EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article originally ran in June of 2018 and is being republished here. Applications to Project Involve 202o are now open. To read our more recent interview with filmmaker Mary-Lyn Chambers about her continuing social justice work, click here.
If you have a TV or the internet, you probably don’t need us to tell you about the ongoing crisis unfolding along US-Mexico border. As with many citizens of America and the world, you’ve likely been following the situation with some highly combustible mixture of outrage and disbelief. This intense collective reaction has taken many forms: protests, charitable giving, community organizing, Tweetstorms—you name it.
Art, of course, is yet another way of expressing one’s thoughts and feelings in the face of an overwhelming global dilemma. Such was certainly the case for writer and director Mary-Lyn Chambers—a 2015 Project Involve Fellow who used her participation in Film Independent’s signature diversity and mentorship program to create the piercing 15-minute short Debris (Escombros).
The film (this week’s Project Involve Selects spotlight) is an uncompromising look at the plight of two refugee children trapped in America’s immigration system along the U.S.-Mexico border. But be warned: it’s not for the faint of heart. Debris (Escombros) may not be the most lighthearted sit in the world, but it does illustrate an important fact, that this week’s headlines are only the latest high-profile narrative to emerge from an extremely serious ongoing issue.
On Wednesday, we spoke to Chambers about the production of her (sadly more relevant than ever) short, her reaction to the recent crisis, the ability of film to enact lasting change and—most importantly—what people can do to help.
MARY-LYN CHAMBERS ON ‘DEBRIS’
Debris is a fairly intense short. What drew you to tell this story?
Chambers: I’m originally from New Zealand. Before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a group of Afghani refugees tried to escape from the Taliban, taking the perilous journey from Afghanistan to Australia to file for asylum. A Norwegian freighter called the MV Tampa saved the refugees as their boat sunk. Since the boat sunk in Australian waters, international law required Australia to take in the refugees. Australia was close to an election, and they shocked the world by refusing to take them. Eventually, Australia put the refugees in tents on an island called Nauru—a small Pacific island where I’d been living for four years. Australia closed the airport and cut these people off from the rest of the world. In protest, some of the refugees sewed their lips together to attract attention to their cause. It would be nine years before the last refugees left the island. I’d always wanted to explore this story cinematically, and when I got into Project Involve we were encouraged us to explore a cause we cared about. Recreating Australia and Nauru seemed an expensive undertaking in Los Angeles, so I delved into the humanitarian crisis that happened here in the U.S. in 2014, when over 52,000 unaccompanied children arrived at the U.S. border from Central America and filed for asylum. I discovered similar human rights abuses were happening in the U.S., so the film Debris (Escombros) was born.
What was your research process like for the film?
Chambers: It was challenging to find refugees willing to talk—they feared they might compromise their chances of remaining in the U.S. I spoke with immigration lawyers who worked pro-bono for refugees and volunteers, mostly through churches. They cared for children while they were in centers and after they left. I also read news articles on the topic, since it was extensively covered.
What were the challenges of working with—and being sensitive to—young actors?
Chambers: I was fortunate with my young actors. They were highly trained, and a few years older than the ages of the characters they were playing. They were well aware of the refugee crisis and related to the material effortlessly. One of my actor’s mothers was trafficked as a teen, so the experience was close to home. Three of my crew members had arrived in the U.S. as refugees, so there was a lot of personal connection to the story.
How realistic are the events of the film to what happens in real life?
Chambers: The processes our young refugees encountered mirrored what refugees experience today in detention centers. For example, border staff will intentionally conduct sensitive interviews with other people in close proximity to ensure children—or adults, for that matter—will feel unsafe talking about what happened to them. Any kind of trauma is difficult to articulate, but imagine being a child having to talk about your rape. If they don’t speak up or make it clear why they’re in danger, they’ll be returned. The system is set up for them to fail. That said, there are some good people on the inside doing good work.
Having made this film, what has been your reaction to the unfolding family separation crisis of the past week?
Chambers: It’s beyond upsetting. We’re all devastated by what’s going on. All of it is unnecessary. The processing of asylum-seekers can be done safely if there’s the will [to do so] on the side of the immigration system. These kids are in unspeakable danger in the U.S.—in detention centers, when they’re being transported around the U.S. and when they are placed in care. In some cases these kids end up living on the streets. Despite Trump reversing his decision to separate kids from parents, this crisis is far from over for these families. It’ll be years before they get in front of a judge, if that privilege is even offered to them. If they have no legal representation, they stand no chance of remaining here and will be deported. Most girls are raped and/or murdered when they get returned. Boys and parents often pay with their lives. Their killers know when the buses arrive with deportees. It’s horrific. So please, don’t think this crisis is over. Keep your attention on them now and in the years ahead. They are going to need a lot of love and support to process the traumas they have endured both before arriving here and once they arrived.
What action can people take to help? What resources or educational tools are there?
Chambers: Donate money to non-profits who can provide legal resources. Then donate to organizations that help refugees live here while waiting to see a judge. Casa Libra/Freedom house takes in refugee children. ELLE put together an excellent list of suggestions of ways you can help. This is far from over, so remaining engaged is key.
What to you see as the role of filmmaking with regard to political consciousness?
Chambers: For me, filmmaking is my activism. It’s my weapon for change. Films, TV and media can progress society like no other art form. It’s the place you can have the deepest impact. I’m not interested in stories that don’t strive to save the world. I have no interest in zombie or horror films or even films with shallow premises. They bore me. I like to go in deep. It’s where I feel alive. I love to work with artists both on screen and behind who are epically talented and want to change the world. I was raised on documentaries and British dramas, surrounded by feminists and politically active minds. The influence is epic. Making films to effect change on the issues that worry me the most is everything to me—nothing else matters. I am grateful to Film Independent and to all who created Debris (Escombros) with me. It’s been an honor.
To learn more about Project Involve including how to apply, just click here. Are you interested in supporting Project Involve? Just click here. To learn more about Mary-Lyn Chambers, please visit her website.