A Personal Portrait of Life: Interview with WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND Director Iliana Sosa

For many immigrant families, the wish to return home is strong and bittersweet. In the documentary, What We Leave Behind, directed by Iliana Sosa, we follow 89 year old Julián Moreno as he transitions into living back in Mexico full time. Recipient of the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award and the Fandor New Voices Award, What We Leave Behind is an intimate portrait and love letter from a granddaughter to a grandfather.

For Iliana Sosa, the journey began in 2014 when she told a friend about the monthly 17 hour bus trip that her grandfather would take from El Paso, Texas to his small hometown in Durango. He took the same bus trip for over 20 years and would always return with stories to tell. Sosa decided that she wanted to document his journey on film and the stories firsthand, but the final version of the film isn’t the one that she had first set out to create. Filming began that same year, but it would take a few years until all of the footage was captured.   

The original version of the film was going to be focused on her grandfather’s work as a bracero and the bus trip itself. After getting together a rough cut of the film, a mentor encouraged Sosa to include footage of her grandfather’s newest construction project. Julian began to build a home for himself and his family in Durango to enjoy. Much of his effort and passion towards the new house was shown in the film. “His home was Durango, and more specifically, the town Primo de Verdad. I remember when he was really sick, one of the last few things he did, it’s not in the film, he wanted to go see his lands where he  worked all of his life, farming. So I think for him, his relationship with the land was a very intimate one. I think for him that was home, but also preserving his legacy, by leaving behind this house, ” says Sosa. 

The filming experience helped bond the two in the final years of Julián’s life. He loved the camera and the camera adored him back. “He’d wake up in the morning and he’d have his coffee. And then he say, okay, so what are we going to go? He’d call it photograph, what are we going to go photograph today, and he’d take me to different sites in the town.”, says Sosa. Then, her grandfather would take her to different parts of town and was always very active in the filming process.

On screen, the film takes extra care to showcase the landscape and texture of Primo de Verdad. “I wanted the pace of life, this unhurried pace of life of Durango to be present in the film by using long takes and showing just, you know, life just moves at a different pace there. “ says Sosa. Sound design and using the natural sounds of the town itself  was equally as important, “he flies are a bit of a common theme in the film throughout. So we wanted to accentuate that, and just essentially the natural sound of the place. So that was purposeful and part of the sound design.

Because the film is so personal, Sosa had to confront a lot of difficult family history, often hearing things for the first time. “That was a very intense process. And one that I, you know, didn’t take lightly. “ she says, “I think the documentary and when someone shares their story with you, I see that as an honor. I’ve taken those stories with me and continue to think about them often.” Still, Sosa made sure to screen it for her mother before locking in the final picture. She wanted to make sure the film portrayed her grandfather, her mother’s father in a respectful and accurate way. Her mother loved it and broke down into tears after watching. 

There are many complex and emotional moments in the film that Sosa has had to relive after filming, through editing and screening the film. Although she has watched it countless times, the film still gets to her . “ It’s a difficult film to watch for me and my family. So every time that I see it, a certain memory strikes, or I just remember the time on set. I remember my grandfather. I wish he were here to see it. I know, he’s been guiding me all this way, even tomorrow to premiere ( the film premiered at SXSW on Friday, March 11th). So yeah, it’s been quite a journey.”

The film ends with a group of men singing the Canto Cardenche, a traditional song that is very specific to Durango. The version heard in the film is sung by an acapella group made mostly of older men, specifically recorded for the film, “This song is in this form of singing is characterized by almost melancholic, sorrowful nature of like leaving home.” 

What’s Next?

“Right now I’m working on a really exciting project called The Untitled Texas Latino Project. It’s an omnibus feature with four other Latina , based here in Texas. We are telling our stories of Texas and how we grew up here, and different cities, including El Paso which is where I grew up, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Lewisville, and Dallas. Everyone is writing a story from their hometown and what it’s like to grow up as a Latina here in Texas. And so that’s our next project!”

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