Award-winning director and New York University arts professor Marco Williams, most commonly known for his work focusing on racial tensions and fiction, says he was steered in another direction for his most recent film. Around 2007, he became aware of the more than 2,000 dead bodies and skeletal remains of immigrants found in southern Arizona who died trying to cross the desert since 1998, and he decided to make a film to bring attention to them called “The Undocumented.”
“I read a New York Times article about a mortuary director and gravedigger in California who took it upon themselves to bury the John Does at the border, and I was very moved by their compassion,” says Williams.
Wanting to know more about these people who risked their lives to cross the lethal desert and the handful who cared enough to help the nameless led him to start making the film in May of 2009. This Monday, the 29th, it will be airing on PBS.
“This is a story that most Americans don’t know about — one that kind of looks at the immigration narrative through a different lens and the compassion of people helping families find closure,” he says.
Many times bodies found are found but never returned to their families, says Williams.
Williams found Markos Hernandez, the protagonist of the film, through a medical examiner’s office. He is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico City, now living and working in Chicago, who came to the U.S. to look for his father, Francisco. He disappeared in the Sonora Desert trying to cross the border in 1998.
“I decided to be in the film to try to find my father,” says Hernandez in his native Spanish. “I had already looked for him using various methods — the radio, the police, hospitals, the consulate — but without any result. Maybe somebody would recognize his photo.”
He says he also wants people to understand that the minimum wage in Mexico is about 400 pesos, approximately 35 dollars a week, and that he and his father had to cross the border to be able to provide for their family.
“I want people to realize that we risk everything just to come here to work,” says Hernandez. “We are working people…I want to be able to go to Arizona to be able to find my father…I still have hope that he is alive.”
Williams says he has two hopes for people watching his film.
“I want a policy put in place that takes care of the people dying, and the other is to make people aware of migrant deaths,” he says. “Nobody ever talks about the 200 on average dead bodies per year found in the desert since 1998. That is a border security policy decision to funnel immigrants in the most dangerous part of the desert. It has not deterred people, it’s just contributed to more deaths.”