Immigration has been a hot topic of debate in this country for the past decade (just ask Lou Dobbs) and with this fall’s election just around the corner, it may even be the deciding factor in determining our next president. But if you think that Patricia Riggen’s feature film debut, Under the Same Moon, is a controversial or political vehicle for discussing such views, think again.

Although the film does offer a clear point of view on the issue of immigration, Under the Same Moon is, at its core, about the ties that bind a mother and her child. Set and shot in Mexico and Los Angeles, the film tells the story of Carlitos, played gracefully by veteran child actor Adrian Alonso, a young boy who smuggles himself across the Mexican border to reunite with his mother (popular Mexican actress Kate Del Castillo), who is working in East L.A. to support her family back in Mexico. The film’s story is universal and has an almost “ripped-from-the-headlines” kind of feel in that Carlitos and Rosario’s plight is a familiar one for most immigrants living in the U.S.

Riggen first worked as a newspaper journalist in Mexico, then as a photographer, before moving to New York City to attend Columbia University’s Masters film program, where she delved into screenwriting, producing and—finally—directing. Her first documentary was 2002’s La Milpa, followed by 2004’s Family Portrait, which won the Short Filmmaking Award at Sundance.

MM recently sat down with Riggen to discuss Under the Same Moon, the struggle behind telling an immigrant story and the moving effect that the film has had on both Latin and American audiences alike.

Lily Percy MM: One of the things that I think is really unique about the film is the way that you parallel Rosario’s life in L.A. with Carlitos’ life in Mexico. Was this always in the script? How did this idea come about?

Patricia Riggen (PR): Yes, I came up with this idea because it tells you very quickly what this movie is about. You enter this story thinking, “Oh, mother and child, they’re waking up in the same house.” Then, little by little, you start realizing that they are not in the same house—in fact they are in very different places. That is when you get the story right there—mom, child and separation.

MM: This film is authentically Mexican, with a Mexican cast and specific story rather than a universal or generic Latin one. Why was this important to you?

PR: I think that the more detail you get into a particular reality, the more it will become eventually. Instead of trying to put all of these elements from all of these cultures together to try and make something that is appealing, they should just concentrate on portraying the reality as eloquently as they can and as accurately as they can. That works better. I know this reality so I just concentrated in showing it—the cast, the music, the way they speak, the way they relate to each other. Eventually, that is a much wiser choice. I think that I have to remember this also for my future work. All of these things—I don’t do them consciously—all of this work that one does as a director, you do it instinctively.
MM: For many immigrants, this is a familiar story, just one in a million, and yet there are many Americans who have probably never seen it described this way. How do you make both audiences care?

PR: The trick is to not be political—to not tell a political story, but a human story. If you stay on the human side of things, you become universal and that is how I think that I’ve been able to engage both audiences and to have them embrace the film as their own.

MM: Are you surprised by their reactions?

PR: I’m very surprised, because when I first made it I thought that it was a movie exclusively for the Latino audience and very shortly after I screened it for the first time I realized that the other audience—the American audience—loved it and was really moved by it.

MM: Casting was so important in this film, especially for the role of Carlitos. How did you come to cast Adrian Alonso?

PR: Adrian is a very experienced actor at his young age. He’s done several films before so I looked at all of his work. I auditioned him a couple of times to make sure that he was the right kid. At first he didn’t strike me as anything special but then I saw him improvising and I realized how smart, quick and talented he is. That’s when I decided to bring him on. The entire movie is on his shoulders, so it was very crucial that I had the right kid playing Carlitos.

MM: In the hopes of having it reach a wider audience here in the U.S., did you ever consider not making the film in Spanish?

PR: No, because I wanted to keep it very true to the characters. If two Mexicans are together, they’re going to speak Spanish—no doubt—so why put it in English? I wasn’t answering to commercial interests there and I think that is a good thing, because it makes it very honest and very true.

MM: As a documentary moviemaker, are there any particular lessons or qualities that you bring to feature moviemaking?

PR: Yes, in a way, I think that the truer you are to your characters and the more that you let them be, and not force them into what you want, the more truthful it is and the more interesting and realistic and natural and compelling. So in a way, taking that from documentary into narrative is a good thing.

MM: You are a female Mexican film director. Is there one identity with which you most identify?

PR: I am everything—I am a woman, I am Mexican and I am a director. I use different parts of myself at different moments, or all of them together at the same time. I cant separate from all of what I am. I think that the interesting thing—or the good thing—is that we use who we are to feel special. It is what makes me special—being a woman and being Mexican is what makes me special.
MM: When you were at Columbia studying film, did you find that you were a minority—both as a woman and as a Mexican?

PR: On the contrary. I think that Columbia is a place where so many cultures collide. I had classmates from every country—it was great. I think that it really helped me a lot as a woman, moving here, because school really democratizes talent and I was the same as my classmates. The important thing was who was doing a good exercise. So that is where I started to really develop the self-esteem to allow me to believe that I could actually be a director.

MM: What do you want this film to say about the issue of immigration in this country? Did you have an agenda?

PR: No, not at all. In fact, on the other hand, I was very hesitant to make a movie about a subject that nobody wanted to hear about three years ago. Suddenly immigration has become a very hot topic and now everybody wants to say something about the subject matter. And it was never about that. Fortunately, I guess, it is a timely subject and maybe more people will be interested in watching my movie as a result. But I am glad that I always stayed on the human side of things and never tried to convince anybody of anything. Just show what I know.

MM: A lot of the songs featured in the film provide commentary on immigrants views on immigration in this country, especially Kinky’s “Superman,” which even features the line “even Superman was an illegal alien.” Did you intentially use the songs in the film to deliver a kind of message?

PR: Yes, absolutely, because I am telling the story from their point of view and of course, they hear radio shows that make fun of politicians, they listen to music that talks about their tragedy, but I think that what I also made sure to show was the light way in which they see things. They can make fun of themselves and laugh about themselves and make jokes about that situation. That is a very Latin characteristic and I wanted to show it.
MM: Do you worry that because of the film people will automatically begin to ask you about your views on immigration?

PR: No, nobody has asked me that, I have to say. My view—and I think that it is probably in the movie—it is very specific to what I see from immigrants and what I know of immigrants, which is that I think that humans have the right to work and to eat—it is a human right. If you are denied that, you are going to look for it. What we are seeing here are huge communities that have been denied the right to survival in their own countries and they are here trying to achieve a better life. They are here to work and work hard and provide for their loved ones. So they are here for love. That is the kind of theme throughout the movie. I just want to remind people—or maybe show them for the first time—that many, or even all of these people, are really here out of love for their family.

MM: And not to take over the country, as some people think.

PR: Not at all. I think that it is very important that the two governments take responsibility for the problem. First of all, the government that is exporting these people, rejecting them from the society—this government has to provide better jobs, opportunities, and a better lifestyle for these people. They need to fight injustice and inequality so that people don’t lose hope. And then the government on this side of the border needs to help create more fairness in the neighboring countries, you know? Help fight poverty, fair trade. It is the way to solve the problem. When people need food and need to provide, they are going to do whatever they need to do—it is just human nature.

MM: The past couple of years have seen a resurgence of Mexican filmmakers being accepted (and successful) here in the States. Why do you think that has happened, particularly with Mexico more than any other Latin American country?

PR: I think that Mexican filmmakers have achieved a very good craft in their filmmaking to be able to compete in Hollywood, but at the same time they have kept an independent voice—a strong, personal, original voice. Not coming out of a big factory but rather very original and that is why I think we are noticing them. I hope that I can be a part of that movement myself.