Rooster Teeth Finds Some Common Ground
New documentary takes the politics out of the border
By Richard Whittaker,
10:30AM, Fri. Nov. 2, 2018
The team at Austin's Rooster Teeth are used to oversharing. Take Gus Sorola: as co-host of the RT Podcast he's always laying out fun, hilarious, embarrassing, and personal stories. But personal and intimate are very different things, and his new documentary, Common Ground, is definitely the latter.
The film, which is streaming for free this week at Roosterteeth.com, isn't just about telling old Sorola family stories. It's about demystifying the U.S.-Mexico border from the viewpoint of a family that lives there, and has seen changes over time in how porous or militarized it has become. It's also about his personal family history, of differing opinions and differing experiences across generations.
When it comes to the podcast, Sorola said, "Everything's out there. There are no secrets." But with Common Ground, he said, "It wasn't just oversharing for me. I had to ask my parents if they wanted to start dabbling in oversharing as well." Even after they said yes initially, he wanted to make sure that they really understood that "once something is on the internet, you can't unpublish it. ... I sent them some of our old other docs that we'd done, and explained, it's exposing or telling stories to a really wide group of people."
The documentary, directed by Mat Hames, is designed to depoliticize the immigration debate. For Sorola, it's a way for people to exchange idea in the holiday season, and to learn about the reality for individuals. He himself admits that, even though he grew up in Eagle Pass, and used to walk across into Mexico all the time as a kid, making the documentary was also an education for him. "I thought I was one of those people who was informed and knowledgeable about the way that the way the process works, but when we started talking to the attorneys and the reporters, I realized how ignorant I was of the entire process, and the ins and outs of it. Even here [at Rooster Teeth] we have some employees [that] are here on visas who are foreign citizens, and I thought we'd been through it, but I didn't realize how much it entails. It's really daunting."
Austin Chronicle: So where did the idea for this come from?
Gus Sorola: The genesis of the idea was the family separation crisis at the Texas-Mexico border. That's something that I felt really strongly about, and we had some like-minded people who worked on this documentary.
It seems like it's easy to vilify a group of people, and to say horrible things about them. We couldn't do anything about that particular issue, so we thought, well, what if we told the story about me. About someone whose parents did come over, and what is the next step after someone comes into the country. As you find out in the documentary, my family did follow all the proper legal channels at the time, but it's still very analogous to people who come into the country today.
AC: That's one of the fascinating things about immigration at the moment. Even people who are relatively well-informed on immigration issues have no idea how it really works. People don't understand that it's a process, and that process changes over time. Even between your father coming to the U.S. and now, the system is so much more complex, and there are so many more hurdles to jump over.
GS: It was interesting. I think this got cut from the final version of the documentary, but I had a long discussion with one of the immigration attorneys we talked to about that. He made a seemingly off-hand comment about things had changed in previous administrations. So I went, wait, you're telling me that it's all mandated by executive order, and that from administration to administration, on a whim things just change? And he said yeah, it absolutely can happen and does happen. So there's no set guideline that's permanently in effect, so it's a very fluid system. It's a moving goalpost. It can change at any moment.
AC: A lot of the film is family history, and your wife and your mom are very clear that you're one of the least sentimental people on the planet. Yet you put yourself in this position where you have to touch on a lot of stuff that you've never really thought about, or deliberately put to one side. Here, not only are you forcing yourself to go back, but there's a camera on you all the way through. Why put yourself through that?
If people met me, or spent any degree of time talking with me, they wouldn't realize or think that my father was born in another country, and came over not speaking English. I think it's really important to see that this scary picture that get's painted of people coming across the border to sell drugs, steal jobs, and commit crimes, that's not true. It's families who are looking to make better lives for their children, hopefully, and even then once they're here the families don't agree on what the solutions are to this immigration system we have here in the United States.
I thought it was important for people to see how nuanced the discussions can be, and it's not just a clear black-and-white, 'Let's build a wall and stop everyone.' There're humanitarian reasons to continue the process. But that being said – and I feel very strongly about it – despite my feelings, we try to be very even-handed in the presentation. I don't think we try to push an agenda one way or the other. We're just saying this is this story. We don't present a fix for this. We're not saying that this is the right way or this the wrong way. This is a particular story about people who have immigrated to the United States, and this is what their family looks like 40, 45 years on from that immigration.
AC: And one of the most fascinating parts of the story is your stepfather. He's not a counterpoint, but very definitely a different viewpoint. He's worked in law enforcement on the border, so it's not a theoretical for him that not everyone's a sweetheart or an angel.
GS: I wish we'd had more time with the documentary. I wish that we could have included more things that my stepfather talked about. He worked on border patrol for close to 30 years, so he's got a huge number of stories that he kept sharing – both good and bad, talking about the people he encountered. We could set up a camera and just listen to him all day. It's fascinating, and it's all these things that you don't think about. It seems like another world. It's wild.
Common Ground is available for free, Nov. 2-8, at Roosterteeth.com, and for subscribing members after that point.
To find out more about Rooster Teeth, read "Cock of the Walk," May 11.