Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Xabier Saavedra
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Mexico City native Xabier Saavedra came to the USA in 2008 to train at a tennis academy in Southern California, and began attending Drexel University in Philadelphia in 2012. In college, Saavedra produced several experimental and documentary shorts. Narrative short Indo follows Mexican immigrant Camilo (Cristian Pinto), who works as a dish washer and sends the majority of the money he’s making back home to support his family.
PFS: Why were you inspired to address the theme of immigration?
XS: A few years ago I worked as a waiter in a Mexican restaurant, where most of the workers were undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. At first, the conversations I would have with my co-workers were very superficial, which makes sense, considering they were an already established family. I was, at least at the beginning, nothing but a white outsider. However, the fact that we were all Mexican made us grow closer and closer to each other, until my co-workers trusted me with their stories. I quickly realized that even though we came from the same country, our experiences were worlds apart. I am a caucasian male that comes from a middle-upper class upbringing, and has always had proper documents in the US. So when they would tell me about their siblings being deported over the weekend, or about how they had to move from Atlanta to Philly because it had become riskier to be there, I was shocked. I had not realized that being an undocumented immigrant meant living in caution 24/7, always looking over your shoulder and making sure you don’t attract any attention to yourself. Lastly, I realized that the reasons why people came to the United States varied drastically. Many came because opportunities for work in Mexico were scarce, while many did so because it just became too dangerous to keep on living in their hometowns. The state which Camilo is from, Michoacán, and which most of my co-workers were also from, is one of the states most affected by the ongoing war on drugs. From 2006 to 2012, it displaced over 1.5 million people, so I think it is essential to empathize with these people, to know that all they want is to live peacefully and be able to provide for their families.
PFS: How do you hope Indo will affect viewers?
XS: I hope that Indo will show viewers a small window into how it’s like to live as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. It’s a very monotonous and repetitive lifestyle, where all you do is work, and go home. And it’s that in-between, when they’re on their way to and/or from work, when they are most vulnerable. That’s when they have to be fully aware of their surroundings and make sure that they don’t, for any reason, get pulled for questioning by the police. One of my close friends in the restaurant told me about her schedule, which had her work 12-hour shifts, six times a week, and left her with one free day, which she usually used to go to the park. On top of that, she used to send 80% of her earnings to her family, and tried to save some of the rest to, hopefully one day, be able to buy a home near Mexico City.
PFS: Where does the title Indo come from?
XS: Indo makes reference to the words “indocumentado” and “indio,” which mean “undocumented” and “indian” in Spanish. Higher classes in Mexico often condescendingly refer to lower classes and Native Mexicans as “indios.” So in a way, one might think of it as Indo being the response these people get, from both sides of the border. In America, they’re considered undocumented, while in Mexico they’re considered “indios.” It’s a crazy thought, to think that you’re not welcome anywhere.
PFS: This is your first narrative short – what was it like transitioning to narrative from documentary?
XS: I actually made another narrative in 2016. It was about an exchange student from Argentina who came to the US to study (I swear not all of my films will be about Latinos coming to the United States). I shot it with a crew and cast made up entirely of friends, and the only money spent went towards pizza. I finished editing the 20-minute piece but I was very dissatisfied with it, so I buried it in a hard drive and didn’t do anything with it. It is true, however, that I’ve worked mostly on documentary. Last year, while I was working on Indo, I was also making two documentaries, and the work varied a lot between the two types of projects. Documentary is a lot more reactive; you make decisions based on the footage that you get and the answers from your subjects. Fiction is a lot more proactive; you have to do a lot more prep before shooting takes place, but you can control more variables. Editing is very different, too. With the documentaries, we were finding the stories as we edited the projects, while with Indo, the story was already there, so it became more about the order of the shots, their length, and the transitions, since any minor changes would convey different emotions and/or meanings.
PFS: What were some of the challenges you encountered making Indo?
XS: The biggest challenge with Indo was time. At that time I was still in school, finishing my finance degree, as well as being the assistant tennis coach at Drexel. I also was applying for a visa extension and looking for jobs, so the amount of time I had to work on the film was very limited. So the real challenge was making something that was good enough to make an impact, and to establish myself as a serious filmmaker, while at the same time have it be simple enough, so I could do it on top of all my other commitments and responsibilities. I was fortunate enough to get help from Gerry Hooper at Drexel, who allowed me to rent out equipment from Drexel’s film department. I also had the help friends of a few friends who were truly instrumental, since due to the lack of budget I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. Also, simply trying to tell a story with no dialogue and through the commute of a worker proved to be a challenge in and of itself.
PFS: What was the best part of making Indo?
XS: The best part about making Indo was the collaboration with my friends. From writing to the last stages of post-production, I got constant feedback from a lot of people. This was people who worked on the film as well as people who didn’t. I tried to keep my original vision in mind (be true to the monotony of the life of an undocumented immigrant), while at the same time being open to any and all the comments and suggestions people made about the project. The absolute best thing, when it comes to creative work, is when two or more people are on the same page in a project. If the people you work with get the point of the project, and share the same vision, then collaboration works wonders, and the ideas each person has complement the other ones.
PFS: Are you working on anything currently, and do you plan to keep making films going forward?
XS: Film is actually relatively new for me, as I didn’t really ever consider doing it full-time until last year. I originally wanted to be an architect, since my dad as well as many other family members are architects. However, foreigners can’t study architecture at Drexel, so I chose to study finance instead, as a purely practical decision. I was a competitive tennis player during college and before it, so that took most of my energy, but after being done with that, I found myself really needing a creative outlet. So being interested in photography, and already being a cinephile, film felt like a natural transition. I definitely plan on making films in the future. I fell in love with the process while I was working on Indo and the other two films, so at the moment I have a really hard time thinking of myself doing anything else. My current 9-to-5 is working in the production office of Creed II, since I’m only legally authorized to work in business-related positions (due to studying finance). Outside of that I’m also working on a documentary about Kev Rodgers, a music producer from the Southside of Jersey. I also recently got approached to make a short documentary series on different chefs and business owners, so I’m excited about that. Lastly, I have another short script which it’s making its rounds at the moment, in the hopes that other people will be interested in making it as well. I’ve gotten good feedback so far so I’m optimistic about it. It’s a drama about a daughter and her mom, with elements of surrealism, so it’s very different from Indo. Though I must admit that a lot of my motivation for doing it is to fix and change the things that I did wrong on the last film. That and my own experiences with my parents during my last visit home.
Indo will screen on Thursday, April 12 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.