How to Tell a True Immigrant Story and Ele
Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz (Iran/United States) with Emily Rizzo (United States), Ele Martinez (Mexico/United States), Roga ‘74 (Mexico/United States), Ana Cruz (Mexico, United States), Matt Bagley (United States), Adam Tinkle (United States), Eleanor Green (United States), and The Estamos Aquí Workshop
preview video for How to Tell a True Immigrant Story: vimeo.com/313687990
preview video for Ele: vimeo.com/332753765
Saratoga Springs is located in upstate New York, a pastoral area nestled among the Adirondack mountains and the Hudson River. Its 28,000 residents are racially homogeneous with about 92.4% identifying as white—and a staggering 89.6% speaking only English, according to Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Program for 2017. Its population is largely affluent with a median household income of U.S. $76,775 and a mean household income of U.S. $110,927 in the same year.
Due to its stunning natural landscapes and its thriving thoroughbred horseracing industry, Saratoga Springs is a popular tourist destination. According to the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency, the horse racing course alone is “a major state and regional economic generator and serves as the lifeblood of the City of Saratoga Springs economy.” In 2014, the Race Course “generated a regional economic impact of [U.S.] $237 million in sales (economic output) while contributing [U.S.] $6.8 million in local government revenue and [U.S.] $7.4 million in revenue for New York State government.”
While the audience for the multi-million-dollar horseracing industry is largely white and upper-middle-class, the labor that propels this economic engine and the service and agricultural industries which support it, is provided by people who are largely from Mexico and Central America and who migrate to Saratoga Springs every year to live and work for six to eight months or to stay long-term.
Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz’s films, How to Tell a True Immigrant Story and Ele, apply the immersive technique of 360 video to examine the experiences of members of Saratoga Springs’ Latinex immigrant community after a surge in ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) arrests subsequent to the 2016 presidential election, when white nationalism came out of hiding.
Against the Administration’s disinformation of “bad hombres” and “migrant caravans,” voices from the immigrant community convey counter-narratives within the context of the town’s tourist window dressing. Saratoga Springs may be magical and mysterious, suggests one resident in How to Tell A True Immigrant Story, but it is also dangerous. And traumatizing, explains a man who had been detained by ICE.
As an immigrant from Iran who sat beside her mother through countless immigration interviews, Bazaz explains that the shape of 360 video works as a visual metaphor for the panopticon, the probing eye of the nation-state and even the penetrating gaze of traditional documentary cinema. How to Tell A True Immigrant Story re-creates the feeling of being constantly surveilled as experienced by those who are labeled as “immigrant” and “other” in predominantly white contexts.
Interrogation rooms engulf audiences in an experience that evokes both the immigration and the documentary interview and their objectifying ontologies. But created and narrated by community members, How to Tell a True Immigrant Story uses these information gathering sessions to launch into contemplative, lyrical accounts as acts of resistance to the positivist interview.
In Ele, Ele Martinez’s testimony expands our understanding of interconnections and interdependencies between indigenous and other populations in contemporary North America. These interdependencies are illustrated even in the media that comprise the film which includes 360 video shot in Saratoga Springs layered with “flat” video shot and shared by Jake DeNicola and Bernardo Rios while filming with Ele in Oaxaca.
Martinez left his hometown of La Sabana (Oaxaca), México when he was 14, joining his uncle and others in the Triqui community in Saratoga Springs, a community whose numbers have declined steadily since 2016 due to enhanced ICE activity.
More than just a migrant story, Martinez’s film is bound to the stories of the indigenous Triqui, whose population in Oaxaca is fewer than its population of Saratoga Springs, suggesting the precarity of indigenous culture and knowledge. Saratoga Springs itself is a product of settler colonialism, as New York State was largely dispossessed of its indigenous inhabitants through acts of colonial genocide.
Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz is an Iranian American documentary filmmaker with interests in diasporic identity and migration. Her films have garnered multiple awards and residencies. In 2016, she was named a BAVC National Mediamaker Fellow. She earned an MA while serving as a researcher for the Civil Rights Digital Library and an MFA at Temple University. Bazaz is currently Assistant Professor of Film Production at Georgia State University and continues work on a long-term project within a farmworking community in California's Central Valley. How to Tell A True Immigrant Story and Ele were produced in collaboration with Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council and Skidmore College's MODCS Storytellers Institute as part of a storytelling effort led by Brookline Interactive Group’s Public VR Lab to curate stories from around the country pertaining to immigration.