Ivan Ruiz-Knott All the things
A documentary film
When I was in college I became convinced that I should go to the south of Mexico, to the small village where my parents grew up, to get know my heritage; to spend time with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who I had only ever known for a week at a time every five years or so.
I had read a few stories in and out of class about the immigrant experience, and the immigrant’s kid’s experience, and they had really moved me. I wanted to explore that for myself. To wrestle with my own hyphenated identity. To figure out what exactly was gained and lost in my parents’ relocation.
I was also in need of a thesis project for my design degree, and I thought I might write and design a book about my journey.
During the thesis proposal review, one of my professors suggested I talk to Paul Kim, head of the just-launched documentary film program. Maybe this project could work as a documentary film instead. And after one conversation with him I was sold. So in fall of 2012, not officially in school, I sat in on some film classes, learning as much as I could before heading out in January.
Paul was a great teacher. I learned about J-cuts and L-cuts and establishing shots and b-roll and other technical details, but I also learned about the value of finding events that unfold before the camera, of showing and not telling, of wrestling with the edit, and the importance of narrative structure.
After a nerve wracking month-long Kickstarter campaign to get some equipment, and lots of help from my parents, I flew to Villahermosa, Tabasco, where an uncle picked me up, and drove me the hour and a half to El Once de Febrero.
And there I met and re-met my uncles and aunts and cousins on both sides of my family. There were new relatives and relatives I had never heard of and not-yet-born relatives and friends of my parents when they were young, and my grandparents, on my mom’s side, who I lived with.
It was a perfect time. I played soccer with my kid cousins in the afternoons, hung out with my older cousins in the evenings, visited relatives in other cities, glimpsed into a life I might have lived, had my parents not had the dreams they did.
But experiencing all of that while also trying to film some of it was really difficult. It is hard for me to document while also being present. Is also hard to be present when thinking about how I should be documenting. I spent most of my time in Mexico not filming things. And part of the reason why was I wanted to be present with people. I really was there try to establish and reestablish a connection with my family. But there would be these moments—these absolutely perfect, beautiful moments—where a relative would say something that felt so poetic, or meaningful, or weighty, and I would deeply regret not having the camera around and running.
For a while I was convinced that documentary film was the epitome of non-fiction storytelling, but I now think it is the epitome of non-fiction storytelling for stories that benefit from visuals. I am now much more a fan of writing and documentary audio for their simplicity, unobtrusiveness, edit potential, and reliance on words. I really enjoy words.
The story I ended up capturing though was not quite about any of that. Seeking a story suitable for film meant looking for some kind of conflict, or at least something with an arc, preferably something that could unfold in front of the camera.
While I couldn’t get all of that, what became of the 113 hours of me filming whatever seemed possibly interesting is a half hour documentary film about my grandparents, called Te Amo Mujer.
In the end I am happy with what that became. I also wish I had written a book instead.
I switched back to Graphic Design afterward.
I’ve only screened this film about five times. Two were proper, semi-public screenings, but the other three were smaller showings to friends. It’s something I’m very proud of, but also a thing that felt too personal to share widely. It sometimes feels like a waste to have put this much time into something I’ve kept close, but it also seems to have been an early experience with micromedia: a precious thing crafted for a small audience.
My grandfather died of COVID complications in September of 2021. It was a sudden and surprising turn; we had been much more worried over my grandmother’s health. The days that followed had my family in grids of mourning. Local relatives flipped their cameras around to show my grandmother, the casket, the procession. Restrictions made it too difficult to have a timely memorial service in person, and the grief made it too difficult to put on an online service. So over a year later my family went down to the village for a long-delayed memorial service, and as part of the service we played two clips from the film. It meant something to the people who knew him, and that’s enough for me.