Valuing Living Experiences: An Interview with the Expanding Sanctuary film crew, Kristal Sotomayor, Marángeli Mejía Rabell, Selena Yip, and Annie Diaz

By Laurel McLaughlin

I met Kristal Sotomayor on an August morning in Philadelphia to hear more about her in-progress documentary Expanding Sanctuary. Working with Juntos, a “community-led, Latinx organization in South Philadelphia” that advocates for the rights of workers, youth, and immigrants, Sotomayor told me about the documentary that follows the journey to end the sharing of Philadelphia police database information (PARS) with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). During the course of our conversation, Sotomayor shared her impetus for the project, the all-womxn crew, the systemic obstacles within the film industry, and ultimately, their success in fighting for social change. The following conversation with Sotomayor and members of her crew, Annie Diaz, Marángeli Majía Rabell, and Selena Yip, unfolded with generosity, patience, and immense passion.

Laurel McLaughlin (LM): Kristal, could you first describe how Expanding Sanctuary came into being and then how the team came together?

Kristal Sotomayor (KS): Expanding Sanctuary started when I first got into a film fellowship that provided me the opportunity to make a documentary. I wasn’t really sure what film I wanted to make, but I did know that I wanted to work with immigrant rights organizations. From there, I reached out to Juntos and—after months of emailing, phone calls, and meetings—I was allowed to bring a camera in to the space. It was really through establishing trust and being honest to Juntos that they grew to understand that we had similar experiences and intentions. We also just clicked and became fast friends! I’m very thankful to Juntos for taking a risk on me, being a first-time filmmaker, who just graduated from college.

LM: Could each of you describe your roles within the project?

KS: I am the Director, Producer, and Cinematographer. My role is to help guide the production. I took on so many roles within the film because it was just me, a one-woman-crew for most of the project.

Annie Diaz (AD): The role I hold throughout this project is the editor, in which I cut and assemble the hours of footage into a short documentary which will best tell the story of Expanding Sanctuary

Marángeli Mejía Rabell (MMR): My role in this project is as one of the Producers. My focus is to leverage existing resources and networks, support, and connect Kristal to individuals and organizations that can move the needle for this important project. My collaboration with Kristal began with our work at the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival. I have been deeply touched and energized by her commitment to serve as an agent of change in our community.

Selena Yip (SY): I joined the Expanding Sanctuary team as a producer. I know Kristal from the film festival work that we do in Philadelphia. It is my first time producing a film, and I hope to help connect the film to our local Philadelphia audiences.

LM: Could you describe Expanding Sanctuary?

KS: Expanding Sanctuary is a short documentary film that follows the historic campaign to end the sharing of the Philadelphia police database with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The film documents the Latinx immigrant community and nonprofit Juntos from the first community meetings to protests to the victory of ending the city contract that allowed the surveillance. Philadelphia is one of the first cities in the country to end this form of database sharing. It’s a significant win because it was led by the communities directly affected. When I see stories of immigration, they often focus on the tragedy; but this film is a success story about a targeted community organizing together to protect their families.

Expanding Sanctuary behind-the-scenes shoot – Melissa Beatriz, Marissa Piña, and Kristal Sotomayor (from right to left).

LM: In your press information on social media, you specify that the crew is composed of womxn members. Could you discuss this choice for the crew?

KS: As a young woman of color, it’s very important for me to support other womxn because film is such a difficult field to break into—there are fewer opportunities and access for womxn. I think, as a crew, we’re all taking a chance on each other because we think this story is important and because we want each other to succeed. In making this film, I want to give other folks access and opportunities that are, otherwise, difficult to get. For example, if you’ve never been an editor or a producer on a film, it’s hard to get those jobs. We are trying to help each other achieve our artist and career goals.

AD: The film industry’s primary demographic is cisgender, white males, which reduces the likelihood of stories being told through the perspective of womxn, especially womxn of color. It’s not that these womxn are not creating projects, but when the leading demographic controls most of what is funded, filmed, produced, etc., it becomes challenging for our voices to be highlighted. I am so proud and grateful that Kristal was able to gather a crew full of beautiful, intelligent, and talented ladies because it’s (unfortunately) rare to see. 

MMR: It is a critical component of Kristal’s vision and our work in this field.

SY: Being part of an all-womxn crew is amazing and the energy is great. As Kristal said, this industry is typically dominated by men and it can be difficult to be seen or heard in teams that are mostly men. As part of this team, I feel much more comfortable speaking up and love that I’m asked for my opinion because folks care about it and not just for optics.

LM: Could you discuss your working methods with one another and then collectively with Juntos? Have these dynamics shifted within the post-production phase

KS: As a team, I see myself as managing the overall scope of the film. I try to be very vocal about being open to different opinions and ideas. I want what’s best for the film, even if it’s not what I had originally anticipated. With Juntos, we are trying to having rough-cut screenings to ensure that the community has a say in their portrayal. Often Latinx communities are stereotyped and I want to make sure that this film accurately shows the community’s voices. The Juntos staff has been a big help throughout the film and continues to be a community partner in the editing process.

MMR: Our focus is to leverage our skills and talents with the openness to learn from each other and our collaborators. Flexibility is vital here since it enables us to understand that each day presents us with numerous teachable moments and some things you can only determine as you execute your project.

LM: Kristal, in our previous meeting—in which you generously shared this project with me—you spoke about navigating the ethics of representation in the film world. How are you all considering aesthetic representation and its political implications? And how does that play out in Expanding Sanctuary

KS: In documentary, there has historically been films about communities of color produced by white filmmakers that perpetuate stereotypes, villainization, and victimization. As a director, my identity plays a big part in my ability to tell this story. I am Latina, my parents are immigrants, and I share many of the same experiences as the community I am documenting. However, it’s also important for me to understand my own privilege being the one holding the camera. For me, making this film is about more than representation in the film world, it’s about bringing accuracy to storytelling and valuing the community’s experiences. The community I am working with is highly targeted and often isn’t taken seriously in the world. This film takes them seriously. The camera takes them seriously. It’s reframing the way we view immigrant and Latina experiences.

Protagonist Linda Hernández and husband Bertin Lopez protesting minutes after getting married; Photo by Milady Nazir

LM: You explicitly use the word “documentary,” to describe Expanding Sanctuary. Could you share the documentary strategies that you employed in the work—both in filming and post-production? How did these serve the narrative structure

KS: I think when we talk about documentary, we have to acknowledge the history of documentary filmmaking and its interactions with communities of color. Early documentaries stereotyped, villainized, and victimized folks of color. They also parachuted into communities to portray overly dramatic, traumatic stories. My aim through documentary is to disrupt this colonizing practice by valuing the living experiences of the community and placing the community as the experts in their stories. The film will rely heavily on vérité footage to depict this historic win of ending PARS information sharing with ICE. We don’t often get to see the behind-the-scenes of grassroots campaigns but this film takes you from the first meetings to the protests and the eventual win.

LM: The documentary focuses on a specifically Philadelphian perspective of immigration reform that was put into effect. Whether or not the termination of PARS sharing with the police directly impacts every viewer, it affects all relationally as co-inhabitants in our shared city. How did this project affect each of you and how did this manifest collectively

KS: In the film, Philadelphia is really a microcosm of the larger immigrant rights movement throughout the country. As the daughter of immigrants, making this film really made me understand my family’s connection to immigrant and policies that keep families separated. My family in the U.S. is very small, we’re only four in total (my mom, dad, brother, and me) because of these policies. It really put into perspective the sacrifices of my parents. It also made me realize the systems of policing that target communities of color and the interconnectedness of policing, mass incarceration, and detention and deportation.

AD: Both my parents are Puerto Rican, which means I hold full American citizenship according to what it means to be an American territory. Although I have never personally dealt with the challenges of immigration, this story is very important for me because at the end of the day I am still Latinx. I will stand and fully support with all my Latinx communities regardless of what country they are from. I believe unity will be the most powerful tool. Even migrating from Puerto Rico to the United States, I faced my own challenges; but I sympathize with those who were faced with even more due to the fact that becoming a citizen in the U.S. is more difficult than people think. 

LM: Who do you envision your audiences to be, and what might you hope they consider when watching Expanding Sanctuary?

KS: I really want Expanding Sanctuary to be for other immigrant, undocumented, and/or Latinx communities. I think immigrant stories are so universal and the issues in this film (surveillance, policing, etc.) apply to many different communities. I hope communities that are being targeted by ICE can find a roadmap in this film to protect their families and fight for liberation.

Kristal Sotomayor is a Philadelphia-based bilingual Latina documentary filmmaker, cinematographer, and editor. She serves as the Communications and Outreach Coordinator at Scribe Video Center and as the Festival Programming Coordinator for the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival. In the past, Kristal has assisted with programming and curation for the Philadelphia Film Festival, IFP Week (Independent Filmmaker Project), and the award-winning PBS documentary film series POV|American Documentary. Drawing inspiration from her Peruvian heritage, Kristal’s films focus on Latinidad, immigration, and belonging. As the daughter of Latino immigrants, Kristal Sotomayor has first-hand experience with the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Latinx folks. Her objective with this film is to showcase the beauty, strength, and resilience of the Latinx immigrant community in South Philadelphia. She aims to decolonize documentary by practicing transformative filmmaking that humanizes and validates the lived experiences of underrepresented communities.

Annie Diaz is a Puerto Rican documentary and fiction filmmaker based in Lancaster, PA. Recently graduating from Muhlenberg College, her studies included Media and Communication, Film Studies, and a minor in Documentary Filmmaking, which has strengthened her skills and understanding of documentary work within social contexts. Her work focuses on telling stories of communities of the historically disadvantaged with the intention to nuance conversations regarding their social and political issues. Her recent documentary, Para Ti, centralizes the conflicts Puerto Rican women face in relation to beauty standards, womanhood, as a result of migrating to the United States. Through this documentary, she hopes to continue to spread more awareness of serious, systemic issues Latinx communities, specifically undocumented immigrants in this case, face throughout the United States.

Marángeli Mejía Rabell is a Puerto Rico-born, Philadelphia-based cultural producer and community development practitioner whose work is centered on cross sector partnerships, collective impact arts & culture as a tool for social change and community revitalization. As Co-Founder of AfroTaino Productions, she curates, co-designs and executes arts/culture programming, campaigns, special events and projects in public and private arena targeting multicultural audiences. Marángeli also serves as the Festival Director of the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival. Some of her most recent collaborations include Pepón Osorio’s reForm at Tyler Contemporary and BrideNext, a Building Audience Demand project with Marty Pottenger and Bienvenidos Blancos with Team Sunshine Performance Corporation. 

Selena Yip was born in the Philadelphia Area and was raised with strong familial and community ties to Philadelphia’s Chinatown. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2017 with a double major in psychology and anthropology. In 2018, she produced Staying Put: Stories of Chinatown’s Resistance as part of Scribe Video Center’s Precious Places Philadelphia history project, which documented the history of the Philadelphia Chinatown community’s resilience in the face of urban development and gentrification. While working on the documentary, Selena met and joined the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival team and is now working as their Communications Director

Laurel McLaughlin is a writer and curator from Philadelphia, based in Portland, OR. She received degrees from Wake Forest University, The Courtauld Institute of Art, and Bryn Mawr College, and is currently a PhD Candidate in the History of Art at Bryn Mawr College. Her research examines the intersections of contemporary performance, new media, and migration. She has presented her research at the University of California, Berkeley, the College Art Association, New York, and the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present, Hong Kong, among others. Additionally, she has held curatorial fellowships and research positions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Slought Foundation, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the ICA Philadelphia.