Screening Room: Human Stories From Central America

By David Schonauer   Wednesday September 26, 2018

“Gentle and dreamlike, yet present and unflinching.”

That is how Short of the Week describes a new documentary called Shelter: Human Stories from Central America, a portrait of Central American immigrants at the souther border of Mexico who are seeking a better life in the north.

Director Matthew K. Firpo describes his his 14-minute film as “a quiet look at lives on the line.” Quiet it may be, but it speaks quite clearly through beautiful photography and a simple idea for storytelling:

“While conventional in format, the film is nonetheless disarmingly transgressive through the simple act of allowing marginalized individuals to speak for themselves,” notes SOTW, adding, “the film seeks to restore the specificity and humanity of its subjects via personal testimony. Wrenching stories spill out.”

What Firpo ultimate reveals is a commonality of interests — between the filmmaker and his subject, and between these immigrants and everyone else who desires family, safety and opportunity.

The film is a follow-up to Firpo’s previous project, Refuge, which focused on the immigration crisis in Europe. But where Refuge featured people in a minimalist set as they told their stories, Shelter: Human Stories from Central America makes use of what SOTW calls “a dreamier, floating perspective that is more en vogue in contemporary internet docs.”

Direct interviews in naturalistic settings are intercut with voice-over of subjects interacting with the world, and b-roll that better depicts lives lived in limbo. Some of this is calculated, some of it born of necessity, as several subjects are shown from behind or have identifying elements obscured for their protection.

Firpo’s latest film was made with a crew of five, including cinematographer Jeremy Snell, with no budget: The project was organized with the assistance of UNICEF’s Next Gen program.  

“I’m Interested in understanding the things that make us all different, and more often, the things that make us all the same,” says Firpo. “We all want to be safe, to watch our children grow in peace, to live with dignity – and this film, I hope, is a simple reminder to audiences that compassion is a choice. One you need to make every day. It’s not complicated, it’s just difficult. I hope that this film can help humanize the families being separated that we read so much about, and begin to heal the divides on both sides of the border.”


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