‘Those Who Remain’ focuses on families left behind in Mexico by migrants

"I’m always telling Marcos, when he left my hair was black and now it’s as gray as the Orizaba volcano.”

Juanita often sits outside the small and humble home that she shares with her husband Pascual in the Mexican state of Puebla. She thinks of her children as she sews. Three out of eight of her brood are living in the United States, where they have been for the last eight years. Life goes on without them, but for Juanita and Pascual — who eke out a modest living on their small farm -– it has never been quite the same since the children left.

“We’re getting on. There’s no turning back the clock. We spend our time thinking about our children … about how far away they are,” says Juanita, speaking to the cameras directed by the Mexican duo Juan Carlos Rulfo and Carlos Hagerman in “Los Que Se Quedan,” or “Those Who Remain.”

The focus on the issue of migration that we see in the movies tends to focus on the treacherous journey that so many Mexicans and Central Americans make across the border to the United States, or what life is like once they get there. The homes and families that those migrants come from are usually just a jumping-off point for filmmakers, but Rulfo and Hagerman chose to stay at the point of departure to see how those who remain deal with their reduced numbers.

“It’s kind of the Ullyses, and we wanted to make the Penelope story, about the people who stay behind and wait,” Hagerman said in an interview during this year’s Guadalajara International Film Festival, where “Those Who Remain” was competing in the Mexican documentary section.

But the film is barely a documentary. "It’s a movie," emphasizes Rulfo, and it features such strong characters that the directors could not have asked for more had they been casting a feature film.

Viewers are spared the well-intentioned preaching common in so many Mexican documentaries.

“We didn’t want this film to say ‘don’t go’ or ‘go’, because who are we to judge what the people do?” Hagerman said.

The directors spent 11 months with more than a dozen Mexican families, living in their homes, observing their lives and getting a sense of their realities.

“Maybe the people who leave the country are always thinking about the relatives they left behind … but the feeling is very strange — it’s like the absence of your deepest, deepest whole,” Rulfo said.

“Those Who Remain” is about absence, broken families and unworked fields, about survival, identity, love and relationships. The film won’t just speak to Mexican migrants living in the United States, but to any family, from anywhere in the world,  split by migration.

“There are a lot of very small things that you have in your mind that you remember all the time when you’re out of your own country. And nobody knows that. So that’s the basis of the kind of feelings that we’re trying to express to the audience,” Rulfo said.

Hagerman adds:  “It’s those little things — it can be a taste, or a smell, or the way your grandmother made lemonade. These are the little things that you miss when you’re away from your own country.

"By staying with the families through their everyday lives it’s like we’re witnessing the little things for the ghosts that are over there [on the other sid
e of the border]. It’s the things that they are missing and would like to be a part of.”

The intimacy that the directors capture in the film, in terms of people’s feelings as well as the relationships they have with their loved ones, is what gives "Those Who Remain" its poetic tone — a tone enhanced by a music score by Cafe Tacuba, among others.

But that intimacy also presented the directors with their biggest challenge.

“When you’re doing a documentary with real characters, it affects you, what happens to them. It’s a big responsibility, and that’s a big challenge, because it moves you,” says Hagerman.

At the time of this writing, Hagerman and Rulfo were looking for a distribution deal in the United States.

If shown in the U.S., “Those Who Remain” will be a sweet, if painful, reminder to the millions of migrants living in El Norte of what they left behind. But it also has the potential to inform audiences about what drives the millions of migrants north in the first place.

Peace, love and understanding is the only message that the directors say they are trying to spread, and they say it so eloquently, one can’t help hoping that someone is watching and listening.

— Deborah Bonello in Guadalajara, Mexico for La Plaza.

*Edited at 14:07 Mexico City time. Location adjusted.