Interview with David Redmon and Ashley Sabin about Intimidad

Back on April 25, 2008 I had the opportunity to talk with filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin after the screening of their film Intimidad, at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Their new film presents a beautiful and intimate portrait of a struggling family in Mexico. It observes the lives of Cecy and Camilo Ramirez who have recently moved to the border town of Reynosa, from Santa Maria, Puebla with a dream to save money, buy land, and build a home. A year later they return to their rural hometown to reunite with Loida, their two year-old daughter who has been living with family. The reunion turns into a dilemma for Cecy and Camilo that transforms the course of their lives as a family.

Cecy and Camilo Ramirez
Cecy and Camilo Ramirez

David Redmon and Ashley Sabin made the film over the course of 5 years and tells the story using a mix of cinéma-vérité digital video, Super 8 and 16mm film, and home movie footage shot by Cecy and Camilo. After watching the film, in addition to being moved by the story itself, I also found myself reflecting how this film could not have been made in the era of 16mm documentary from the 1960s through the 1980s, it would have simply been impossible in terms of shooting logistics and cost. The availability of small inexpensive digital video cameras made it possible for the filmmakers to give cameras to their subjects to expand the points of view of the film. Intimidad is currently playing in film festivals around the country and recently won the Best Documentary award at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama. What follows is a transcript of my conversation with the filmmakers with some light editing for readability.

David Tamés: We’re here at the Independent Film Festival of Boston where I just attended a screening of David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Intimidad which was followed by a lively question and answer session. David and Ashley, thanks for talking with me again.

David Redmon: This is really exciting, we were here last time talking with you about Mardi Gras: Made in China, right?

Tamés: Yes, that was it. So I wanted to ask you both a few questions, about the film, and top of my mind, is your relationship with the subject, this is not your typical cinéma-vérité film where a filmmaker observes a subject and it’s not your typical home movie where people are making films about themselves, it seems to be a fascinating hybrid of home movie and cinéma-vérité, could you say a little bit about that?

Ashley Sabin: It’s kind of interesting, because especially, I mean, each film the production is different and the relationships that you develop are different because it’s based on personalities and how people feel open to the camera and what the camera does to their everyday life. With Cecy and Camilo, it was this sort of immediate connection that I feel that we all felt, and they got really comfortable in front of the camera very early on, to the point where they didn’t even notice that the camera would be on or off and we would were learning Spanish with them, so there were funny, awkward moments of trying to pronounce something incorrectly that was an ice breaker and we stayed in Rinosa we would spend time with them and time is very different for Cecy and Camilo, it’s much slower, the sort of time that ticks by and what they do during the course of the day, people can view very simple things, washing their own clothing, or cooking, but it’s in those small moments that to me were you could see the film as a home video, but then you look at the cinéma-vérité side and it’s really telling, these patterns that would develop over days and days, and you look at our footage and we would like have days of Cecy washing her clothing on the ribbed tub and that was part of their lifestyle so it was really important to convey that and to convey that warmth, and the feeling that we had when we were around them, but also at the same time which is the home video side, but at the same time having a cinéma-vérité where we would have these scenes and it’s building towards something, but we’re observing with this camera sort of in a hands-off way, so it’s this tricky tango that goes on with those two elements of the film.

Tamés: How did you meet Cecy and Camilo in the first place?

Redmon: I grew up in north Texas, and then went to school in Texas, and several times I went to Reinosa and meet with people who work in the factories with different organizations and I met a woman who made Victoria’s Secret bags, the pink bags, and she made them inside her house, with her children, and I did an interview with her much like you’re doing now, and I wrote an article about it and promised her I’d come back some day and she said, “wonderful,” and for years later we went back, and when we went back she wasn’t there, so Ashley and I ended up renting a house just down the street from Cecy and Camilo. When I say street, it’s a dirt roads and if it rains it’s very muddy, and that’s how we met Cecy and Camilo, they were thousands of pallets out of which people would build their homes, their outhouses, and their fences, so we knocked on Cecy and Camilo’s door one day, and Cecy came and said, “hi” and we started talking with her about the pallets and I think we were filming ten minutes later in a very conversational way and she was incredibly comfortable, she said she’s never been to a movie theater, there was much more to the conversation, but that’s basically how we met them.

Tamés: So what kept you filming, what got you engaged with their particular story and with their daughter Loida, what kept you going back and shooting over the course of five years?

Redmon: We became intrigued with the idea that they were making fire hydrants and Victortia’s Secret bras, [it started out as a] thesis film [...] but once we found out they had a daughter in southern Mexico, then we thought we were going to make a short film where we simply go to southern Mexico and reunite with the daughter, and be a happy ending, and the film would be over, but in fact, that’s where the film really begins, and the other idea was the thesis film, which is not the film at all.

Sabin: It’s interesting with documentary films today there’s a pretty rigid form of telling the story in which there’s a thesis, in a way, I find it uncomfortable, because directors use their subjects to tell the story the director wants to tell, as opposed to seeing what’s inherent in the actual story and in the footage, and with Intimidad we decided, we wanted to make a thesis film we went in and [thought that] Victortia’s Secret is really interesting contrasting the sexy images of the models and the advertising campaign vs. the intimacy that the family is experiencing, so it’s like these two kinds of intimacy, and so we wanted to tell that story and actually at one point had Victortia’s Secret models and all sorts of montages in the film, but it didn’t work so we slowly had to take it out of the film and realized this is a slower film, this is a film about family, and hope, and the desire to want to be together, and struggle together, and it’s not really about what we want it to be about, it’s about about what Cecy and Camilo’s lives are, so, it was kind of interesting to go through that process and realize, you know, we’re wrong and we have to figure out, like, we have to stick to their story because that’s what the story that really rings true in the end.

Tamés: That’s one way this film really differs from Mardi Gras: Made in China, that you had the opportunity to spend five years with your subjects and get very close to them.

Redmon: Intimidad is different than Mardi Gras: Made in China in that Mardi Gras: Made in China follows a commodity chain [...] that brings us into contact with different people, whereas Intimidad we spend five years with one family to find out where they go geographically and where they end up, so it’s there are similarities but Intimidad could have been a story about the commodity chain of a bra, the manufacturing in a Mexican plant, the selling in a United States Victortia’s Secret shop, and then a woman buys the bra, she throws the bra away a year later, and that bra gets recycled and goes down to Mexico, where people sell it as second hand clothing, and then Cecy comes and buys that bra, when in fact she probably made that same bra, she’s buying second hand bras, and there is a story there to be told, but, that’s the story we had to set aside because we really listened to the footage and listened to what their story was about and set aside that thesis film.

Loida Ramirez
Loida Ramirez

Tamés: So as a filmmaker, what was it like giving Cecy and Camilo cameras and having them shoot part of the film, and what was most surprising about that experience?

Sabin: I think what was most surprising about giving Cecy and Camilo a camera and leaving it with them is how they were watching how we were composing shots and how we were holding the camera steady and learning in that hands-on way to the point where you can clearly see the footage, we’d go down there and look at this footage and look at that footage it’s not only just a way of communicating and saying look at what’s happened in the past couple of months but when you haven’t been down here, but also, they were proud of how they were fiming it, it sort of nurtured a desire to film and document and tell a story in a way that it’s their own life story and what’s also interesting is we showed them footage all along, but then we showed them a rough cut of the film and it was about seventy minutes long, and because we asked for advice, and what they thought about it, first of all, [they said] “it’s way too short, it needs to be longer, it needs to be like four hours,” and “your missing this scene,” “there’s not enough Loida,” “you need to put that in that scene,” it was this interactive dialog that was really interesting, because they just don’t have the access to a camera, so if we hadn’t come upon them and in this haphazard kind of way, they would not have had the same form of communication, and to me that’s really interesting, and with Loida being two years old when we started filming, it’s really interesting watching her first of all grow up in the film, but then also how she’s responding to the camera now is very different than how she responded to it when she was younger, and I’m equally interested five years from now, how she’s going to respond because she’s also a child and her parents are giving us consent to film her, but is she going to reject us, is she going to say, why have you been filming me all these years, I really don’t understand this, and it actually makes me film uncomfortable, maybe when she gets to be a teenager, or something, so it’s a dialog: them having a camera, us having a camera, and being able to communicate through the cameras.

Tamés: So they’ve seen the completed film, what was that experience like, showing them a film in which they were both subjects in and co-authors of?

Redmon: We showed them the finished film [in February], and they loved the film, and it meant a lot to us for them to love the film, but at the same time, like Asley said during the Q & A after the screening, if they would have had conflict, and arguments, we definitely would have showed that, but the way in which they resolve their conflicts was through conversations, and there’s a little bit of that in the film as well, but Cecy said, as Ashley said, “why don’t you have Loida’s birthday in there,” “why don’t you have this in the film,” but in a very charming way, and so she is now is requesting that we give her all of the footage that we shot of Loida so they they can put together a home video about Loida, and this is something we have absolutely no hesitancy in doing, in fact there was one time when the electricity went out, and we were in the middle of editing a little short story about Cecy’s dad (you know what happened in the film) and the electricity went out, so we carried our little computer over with their hard drive and hooked it up to their neighbors wall and we’re sitting here on the ground in the middle of the yard editing on Final Cut and they are doing it as well, they are learning to use Final Cut, and it was just this remarkable way of us telling the story but at the same time they are using Final Cut to tell a home video story, but what they cut never made it into the final version, but that’s not to say it won’t make it into the next film.

Tamés: So are you going to continue following them?

Redmon: Yes, we’re going to continue following them, I have some ideas on a hybrid, and I’ve already shot some footage of Camilo selling piñatas, human looking piñatas and animals, gigantic piñatas, but at the same time Ashely came up with the idea of filming Loida, but we don’t know how, she’s seven years old, how can a seven year old give consent? It’s easy when a mother and a father give us consent to film their two year old daughter, their three year old daughter, their four year old daughter, but what happens when she turns fourteen or fifteen? And we’re just outsiders coming in filming her life, for why? Observational purposes? What’s the real reason going on here of why are we filming her? In addition, Cecy and Camilo want to continue filming, but they want to film not only because they love her, we love her too, but also they just want to look back at these memories and see what Loida how she grew up, who she is, and I’m sure they want Loida to see this footage fifteen years from now as well, and we have common interests, but we also want to impose a story on it somehow, it’s jumbled right now because we don’t know what to do, the only reference we have is Seven Up, but I think we’re going to do it in a much different way than Seven Up, if we decide to do it.

Tamés: Clearly when you started making the film Cecy and Camilo had no idea what your financial arrangement with them might be, but now it’s probably pretty clear, what is your arrangement with them, and how do you think that might influence your relationship and subsequent films?

Redmon: It’s funny, at one time Camilo asked us, “hey, if you give me a camera can you pay me to be a cinematographer,” and that was interesting, they still are filming, so I think it’s only wise and fair that we pay them for the footage that they shoot.

Sabin: I don’t think it’s even us paying them for the footage, we’re filming together, so I think it’s very much them earning it as much as we have, because they are capturing moments that I don’t think we could even capture, they are really comfortable with each other, and there’s some footage of them in the shower that they shot of each other, and moments that are really sort of dark, where the top of the house is caving in on itself because of the wind and Camilo has to sort of jam it out, and if you looked at that it would be disturbing, why aren’t we trying to help them to prepare them for this oncoming storm, but they filmed it of each other so it has a different kind of context, but I think it’s really important to have the film be a tool to provide [for their] needs that they want because Loida has this high aspiration of becoming a doctor, and if Cecy and Camilo continue to do the same work they are doing, though it provides for everyday needs, [however, in the] long term [for what] Loida [wants it] will not provide that. If the film could do that, then it would make me think how films makes change in a different way.

Redmon: At the same time I don’t want them, or us, to think about the footage as just a commodity, “oh I’m going to go film this now and that’s a way for me to make money,” once we introduce the concept of money, then it introduces another variable, it becomes much more difficult, now we’re talking about commodification, of people, of footage, of lives, and are they filming now because it’s money? Are we filming now because we’re thinking of money? But of course we never ever make money from our films, we always pay ourselves back, but if we sell this film, we’re splitting the money with Cecy and Camilo, but we only told them after we sold the film. The issue [of money brings about all] kinds of problems, there’s no handbook on how to to address it, on how to do it, but it’s good that we’re conscious of it, but none of that has happened yet, they are filming because they love their daughter, and filming each other.

Sabin: It’s also this awkwardness when we go down there, people tonight donated $40.00 so that Loida could get a month’s worth of taking a bus to her school, it’s really this awkward feeling of OK, going down there and giving them that money, it’s this awkward moment, but I never feel that they expect it, they are much more excited to see that we’re down there and to talk, and cook food, and spend time with each other, it’s an afterthought, so I think that’s really important too.

Redmon: We’re selling their Jewelry for them, so I mean, they are making the Jewelry and we’re selling it and people want it, and it’s fair trade at it’s maximum effect,

Tamés: Your film is a beautiful and interesting hybrid of cinéma vérité observation and intimate home movie footage, how do you think documentaries are going to change over the next ten years, I think your film represents two dimension of change, first, an evolution of the relationship between filmmaker and subject, and second, a change in how you find your audience, from what I know from Mardis Gras: Made in China, you’ve done the film festival and college circuit promoting and distributing the film on your own rather than depending on a traditional distributor, so it seems to me with Intimidad that it points in two directions that documentary filmmaking is moving.

Redmon: I don’t think we did it out of a conscious choice to make our film different from other people’s films, but it’s just something that occurred by accident, knowing that we couldn’t financially live in Mexico the entire time, so we bought cameras for Cecy and Camilo, and it turned out the footage they shot was absolutely warm and intimate, even though it was shaky, who cares, and so I don’t know, it’s a really interesting question, I don’t know, I love the question more than the response.

David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
David Redmon and Ashley Sabin
(view full-size on Flickr)

Sabin: As being an audience member that goes and watches documentary films, I’m getting tired with thesis driven films that seem far removed from their subjects and seem more like this sort of soap box that the director can get up and say that “this is my point, I’m going to make my point and then I’m going to make a conclusion,” I’m talking about films like Michael Moore’s films, or these political diatribes that go on, I like Michael Moore’s films, but to me it’s becoming too popular of a style, and it’s like speaking to the masses, it’s trying to get people to become converted but in reality it’s not even doing that, it’s just speaking to an audience that already is going to go see Michael Moore’s films, so they can walk away and be patted on the back and say “I believe the same thing,” and for me what’s more interesting is having these screenings that are about people, so that other people can connect to them, this may sound vague, but it’s about people that other people can connect to that doesn’t overtly have a traditional sense of politics, it has everyday sense of politics: water, electricity, these things you want everyday, it allows the audience to experience that and then in the end I feel that’s more moving and that’s going to stay with an audience member, cause I know it stays with me longer, when it’s a much more personal film, so you feel that you’re there, so that these these people in the film carry over into days, weeks, months later, where you’re thinking about that person.

Tamés: The title of your film is the Spanish word “intimidad,” which translates to english as intimacy, and in some ways it’s a love story, and the two of you met here in Boston, why don’t you tell me a little bit about that?

Redmon: Well even though the title of our film is translated to “intimacy”, there’s no way we captured every intimate moment between the family, nor would we want to, and therefore I’m going to say, the same thing about us, we’ll leave it up to mystery.

Sabin: I think that’s a good position, I think it’s much more interesting that way.

Redmon: Absolutely, we met in Boston, the idea of going to Mexico was created in Boston, our collaboration, love interest, professional interest, business interest, began in Boston, the first film festival we ever attended was this film festival, the Independent Film Festival of Boston, the first time we showed any of our films in this region was at this festival, everything just keeps returning to this festival and this region, the only exception was Kamp Katrina, but even Miss Pearl we met in Mardi Gras: Made in China, so it keeps coming to Boston, who knows what is going to happen next.

Sabin: We’re pretty big on those sort of connections and how all things are connected like putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward and that last step connects to the first step.

Redmon: It’s like the end of Intimidad, when you see Camilo walking, he’s going for a walk, and he’s putting one foot in front of the other, and that’s what they do and it continues throughout the film.

Tamés: Ashley and David, thanks for talking with me again, it’s a really beautiful film and thanks for sharing it with the audience and the world.

Redmon: Thanks for making time again, we hope our film will open up space for conversation.

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The film is currently screening in festivals and is available for purchase online. Visit the Intimidad web page for purchase information and upcoming screening information which includes: University of Southern California, LA (October 28-29, 2008), Leeds International Film Festival, Leeds, UK (November 4-16, 2008), Museum of Modern Art, NY (November 14 & 19, 2008), East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee (November 18-19, 2008), International Latino Film Festival, San Francisco Bay Area (November 7-23, 2008), Cinema Latino, (Fort Worth, TX), (Aurora, CO), (Pasadena, TX), (Phoenix, AZ) Dates TBA, Skyland Arts Center, Hendersonville, NC (TBA) and Mobile, AL (TBA).

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