With its swoon-worthy cinematography, sizzling romantic chemistry and poignant storyline, I Carry You with Me is one of the most affecting films of the last few years. Telling a bittersweet gay love story of two Mexican immigrants who seek a brighter future in the United States, the film speaks to contemporary concerns with keenly felt empathy. As the film prepares for its long awaited release, I spoke with director Heidi Ewing about the real life influences that shaped this stunning hybrid of documentary and fiction storytelling. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
Shane Slater: How did this film come about?
Heidi Ewing: I’ve been friends with the two men the film is based on (Iván and Gerard) for many years. We met around 2005 at a local wine bar on my street. It was owned by a Mexican man who is friends with them. I used to go there after my edits and I think I was editing Jesus Camp. And they came in one night and we started chatting. Iván’s a great dancer and Gerardo is a lot of fun and I speak Spanish. So it was a social thing and we were very easygoing friends for years. Gerardo wanted to open a restaurant and they were both working at different restaurants. And eventually they did that, and over many years we became close friends. They came to my wedding and stuff like that.
But it wasn’t really until 2012 at Sundance when they came to support me for Detropia and one night they told me their real story. That they were undocumented and Iván had a son and that they had experienced a lot of homophobia and different types of abuse at home. It was an eye-opening experience and I was sort of angry at myself for not knowing more, not guessing more. I was so surprised by everything they told me and it was the genesis of the story because I was so impacted by it.
I wasn’t sure what to do with the story and we agreed that we would do some interviews. We did several days of interviews at my home with cinematographers. And early on I realized I was filming the third act of a movie and that this was not a documentary in the traditional sense. It actually deserved some kind of epic, narrative treatment. Then I decided I had to either shelve the idea – because they would never trust anyone else to tell this story – or try to write a movie. So that started the whole journey.
SS: It must have been such a huge responsibility to tell their story. Were Iván and Gerardo very involved in the process of recreating their youth?
HE: No, they didn’t want to be involved in the creative side. They didn’t want to read the screenplay. I was also trying to “find” the film over time and I would continue to find cinéma vérité moments of their life. It was a collaboration in the sense that they trust me as an artist. And they knew that I was writing the movie but also filming them, and I was trying to figure out how to blend these two worlds.
They just trusted me and at some point, after Donald Trump was elected, I sat down with them and said maybe we should stop. Maybe we should at least put the movie on the shelf and not talk to anyone about it or try to raise money for it. Things were getting very scary. Until Donald Trump, the idea was that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and publicity would be better for an undocumented immigrant. That was thrown into question under the administration. I remember the conversation very well because they said no, we’re doing this. We’re going to keep going and we want our story to be told.
Responsibility is an understatement. These are very close friends of mine. I love them. It was beyond friendship at that point. It was like a family endeavor. I had complete and total creative freedom. They did not see the film until I had a fine cut. They really were so respectful. I think they knew better than to try to get involved. It would have probably crippled me. That was a major part of my ability to be creative on this film.
SS: With the homophobia in Mexico, did that provide a challenge in finding actors willing to play these parts?
HE: There were a few actors that didn’t want to read for the part or the agency didn’t want them to read for the part because of the content. There was one actor that said he wouldn’t mind being in a gay movie if there was no kissing. [Laughs]. Mexico has come a long way but this is a macho country. In the United States, a straight actor who plays a gay man is rewarded, whereas I’m not sure Mexico is there yet. Christian Vazquez is a heartthrob, matinee idol. He’d never done a gay role and he was so excited and open. Everybody I cast was in the right frame of mind. But it did come up a little bit in the early casting to be honest.
SS: I’m a big fan of your documentary One of Us, which bears similarities to I Carry You with Me in the sense of characters breaking from traditions. Have you always been fascinated with those kinds of people and stories?
HE: Yeah, even if you look as far back as Jesus Camp and The Boys of Baraka, the idea of not fitting the mold and the price you pay is something I’m interested in. I guess that is a theme throughout a lot of my work. I have admiration and fear for people who walk away from what they know. And I guess it’s just one of those themes that I can’t stop exploring and I’ll probably continue to.
SS: I’m always interested in how audience responses vary depending on background. This film crosses two cultures. Did you encounter any differences in the American vs Mexican response?
HE: It’s funny, I’ve had some audiences through festivals qualifying runs. But of course, my release was supposed to be during Pride Month in June and was then cancelled four or five times because of COVID. So I can tell you what I know so far, which is that I’m shocked by the broad impact on diverse audiences. People who are not recent immigrants, people who are straight. It was a very joyful surprise for me. One hopes for that but I don’t delude myself into thinking that films don’t end up in a niche. This one speaks to a lot of people.
We had a qualifying run in Mexico and it played the Morelia Film Festival. And it’s going to play very well in Mexico because it’s also about family. Everyone in Mexico knows someone who left and hasn’t come back, or came back different, or thought about leaving. So far in Mexico, the people who’ve seen it are saying that it’s a very Mexican film and they’re surprised that an American is behind it. That of course fills me with pride because I did not want to be some gringo walking in and getting it wrong. That would be humiliating for everyone.
SS: There’s an ongoing debate over classifying content as TV vs film and I Carry You with Me brings up another question of fiction vs non-fiction. Historically, there has been some pushback against similar hybrids within the documentary community. Is that attitude changing?
HE: Well, this is a narrative film with documentary elements. Many audiences at Sundance didn’t know they were looking at documentary footage until the credits. They felt that I just changed the style. I think audiences are super flexible. If an audience is invested and engaged in a story, they’ll go with you. If you look at Tangerine and a lot of fiction films that are shot like documentaries, there’s a collision happening. I think it’s the critical community and purists who have the most issue and pick apart the films that merge the two. I think it’s an interesting debate but I think audiences don’t care. And that’s what I’ve been learning through this experience so far.