Frame & Reference is a conversation between Cinematographers hosted by Kenny McMillan of OWL BOT. Each episode dives into the respective DP’s current and past work, as well as what influences and inspires them. These discussions are an entertaining and informative look in to the world making films through the lens of the people who shoot them. You can listen to Frame & Reference where all the best podcasts are listened to like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Each episode can also be found in video form on YouTube. Follow Frame & Reference on Twitter and Instagram for more content, and check your favorite app every Thursday for new episodes.
AT THE READY: Just 10 miles from the US-Mexico border, Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas is home to one of the region’s largest law enforcement education programs and one of the country’s largest immigrant populations. For many, a career in the police force, Border Patrol or DEA is an opportunity for a stable, middle-class life and a shot at the American Dream. The film follows three Mexican-American teens hailing from the school’s Criminal Justice Club, where they train for no-knock drug raids, hostage negotiations and active shooter scenarios in the school hallways. As the students strive toward their law enforcement aspirations, they begin to discover the realities of these jobs may be at odds with the people they hold most dear.
So I was able to watch all of the screeners last night and your documentary was quite affecting, I will say. I didn’t know that there was a literal class for kids to learn how to be border patrol agents. Tell me how you figured that out.
I’m based in Texas and I actually saw kids training in the hallway of a school that I was visiting down in South Texas. And so that piqued my interest in, you know, something I had not known about before. I just really started exploring it. I put in a request to the TEA and which is the Texas Education Admin and found that there were 900 schools that offered these classes. And so that’s when I really was like, wow, I really want to understand this. And I want to understand it through the from the perspective of the students. That’s always my interest is like whoever the main characters are in a film, it’s like, I want to see it through their eyes.
I felt that constant sort of internal struggle of the kids between, sort of, where they came from or their families or whatever, and what they thought versus what I would almost say their idyllic version of law enforcement was. I was the same way when I was a kid. How how involved were you in talking to those kids about what was going on? Was it very observational? Cause you know, there’s those scenes where they’re looking at videos and that one girl was really like… you watch it start to click with her. Were you showing them those types of videos or were they finding it and you just happened to be there?
I was at her house and I mean, it was like happening the same day actually that I filmed the like protest footage where they were like protesting the tent camps. I then went to Christina’s house. I mean, it was on the news at her house. And then she was like in her bedroom scrolling through it. And so like, naturally I just kind of shut up and start just like, you know, rolled the cameras obviously then when she’s talking directly to the camera I’m asking her questions about how she feels.
Well thank you for the perfect segue. I was going to say for your documentary. It’s very raw, it does feel like you kind of just plopped in there and were shooting, you know, embedded as it were. What was your shooting package?
So I shoot most of my own stuff, you know, sometimes I have a second camera and when I have a second camera…
Wait you shot this whole documentary yourself?
Most everything. Yeah.
Goodness. I thought you had at least like two other people with you, you get a lot of really good angles.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, but I do, I have like a list of like camera operators in the credits. Cause like I do have people come in for some of like, especially like the drug raid competition and stuff like that, you know? But no, I like to keep everything paired down as much as possible. I don’t think that you can be as intimate with the people you’re filming, if you have a ton of gear and a bunch of people in there. So if anything, I like to have a sound person with me, but a lot of the time I’m just running sound directly into my camera. I come from the world… I was a photo journalist, that was my career. And so I’m so used to being a still photographer and operating alone and then switching into documentary film mode meant a lot of other gear, a lot of which I wasn’t necessarily familiar with. And I’m a rather small framed individual. So I have like, there’s some camera gear out there that I just cannot hold no matter like how, you know, if I’m in tip top shape, I still can’t hold it and hold it steady. So I found the C300mkII to be like super ergonomical for me, comfortable for me. I shot it without a rig, unless I was using my Easy Rig. I love the Easy Rig, It’s the best thing ever. It saved my back. That’s kind of as sophisticated as I get. I’m actually really interested in my projects thus far when I’ve like gone out into the field. It’s like, whatever, like that’s the camera that I had the C300mkII and I think I would love to continue shooting with it, but I don’t really put much thought into building out a camera package. It’s just like, I’m so excited about the story that I’m going to tell that I’m just whatever’s around me, you know?
Totally. So how did you approach getting the various shots? You did a really good job of covering it. Did you have like a checklist of you know, this is the B roll I’m going to get with each location…
No. I mean, I’m probably like, I’m the opposite of that. When I’m shooting a verité film, I’m not going in with like a shot list because most of the time I’m going in and like waiting for the things to unfold that need to unfold. And if anything, when I’m getting kind of scene setting shots and establishing shots, that’s all happening later. I like to just reserve time to go like, film exteriors, you know, beautiful B-Roll, and I really don’t like to mix that into when I’m shooting a verité scene. And then I think the camera coverage comes from my work as a still photographer, because I’m so used to moving around in any given scene and covering it that way.
Makes sense. Did you have any photographic influences, any photographers you looked up to coming up?
Yeah. I mean, I think more than anything Eli Reed, who is an incredible photographer and he was one of my professors in undergrad… Eugene Richards, um you know, both of them I think have spent so much time deeply embedded in the lives of the people that they photograph and I’ve always deeply admired and been heavily influenced by documentary photographers who aren’t just popping in and out of situations, but really investing long-term in the individuals whose stories they’re telling another person, Brenda Ann Kenneally, you know, I love her work.
How long were you working on this documentary?
I started researching it in 2017 and then started getting to know these kids in 2018 and I filmed them, you know, I think the last shoot was with Mason in 2020 at a rally. So a couple of years.
Oh actually I should have asked this when you brought it up, what was your microphone package? Cause everyone sounded like they were mic’d, did you just have a pack on everybody?
I mean, if I was shooting by myself, then I just had two lav mics and really hope that no one else was going to say anything important. I mean, but like that’s how you make doc. Cause you start to introduce all these other people in a crew and it like all of a sudden the fly on the wall thing just isn’t there anymore, you know? But then I had like the most amazing sound guy Braulio Beltron, who is based in Juarez and he was like, so patient with me and so willing to… if I was like “we need to mic up eight people” we were just like getting everybody mic’d. He was really great. And then he also ended up a lot of times shooting second camera for me too. And then Abby Rowe, who’s one of the producers on the film also shot, you know, she had second camera sometimes. She then would also, there were a couple of times where early on, we didn’t have a sound guy or sound person because we didn’t have any funding early on, or we did have some funding, but not enough to like, be able to pay day rates in the field. So she, we would just plug a boom into a Marantz and she would get boom sound while I would have two lavs into the mix.
How did you approach in-situ lighting? I assume you didn’t bring much, just putting people next to windows?
Yeah. I have a light that sometimes I’ll use to mimic a window light, but I always want everything to look like it’s shot naturally. I think there actually, I don’t think any of the interviews that you see in the film even have that light, so it’s all natural light in there, which sucks sometimes. And you see that in some of like the darker scenes where it’s just like so dark, which is tough, but again like what am I going to, be driving in a car with someone and the is sun setting and I’m shining a light in their face? That seems like unnatural and dangerous.
I was gonna ask how, if at all, how are you giving direction to these kids specifically? Even the adults, you know, they’re in the middle of Texas they probably don’t have experience necessarily with even local news, probably, let alone a documentarian. What was your interaction like with them as you were shooting?
Correct. I really don’t direct anybody. Other than like, I’ll ask them questions. Early on when I start filming, I always just ask people to act natural and to like try and forget that I’m there. Obviously people always laugh when I say that, but then, you know, it’s true. I think eventually some people do just allow me to fade into the background and uh, start to ignore me. So really I’m never telling them to turn a certain way or do a certain thing.
Well and like you said, cause you’re small it’s probably a little easier to just hide in the corner [laughs]. And do you remember what lens you were using? Like what your go-to sort of… I assume it was a zoom?
Yeah like kind of like hybrid Canon cinema lens thing. I loved it though. It was, it was really great.
No auto focus?
I don’t ever auto focus. Not because I’m like “I would never autofocus” but because I think it’s my still photography background.
Did you have any visual reference or any sort of structural reference for the doc or was this really just like you got plopped in and you shot, figure it out in the edit?
Yeah. I mean, I’m not interested in heavy, like, in “high production.” I don’t want an aesthetic that starts to take away from what I’m filming. I don’t want people to pay attention to the camera work. There’s so much beautiful camera work out there, and I think that some stories warrant that, but for the films that, you know, the two films that I’ve recently done over the past several years, like those to me felt like very urgent stories, but very quiet, intimate stories. And I wanted them to feel very, you know, fly on the wall. And like you, as a viewer, were just kind of following along. I didn’t want you to ever stop and think about like the camera work.
Totally. When you were making it, did you… this is a tough question for anyone, but were you assuming that the previous administration was going to continue? Because there’s these moments in the film where the kids are, are really hoping for a change, it would seem, and then it doesn’t come. Because I was watching the film and there’s this kind of sigh of relief where you’re like, “well, at least I know it gets better quick” you know, or it can, you know, who knows right now.
While I going in, I knew that I was trying to tell the story from the perspective of high school students on the border during the Trump administration, I wasn’t necessarily planning on having these news clips in the film or Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz’s Senate race be like, kind of a, a climactic moment in the film, but that’s what happened to the characters. And so that became a moment. I mean, personally, when we were going to like that election night event in El Paso, like, yeah, I’m a Texan. I thought that O’Rourke was going to win. I mean, I think, you know, I was upset, but I was not as upset as Christina was. And I think Christina’s sadness and realization of like, you know, what this might mean for her and for her dreams and for her career, that to me was more soul crushing than anything, because it was like in that instant, I saw this, this young woman go from being a teenager to becoming an adult and realizing the harsh realities of, you know, the job that she was wanting to pursue.
Yeah. It seems like the kids, especially early on, were really into the idea of law enforcement, but at the same time, I noticed there was a quick clip where they were doing the tactical run-throughs in the middle of the school. And these two kids walk by and they turn around and they’re laughing at them. Did you notice if the kids were keyed in to that? That some of their peers in the school kind of thought they were a joke to some degree?
I don’t know that that people necessarily thought that they were a joke. I think there were definitely people in the school that were like surprised or taken back by it, you know? Which is why I wanted to include that. But again, that’s why it was filmed in that way and like shown in that way in the film is like, it was from the perspective of the kids, right? Like they were standing from getting frustrated because, you know, Mr. Garrow was telling them they were doing everything wrong. And then these kids walk by and look at them and it was, I wanted the viewer to feel like they were, you know, standing there with the students.
There’s this interesting moment where you’re interviewing Mr. Jimenez. And he was talking about how his career ruined his life. Where this guy’s basically sitting there going, like, “if I could do this again, I wouldn’t, but I’m going to get all these kids to do exactly what I did.”
Yeah. I mean, I think that speaks to the complexity of the whole film, right? Is that like, this is one of the most well-paying jobs in the El Paso region. It’s a job that screams respect to the outside community, shall I say. Like, that’s certainly what Christina felt. And to me, that’s what this whole film was about with some of the complexities. The hypocrisy is the, the nuances there. I mean, yeah, Mr. Jimenez had experienced severe PTSD, but at the same time he loved the job. And it, this film was so interesting from the start. Cause it was always about the gray areas, you know, nothing is black and white. And especially in this story, I feel like everyone lives in the gray and it is so complex. And I think that he illustrates that beautifully, you know, even like being scared for his own children to go into that. And I think it’s not like he walks around being like, “haha, I’m sending these kids into a career that like gave me PTSD” I think it’s more like “I loved this career, but it broke me” and, you know, it’s that push and pull and those emotions that I think, you know, at some level in all of our lives we experience. And so I just was so appreciative of him too. You know, I was so appreciative for his willingness to be so vulnerable on camera. I think it’s really hard as a grown man. And that’s me, you know, projecting because I think it’s hard for people to go there and especially when you’re asking them to go there on camera.
No totally, I feel like you were very effective in displaying that gray area, the whole film you really are watching that internal struggle in everyone. It’s wild. Like, hopefully it gets better. You know, I would love to see these kids go into a career in which they can be fulfilled and they are being paid well. Cause that was the other thing that I noticed you kind of hit on in the documentary is most of these kids are doing this for the paycheck, it seems.
Yeah. I mean, I think again, like when you can go into a job starting at $50,000 just a couple of years out of high school and that’s not something that you had previously had as an option. I think it becomes very enticing. And I think when you’ve been, you know, you go to the career fair at your school and the majority of the job options there are within law enforcement, you’re not really being asked to think beyond that.
I think my hope is that people see this film and if they’re dissatisfied by what they see by what they’ve learned, that they, you know, start having conversations because I don’t think it’s just like, “well, you know, not one person is going to change all of this.” I think it’s a cultural thing that’s happening in our entire country. And I think we need to be better for our kids and for our students. And if we want them to do something different, we need to provide that opportunity for them. The opportunity is not there. They’re never going to be able to… I mean certainly everything that I thought about in high school or any career path that I was going to go down was based on like what was right in front of me, you know?
Did you learn anything during the process of this documentary that you think would be helpful for people trying to make documentaries, something that you think, you know, was a struggle maybe that you worked through?
I think it’s something that I already knew going in, but that I always relearn is that nothing is ever as you expect it. And so to go in with, you know, preconceived notions and not be willing for those to be challenged or changed is just unproductive. And so always, I think for me, it’s always being willing to, to learn more.
Any personal projects you’d like to promote?
I’m in the process of researching my next film right now, but it’s awesome. That’s all I’ll say.
Well thank you so much for taking this time and speaking to me enjoy the digital Sundance experience! I wish I could be there, or I guess both of us there [laughs].