Witnessing His Life Story: Rodrigo Reyes Interviews the Subject of His Doc, Sansón and Me
During his day job as a Spanish criminal interpreter in a small town in California, filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes met a young man named Sansón, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was sentenced to life in prison without parole. With no permission to interview him, Sansón and Reyes worked together over a decade, using hundreds of letters as inspiration for recreations of Sansón’s childhood—featuring members of Sansón’s own family. The resulting film, Sansón and Me, captures the developing friendship between filmmaker and subject as they navigate both the immigration and criminal justice systems.
Sansón and Me opened the new season of the documentary series Independent Lens and screens on PBS until October 19. Distributed by Cinema Guild, the film will soon be available on streaming and home video. Below, in a guest post, director Rodrigo Reyes shares some thoughts on the film’s premiere, as well as reflections from his collaborator and protagonist, Sanson Andrade, who, after 10 years of work and many restrictions, has finally been allowed to see the film. — Editor
Imagine that you craft a film with a real person who is in prison, serving life without parole, you work for a decade trying to find a way to tell their story in the face of intractable rules and prohibitions. And finally, when you are finished and ready to premiere, that person, your friend and protagonist of this story, is not allowed to see it.
This terrible ethical quandary is what I was confronted with as Sansón and Me headed towards its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It was a painful dilemma that seemed to expand the footprint of injustice. Because if true justice lives anywhere, it must be found in our stories.
After Tribeca, the film fluttered about the world like a little bird. We were blessed to win a very memorable award at Sheffield DocFest, it visited Mexico’s Morelia Film Festival and many other countries, eventually landing in Sansón’s home state of Colima, hosted by the beautiful Zanate Fest. Sansón’s family and friends helped to present the film and yet, in the midst of so much love, Sansón remained in limbo and could not witness his own story.
Patiently, he waited. And as time went by and 2023 came along, a window of opportunity flickered open in the distance thanks to an incredible program inside the prison walls. On September 7th, surrounded by a group of allies and friends, Sansón finally saw this work that he had given so much of his life and energy to.
The evening of the day when Sansón saw the film, I awaited his call, nervous, anxious and terribly excited to hear what he had to say. Beyond festivals, theatrical screenings and even an incredible national broadcast, Sansón was always the first and most important viewer of this work. Filmmakers across the universe know this feeling, that moment of anticipation where your collaborators, those who have shared their soul with you, can see the finished piece — and in a moment, the film is whole, the circle is complete, and the work enters its true life of freedom in the world.
What follows is a gathering of several conversations I have had with Sansón in the last few days, unpacking his experience:
Reyes: Early on in our connection, I asked you to write and remember your entire life. How did our film help you climb the walls of your reality?
Sansón: I knew my story and its context, but with your questions, I dug a little deeper into the details of everything, and I saw that I needed to heal from all of that. You can share your story and move forward, so you are not just stuck in the same thing, in that circle that leads to nowhere good. With this process, we could build awareness for other people who are in the same circumstances as me.
The movie also helped me to go back into my past and make peace with everything that happened, to heal and look at the future with hope, healing a lot of anger that I had with my family, and lots of resentments. I understood a little more about their lives, and I could imagine that they too have a story, and it also was not easy. More than anything, the movie helped me to understand them.
I no longer think like a child, asking why this or why that. I am now an adult who can see things with more clarity, and I have time now, here in prison, to reflect on so many things. Do you understand me?
The movie process helped me to heal and try to better myself, just a little more, to be able to feel the desire to write and do something with my life, like the very important act of putting my own story to paper and transform it into a movie.
Reyes: Did you ever have doubts about the process?
Sansón: Yes, of course I had moments where I began to wonder: why go through all of this? Why go back to the past and make so many people uncomfortable? There are times when things are so painful that it feels better to just leave them in the past. But I always knew that these issues are necessary and they need to come to light.
Reyes: The film is a portrait of our friendship. This sometimes includes moments of tension and challenges for us. Why was it important to include that?
Sansón: Well, it is important because it’s about the transformation of a friendship. Good conversations, disagreements, learning to respect the other person’s opinion and most of all, having the support of a friend who will force you to confront reality and helps you to see what is sneaking past you.
Reyes: Your life today is very independent of your family. How do you feel about that? Why did you choose to strike out on your own path?
Sansón: When I was very young I learned that I had family members who cared and had the best intentions for me. But they have their own lives and preoccupations. I am at peace with that. I have moved on and I want to do my own thing.
I want what is best for my family, but I am also a realist, and I know that everyone has to seek out their path. I wish I could change their lives, but due to my current situation, I cannot. I hope they can learn from my experience.
Reyes: What are your thoughts on seeing the places where you grew up?
Sansón: I relived my childhood memories, when I was care-free. The picture was beautiful with that, especially with the scenes on the beach. It gave me mixed emotions, right? Because you can remember nice things but also ugly ones, yet not everything was terrible. On the beach, you saw it everyday, running on the sand, riding boats on the ocean… Mexico is this way, we are full of art, even the ugly things are pretty.
Reyes: What would you like your son to know, if he watches the film?
Sansón: Talking about my son is always pleasant and beautiful. I would tell him that I miss him, and that no matter what, I carry him in my heart and to never lose hope that we will reunite one day. I want him to know that I would have liked to personally tell him my story. If he happens to see the movie, I hope he sees the reality of things and will come to understand where he comes from, and a little bit of his own story.
I hope he makes the most of his childhood and youth, to become educated and try to improve himself. I wish him the best and eternal happiness. If he wants to seek me out, I will always be here for him.
Reyes: How does it feel to see your story? Focusing on the moments of trauma in your life, how can we interrupt and break these cycles?
Sansón: I am left with many reflections on my story. I want to imagine that the lives of many other people are just as hard or even more so than mine. We all have a story, and it is vital to not be complacent.
Trauma for me has been difficult to get past it, to understand the nature of everything. You never stop healing, but you have to learn to live as best as you can, to find strength in the good things you have at hand. Generations continue and nothing has changed. today, I think that my family lives in a cycle that continues repeating itself and I was a part of that. It was my inheritance. All I can say is that now I understand my story and that’s why I can be at peace.
Reyes: What do you hope audiences will understand from the film?
Sansón: It is not over yet. There is a very big hope in the reactions that the movie is creating, maybe the window of hope that I have been waiting for always will open: a change in the law. There are so many people in here with the same situation—and we need a change.
The movie also opened up a window of understanding, to give others that point-of-view, that perspective about us. We are not just a number, just another person in jail, we are somebody’s family, somebody loves and cares for us.
Reyes: How are you doing?
Sansón: I am doing real good, I am blessed. I am working on my education, trying to get a degree in Administrative Justice, working with you on a new short movie about me and my son, with Stanford University, and with the folks at Represent Justice, a non-profit leading our impact campaign.
I am collaborating with the Prison Journalism Project, and my friend Marcos and I are involved with our group, Life Worthy of Purpose, here inside Tehachapi State Prison. Thank you to all the groups and people that have helped in this amazing adventure about all the men in California who were condemned to die in prison.
Reyes: How are people around you, inside your facility, reacting to the film?
Sansón: People have been watching the movie non-stop on TV. Everyday I hear about it. Some people like it a lot, others not so much. But that’s OK, I am just glad that my story is out there.