On the Road with America’s New Dream Team

Interview by Julie Porter

When SFTV alumna Jenniffer Castillo (Screenwriting – M.F.A. ’11) discovered a group of undocumented youth were walking across the country in support of immigration reform and the Dream Act, she used her personal savings to document their journey. Quitting her day job on a hit television show, she followed nine youth 1,300 miles over eleven cities. Her feature documentary, American DREAMers, is currently in production.

You’ve been busy this past year. Tell us about your current project, American DREAMers. After graduating from LMU, I began working on the ABC show Castle, where I met Saray Deiseil, my co-director and co-producer on American DREAMers. Saray and I started working on our first project together, a web series called Inspira, which features Latino leaders across America. As we were working on Inspira, I heard about the Campaign for an American DREAM, which is a group of undocumented students and youth who are walking from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to fight for the Dream Act. Saray and I decided to go on the road and make a feature documentary about their walk.

Immigration and the Dream Act have been recurring topics in your work as a filmmaker and screenwriter. How did you become interested in the issue of immigration reform? When I was a junior at Boston College, there was a huge federal immigration raid in New Bedford, Massachusetts, at a seamstress shop. Over 300 workers, who were producing bulletproof vests and backpacks for troops in Iraq, were detained. Since it was a seamstress shop, most of the workers were women. As a result, 180 children were left stranded in daycare, in schools, wherever they were at the time of the raid. I became very aware about the tragedy that was happening around me.

In my third year at LMU, when I began working on my thesis, I ended up writing a feature film called Undocumented about a mother and daughter who were separated during the raid. With it, I wanted to incorporate the Dream Act, with this whole new generation of young immigrants who have been here their whole lives, who are as American as their peers. They say the pledge of allegiance and probably have accents in their own native languages.

How did you find out about the undocumented youth that were walking across America? While I was doing research for Undocumented, I set up a Google Alert that monitored news stories about the Dream Act. One night, about six months after I completed my thesis, I had insomnia, so I started looking through my emails. I came across a Google Alert about undocumented youth who were going to walk across the country, fighting for the Dream Act for a path to citizenship. I copied the link and sent an email right then, at 12:30 a.m., to Saray that said, “I will take a few months off and document their journey on the road. Will you do it with me?” A week later, she emails me back: “We’ve made contact.” A month later, we were in Provo, Utah, meeting the walkers for the first time.

What was it like being on the road? We covered eleven cities, starting in Provo, Utah, all the way to Denver, Colorado. I’d never been to Utah, so it was a whole different experience, leaving the bubble of Los Angeles and my comfort zone, and all of a sudden being on the road with them.  On a typical day, we’d wake up at whatever community house hosted us for the night. Sometimes we’d wake up in the parking lot of a Walmart or a 24-hour McDonald’s. Sometimes we’d wake up in the middle of a campground in beautiful Colorado with bobcats sniffing our tents.

Every morning was rough because you’re waking up from the day before where you walked 15 to 20 miles. Every night is kind of hell, because you don’t know where you’re going to sleep, you don’t know if you’re going to have a bed, or what the circumstances are going to be. But every day was amazing. To see a group of young people, let alone a group of undocumented young people, who were not just speaking out for themselves, but for their communities, and actually doing something that can have tangible results, is incredible.

While you were in Denver, two of the youth decided to stage a civil disobedience in President Obama’s campaign office. As the filmmaker, what was that like? I had never been privy to anything like a civil disobedience before so I didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. So, here I am with a camera, having developed this relationship with these kids after being with them for three weeks, and I felt very connected to them.  But I hadn’t yet really understood the idea that they were “undocumented and unafraid.” They talk about that all the time – that they are “unafraid.” It wasn’t until that moment that I realized they really are unafraid. They’re risking arrest, they’re risking deportation, and they’re going to go into an Obama campaign office and sit there until they get heard.

Eventually you ran out of money and needed to raise additional funds to continue the film. You setup an Indiegogo account, a crowdsourcing tool similar to Kickstarter. Would you recommend this as a resource for young filmmakers? Yes, it’s been a great outlet to show people that we’re serious about what we’re doing. It’s a way to hold us accountable. When you fundraise through Indiegogo, you actually see how many people have donated, and there is a community that’s created.  Beyond the fundraising aspect, it’s built us a fan base. We have over 100 contacts that we have reached out to and will continue to reach out to when we have posters, or a first cut, or a trailer. It’s a great way to network with fans from the get-go. Those fans that are willing to donate are also the fans that are going to be excited about the project all the way through.

So what’s next? We are going to meet back up with the walkers in Georgia, where we will be filming them until they reach Washington, D.C. We plan to have the film finished in time for Sundance 2013.

Jenniffer Castillo was recently awarded the LMU SFTV Screenwriting Fellowship to workshop her screenplay Undocumented in Film Independent’s 13th Annual Screenwriting Lab.

Visit the official American DREAMers site.