Politically Personal: From Nowhere’s Director on Bringing Out the Humanity of His Undocumented Characters

I never thought of myself as a particularly political person, and I certainly never thought of myself as a political film maker. What’s always interested me about politics is how it affects the people who are caught in its machinations.

Politics can’t exist without people—those who make the decisions, and those who have to live with the consequences. I also believe the reverse to be true: On a more intimate scale, people can’t exist without politics.  The second anyone starts dealing with another person, particularly if they come into conflict with them, politics is in play.

Most of my work as a writer and director has dealt with the personal politics of relationships: how people engage with each other and the things they do to get what they want. That’s drama.

In recent days, From Nowhere, my film about three undocumented Bronx teenagers, has become extremely politically relevant. The film doesn’t get involved in arguments over policy, focusing instead on the young people caught up in the situation. Before working on the film, like a lot of people, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what immigration reform was all about. I even arrogantly imagined I had a sense of what it must be like for undocumented children.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t, at all. The undocumented and formerly undocumented people I met and learned about while preparing the film totally opened my eyes to the day-to-day reality of what it is like to have no official identity. I’d taken my sense of belonging completely for granted, as I think we all take a lot of our privileges for granted. We don’t think about them until they are under threat or taken away altogether.

My co-writer Kate Ballen, who had taught for several years in the Bronx, introduced me to one of our key advisors on the film (let’s call him Amadou). He used to be undocumented, but now has papers. Several members of his family, though, are still without legal status. While walking around the Gun Hill Road area of the Bronx, he and I talked a lot about the story and his life. I was amazed at how matter-of-fact he was about several things in the script, like a very tense scene where our main character Moussa (J. Mallory McCree), a Muslim teenager, is stopped by two plainclothes police officers (Luke Rosen and Hampton Fluker) after a tussle in the street. I asked Amadou if he used to worry about being “stopped and frisked” back when he didn’t have papers or an ID card. He kind of shrugged and said it was just “part of the deal.” I realized at that moment that Amadou had to look at it like this; his only other option was walking around scared of being deported every day of his life.

Director Matthew Newton (center) on the set of From Nowhere

I actually dealt with the personal/political question in my first film, Three Blind Mice. It’s about Australian Navy officers on leave in Sydney for one night before they get shipped off to fight in the Gulf (the film was shot in 2007 while the conflict in the Gulf was still raging). One of the young men goes AWOL to avoid returning to the ship where he has been badly bullied and abused (by one of his friends, we eventually learn). I wanted to express my personal feelings about the war and convey my belief that we shouldn’t be sending our young men over to fight. I found the most effective way to do that, in light of the realist approach I was taking with the film, was to focus tightly on the people and reveal them to be intensely human—frail, flawed, full of life. I wanted the audience to see kids, not bulletproof heroes. In contrast to what they are being asked to do by society—kill or be killed—the officers spend the night doing what young men are supposed to do: being with their friends, looking for love, and finding their way in the world.

Similarly, in From Nowhere, I wanted the film to feel like you were looking through a window at a real high school and real families. I tried to allow the political implications to come from how well you got to know the people. I see my job as inviting the audience to walk a mile in other people’s shoes; it’s difficult to judge someone in the same moment you’re empathizing with them. A number of directors who inspire me and whose films continue to feel utterly relevant and alive— directors like Ken Loach, Jean Renoir, Asghar Farhadi, John Cassavetes and Elia Kazan—introduce us to living, breathing human beings we feel we truly know by the end of their films, sometimes as well as we feel we know the actual people in our real lives.

Whether the information you’re dealing with is personal or political, it all comes down to how it’s communicated by the acting. I love actors and have a huge amount of respect and awe for what they do. When acting is done right, and even sometimes when it’s done wrong, it’s a terribly exposing thing for a person to do. I’m asking men and women to reveal their most private selves to be recorded on film forever.

Like life, stories unfold moment to moment. The great director Howard Hawks used to tell his actors before he shot a scene whether it was one of the key moments in the story, or whether it was just an interim scene on the way to a key moment. When it was the latter, he’d instruct the actors to just get through it as quickly as possible and “try not to annoy the audience too much.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the wonderful director Michael Powell—who, in partnership with Emeric Pressburger, created a number of sweeping, powerful movies—treated every moment as key. He would tell his actors, even if their part was small, that “during that one time the whole audience are looking at you and only you. You better be good. It’s concentrated. It’s a burning blast. You’re on a diamond point.” Interestingly enough, despite these wildly different approaches, both directors’ films are uniquely personal and full of incredibly truthful behavior, while at the same time touching on larger political and social issues.

Octavia Chavez-Richmond plays Sofie in From Nowhere

Something that’s become clear to me, both from the films that I’ve worked on and the films I’ve watched, is the stronger the narrative arc, and the higher the stakes, the easier it is to “hang” intimate and personal character revelations onto the drive of the story. I find when the characters have a formidable force to react against, they naturally show us more of themselves. I love allowing the characters to be who they are and then make the necessary adjustments to the overall film to accommodate each personality. This, to me, in combination with the scenario and conflict written into the screenplay, creates the world of the film.

I think of the script as an unfurnished house. Each scene is a room. When we shoot a scene, the room gets populated by the actors and a bunch of furniture, and while the characters interact, I quietly shift the furniture around to accommodate their movements (every now and then purposefully pushing a chair into their path so they have to find another way to get to their goal). As we move from room to room—i.e. scene to scene—we rearrange each new space together, inspired and informed by the rooms that have come before, so that, by the end of the process, the film has emerged as a functional, designed, lived-in home.

I loved the experience of making From Nowhere and exploring the personal side to a political situation. Even though we had a laughably small budget and an extremely short shooting schedule, I was privileged to work in close collaboration with a group of talented and committed artists and crafts people, on a subject that meant a great deal to us all. MM

From Nowhere opens in theaters February 17, 2017, courtesy of FilmRise.

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