Elizabeth is trying for seven years to get permission for Marcos to rejoin their family. And during that time, she’s struggling as a single parent in the United States, Marcos is fighting depression, living in Mexico, considering crossing back illegally, and you’re filming all of this. Were you wondering, how is this going to work out?
SUTHERLAND: Well, you’re right. Each film on this is different. The question was if he couldn’t come back, when was she going to go there? He wanted her to come there, or move anywhere: “We can go to Australia or New Zealand, wherever I can get in. Or you can mostly come to Mexico.” But she had tried living in Mexico before, and didn’t want to go, especially Mexico City. And they couldn’t afford it. They couldn’t even afford gas, like gas heat. He would always be saying to her, by Skype, or when she visits him a few times in Mexico, he would always beg her, it’s a great scene in the film, he begs her, “I want to be a dad,” and he starts crying, and he’s emotional. And he’s very—it’s not just romantic, he’s desperate.
And what happens? He breaks your heart—and her heart. He just wants her to come back so bad. And finally, when they go, and this became apparent to us, because we witnessed some fights, and there’s an epilogue, eight and a half minutes at the end, when they finally do move there. And the question becomes, OK, they didn’t live together ever that long in the States, before he was deported. Will they remember how to live together?
But it is a very film noir ending. I never thought that the topic of the cost of deportation would ever—and you’ll see it at the end—it really is a huge cost. So, no matter what your views are politically, whether you like him or you like her, you like neither, or you love them both, and care deeply about them, you can’t leave the film without thinking about, oh my God, it’s really a horrible situation, deportation. And the cost. It’s easy to read, but this will haunt you that way.
STEPHENSON: Yeah, it’s not a simple, happy ending at all when they have that reunion.
SUTHERLAND: Whether you think that the current immigration situation in this country, whether you’re in favor of a wall or anything like that, or you’re against it, regardless of that, you’ve got to look at what happens to a family that faces deportation—and what they go through. And I’m not going to tell you my thoughts on it, but you’ll definitely have strong thoughts. And even if you’re pro or con on any of these bills, you’re going to think twice about it. Because it’s the only time you’re really going to see a family close up that’s going through deportation.
STEPHENSON: Why are you so interested in other people’s stories?
SUTHERLAND: There’s a couple of reasons why. As a kid, I was very shy. I used to work in my mother’s rock garden with her as a kid. And my mother had so many hopes and dreams, and a lot of them didn’t happen. She was a great storyteller. She could also tell up into her nineties, three concurrent lies at the same time as excuses why she couldn’t do other things, but she was a great storyteller.
I always liked to listen to stories. And I’m not actually, as a speaker, a great storyteller. I can tell great anecdotes, like, I hitchhiked cross country five times between eighteen and twenty-three. I think Jack Kerouac’s boring, because I saw a lot of things that I think he never saw, but I’m not in competition. He had great dramatic possibilities. That’s not the point. The point is stories just always fascinated me.
STEPHENSON: What advice would you give to young documentary filmmakers today?
SUTHERLAND: What’s worked for me as a filmmaker is my personality. Not that it’s so great. Some might say I’m difficult. There are easy ways to describe someone, but you have to adapt your own personality, there’s no rule to what you want to do. Just be yourself, and think about how you’re going to relate to your subjects. You don’t need to make films like me. But in general, the thing is, if you really want to do it, you can do it.
STEPHENSON: David Sutherland, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
SUTHERLAND: Thank you. My father, who was a baseball coach here, would be so proud.
HOST: Be sure to check out David Sutherland’s film, Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, when it premieres April 15 on local PBS stations, and thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at email@example.com. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Steffan Hacker, Dave Nuscher, and Anna Miller, who also edited this episode. This episode’s introduction was written by Heather Stephenson. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to the Film and Media Studies Program. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.