The Last Border Crossing

Iliana Sosa's trips with her grandfather become touching documentary What We Leave Behind

Julián visits the grave of his departed wife, Lidia, in What We Leave Behind (Photo by Monica Wise)

If a documentary is a journey, then it’s one where you don’t know the destination when you set off. When filmmaker Iliana Sosa sat down with a friend in 2014 and told a friend about her grandfather, Julián, and the monthly bus trips he would take from Durango Mexico to visit his family in El Paso and Albuquerque, she thought nothing of it. “I thought my family was very typical. ... I’m Mexican American, and that’s always been our way of life, going in between both countries, so I didn’t think it was very special.” However, her friend heard something more. “She [told] me, ‘Oh, you should probably film that.’”

So Sosa got on the bus with her octogenarian grandpa, who fortunately was thrilled to spend this time with his granddaughter, and to be the subject of her next film. “My grandfather loved the camera,” she said, “and I think the camera loves him.” Now the Austin Film Society-supported documentary she crafted from that time together, What We Leave Behind, has won both the Fandor New Voices Award and the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award at South by Southwest.

Early on, she thought she knew where the documentary was taking her. She planned to tell the story of his life as a bracero, one of the multitude of Mexican farmworkers hired by the U.S. government during World War II to work the fields while American laborers were overseas. “Many of these men have already passed away, their stories unheard, and that was my first intention: to just document that work that he did in these monthly bus trips, and how that shaped our family on both sides of the border.”

But the story changed again when the trips became too arduous, and her grandfather started a new, different endeavor: building a guest house so his family members could cross the border to see him. “I never expected the film to encompass his last project, which was to build this house, and the last year of his life. I never imagined filming this long, up until he passed away.”

Everybody’s grandfather seems to take on some kind of project in their twilight years, but usually it’s something smaller, like planting a flower bed or taking up woodwork. Building a whole house seemed like quite the endeavor, “but that was part of his character,” said Sosa. “He says so in the film. ‘Why not?’ ... He was someone that would never sit still, just to watch television. He was always on the move, always very active, physically.”

Of course, there was one destination on the journey that Sosa and her grandfather knew was on the map, the one inevitable terminus that came closer with every brick her grandfather laid. “He was very aware of his mortality, and not everyone has that awareness,” Sosa said. “He became a widower at a very young age. My grandmother died, and he had to raise all these children on his own. He would walk from town to town, trying to find work, sleeping at police stations, just to sleep the night so he could continue on.” That love for his family was present, right to the end. “Even when I was making this film,” Sosa said, “he’d say, ‘I hope this helps you in some way.’”

Documentary Spotlight

What We Leave Behind

Friday, March 18, 9:15pm, Alamo South Lamar

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