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ShortList 2019: Paloma Martinez’s ‘Enforcement Hours’ Offers a Timely Look at a Hotline for Immigrants

”Hatred seems to be coming out in the open,“ the Mexican-American documentary filmmaker says of the current political climate

Three days after a white-supremacist gunman opened fire in an El Paso, Texas, mall and killed 22 people while targeting immigrants, Houston-based Mexican-American filmmaker Paloma Martinez struggled to come to terms with the horrifying event.

“Hatred seems to be coming out in the open, where before it was maybe underground,” said Martinez, whose short film “Enforcement Hours” takes a measured approach to portraying the fear and hatred in and around immigrant communities.

“But even as I was going though Houston yesterday, it felt surreal knowing that we are seen as the enemy in this polarized environment. Our communities are very real and vibrant — we exist, and here, at least in inner city Texas, we’re embraced and celebrated. That’s what we love about our cities.”

“Enforcement Hours,” a finalist in TheWrap’s 2019 ShortList Film Festival, is set in one of the nation’s most liberal cities, San Francisco. And yet it is informed both by the time Martinez spent in Northern California and by the childhood she spent in a Mexican-American family in Houston.

“It was a coming together of my own experience growing up in a mixed-status community in Houston,” she said. “My parents were undocumented for a period of time in my youth, and I knew a lot of people who were undocumented.

“But also, when I was later living in the Bay Area, California, and its sanctuary policies were very much in the crosshairs of the Trump administration. And what I’ve always found interesting about the immigrant experience is that the fear created by the threat of deportation and separation is a lot more powerful than the actual enforcement perpetrated by the government.

“That fear, created by the rhetoric of the federal government, is what creates divisions within communities. I’ve always found that very interesting, but I never knew how to visualize that emotion. How do you make a film about that very complex feeling?”

Martinez found a way after hearing about rapid-response hotlines launched to help immigrants find information and get help. At first, she wanted to make a documentary about the volunteers who staff them — but when she spent time in the offices of the San Francisco Rapid Response Network and realized that they recorded all their phone calls, it led her to what she called “a very strange and much more interesting place.”

“Enforcement Hours” has no talking heads, interviews or explanatory graphics; its soundtrack simply consists of recordings of the calls, some of them from scared immigrants who’ve heard about impending ICE raids, others from angry anti-immigrant voices who want to berate the hotline volunteers or simply tie up the phone lines.

The idea, she said, was to create “a journey through immigrant San Francisco” that didn’t focus on specific people. “I started working through a selection of phone calls,” she said of her process. “The calls were obviously highly edited for length and for impact, and I thought about how to create an emotional arc, even if that wasn’t based at all on plot, but was purely emotional and tonal.”

When she’d whittled the soundtrack down to 30 minutes, Martinez began to shoot footage of places that were chosen both for their connection to some of the calls and for their visual and tonal qualities. “It didn’t have to directly relate to the phone calls,” she said. “It was OK for the viewer to be slightly confused, because in the phone calls, people were confused and were trying to grasp at whatever information they could. I wanted to keep the viewer that way as well.”

Finding the right balance, she said, was the biggest challenge. “In the rough-cut stage, it wasn’t working at all,” she said. “Like a lot of films, it feels like a disaster until it isn’t, and you just have to work through it. This piece was definitely a disaster until it wasn’t. I could have given up on it, but I had to finish it. And I’m glad that I was forced to finish it.”

Watch the film above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at Shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote through Aug. 21.