A photo of a member of the humanitarian search-and-rescue group Águilas del Desierto.

Professor’s Award-Winning Documentary on Migration

 

By Alison Hewitt

 

When UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre decided to make a documentary about volunteers who search for the remains of migrants in the desert spanning the U.S.-Mexico border, she wanted people to see what she believes has become invisible: not just the deaths, but how ignoring them enables policies that lead to even more deaths.

Now she’s helped bring that hidden reality to light. Her 14-minute film Águilas, co-directed with Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, a professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, won the SXSW Documentary Short Jury Award and the Best Mini-Doc award at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

The film garnering all this interest took shape when Zubiaurre, a professor of European languages and transcultural studies, and of Spanish and Portuguese, approached Guevara-Flanagan with the idea of highlighting the work of Águilas del Desierto (Desert Eagles), a humanitarian search-and-rescue group that scours the Arizona desert on weekends, looking for those reported missing. The documentary follows the volunteers on one of their searches.

Zubiaurre, who also co-leads the College’s Urban Humanities Initiative, spoke with UCLA College Magazine about the film and her concept of “forensic empathy,” which centers on consciousness-raising activism and compassion-triggering artistic practices around migrant suffering and death. Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: It’s clear that you are very moved and inspired by the work of Águilas del Desierto. Who are they?

A: They’re a group of volunteers from San Diego. At least once a month, they search for missing migrants to bring families some sort of closure. The weekend that we filmed the documentary, we found six bodies, all skeletal remains.

Most of the volunteers are migrants themselves, and they’re all workers — construction workers, domestic workers, gardeners, laborers, you name it. They finish work around 7 on Friday night, drive their trucks seven hours to Arizona, sleep for maybe three hours and then walk for hours through that harsh and harrowing landscape. I have volunteered with them since 2016, and it’s truly very hard. They sleep in a tent on Saturday night and search on Sunday until they have to drive home. Then they get up early Monday morning and go back to work.

Needless to say, they don’t have any steady funding. They have a website and a Facebook page, and they set up stands in swap meets, where they talk about their work and collect donations. Those are also ways they hear about the missing.

What the Águilas do, their heroic efforts and altruism, deserves recognition. Their work needs to be made visible. This short documentary isn’t looking at all the pieces of the issue, but it looks at one specific piece to raise awareness about what is happening at the border and hopefully help change it.

Q: You’ve said this documentary is a humanitarian plea. What action do you hope it will inspire?

A: People don’t want to deal with the fact that migration is creating this humanitarian crisis. In 2020, Arizona’s Pima County morgue recovered 227 mi-grants’ bodies. In the 1990s, they would find 10 or 20 bodies. The numbers have skyrocketed because of “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a set of U.S. government policies that militarily fortify urban crossing points, forcing migrants to cross through unforgiving desert terrain. The loose estimate is that for each body they find, there are five that the desert never gives back.

This has become invisible, despite its radical visibility: The bones are liter-ally laying exposed in the sun. I want to raise awareness, and most importantly, effect policy change.

This documentary, and a feature documentary in the making, are part of a larger, three-pronged interdisciplinary and collaborative endeavor called forensic empathy that I initiated and lead. The other participants are the Tijuana-based filmic and artistic collective Dignicraft — José Luis Figueroa, Ana Paola Rodríguez and Omar Foglio — and Jonathan Crisman, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

We are also writing a scholarly monograph and leading the creation of a digital map of the border. There’s the imaginary border you see on most maps — a criminally simplified version that our map wants to complicate. It’s not all bad guys trying to get into a perfect country. We’re complicating the map with prisons, migrant assistance groups, artist studios. We’re thickening the map so students can learn about the complexity of the border.

If you teach students complexity, they will pause and reflect. If you oversimplify, they will not reflect, and they will believe in fallacies.

Q: How does forensic empathy shine a light on this topic in a new way?

A: We have to look at this grim reality through the eyes of empathy, not just through the cold statistics. Forensic empathy is a direct response to the tragedy of the horrifyingly high number of undocumented immigrants who perish year after year while crossing the U.S.–Mexico border. It studies the forensic efforts, archival practices and art interventions that take place around border casualties and looks at the personal belongings found on the deceased immigrants through the eyes of chief examiners, consular agencies, policymakers, nonprofit organizations and artist-activists.

The personal belongings recovered in the desert tell a story. Belongings like camouflaged clothes, carpet-soled shoes and matte water bottles are all designed to help the migrants truly disappear into the landscape. But hundreds of bodies are found, not just by the Águilas, but by day-trippers, hunters, even dog walkers. The migrants die of dehydration, hypothermia, hyperthermia. Yet because we don’t want to look at our failure as a society, the bodies become invisible and so does the apparatus around it that increases the deaths.

This is a key role of the humanities, to apply critical thinking in dealing with the crucial issues of our times and to spearhead initiatives that connect with the community and fully invest in social justice.

LEARN MORE

Watch the documentary, available for a year through The New Yorker’s website. Visit the Águilas del Desierto website.

 

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Laure Murat roils the #MeToo debate in France

Photo of Laure Murat

Laure Murat. Photo: Courtesy of Laure Murat

In a recent book, Director of the UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies Laure Murat argues that #MeToo is the first serious challenge to patriarchy in modern times, and dismisses the current discussion of #MeToo in France as a polemical misdirection. Instead, she calls for a genuine debate on the issues of sexual harassment and assault that engages French young people, men and women, philosophers and intellectuals.

Born and raised in Paris, Murat is a well-known independent author and intellectual in France, but has lived and worked in the United States for the last 12 years, where she is a UCLA professor of French and Francophone studies. As a result, she has a unique perspective on #MeToo and its divergent receptions in the United States and France.

Focusing on the issues

Her book, Une révolution sexuelle? Réflexions sur l’après-Weinstein [A Sexual Revolution? Reflections on the Weinstein Aftermath], has fueled an ongoing rancorous debate about #MeToo in France, with Muratappearing on leading French television and radio shows to discuss the book, while also being interviewed by multiple French newspapers and online publications.

To give American readers an idea of the nature of the debate in France, some 100 well-known French women — including actress Catherine Deneuve — published an open letter in the left-leaning Le Monde that rejected the #MeToo movement and defended men’s “freedom to pester.”

The month before Une révolution sexuelle? was released, French journalist Eugénie Bastié of the conservative Le Figaro newspaper published Le Porc Émissaire: Terreur ou contre-révolution? [Blame the Pig: Terror or Counter-Revolution?], which decries the #MeToo movement for its supposed encouragement of victimization. Rightly or wrongly, one sentence in Bastié’s book has become emblematic of the French critique of #MeToo: “Une main aux fesses n’a jamais tué personne, contrairement aux bonnes intentions qui pavent l’enfer des utopies [A hand on someone’s ass never killed anyone, contrary to the good intentions that pave utopian hells].”

In fact, the views of Murat and Bastié were compared by Elisabeth Philippe of Bibliobs in an article titled Où vont les femmes après #MeToo? Le match Eugénie Bastié – Laure Murat [Where are women headed after #MeToo? The Eugénie Bastié – Laure Murat Competition].

Renewed dialogue for the young generation

Murat argues that polemics are preventing a real debate on the issues of sexual harassment and assault in France, as made clear in a translation of En France, #MeToo est réduit à une caricature pour éviter le débat [In France, #MeToo is being reduced to a caricature to avoid debate], a Mediapart.fr interview conducted by Marine Turchi:

Today, one could say that France is the country of the non-debate. I am struck by the intellectual void and the deliberate desire of the media to extinguish the issues by means of false polemics.

Instead of posing good questions, they rekindle the war of the sexes and clichés of “hysterical feminists” and “poor men,” they invoke masculinity and the freedom to pester, they feel sorry for men who sexually harass women on the subway, they discuss the excesses and possible ambiguities of #MeToo while they haven’t begun to discuss the heart of the problem. They oppose X and Y, right and left, for and against. …

Far from reanimating the war of the sexes, the #MeToo movement is, on the contrary, an exciting opportunity to understand and resolve the gulf between men and women, the gaps in consent, the sufferings of misunderstood sexuality, the logic of domination and abuse of power that poison personal and professional relationships. It’s the promise of renewed dialogue for the young generation. I really like the proposal of Gloria Steinem: eroticize equality (in other words, not violence and oppression).

The #MeToo debate is far from over in either the United States or France. Murat’s book offers new perspectives as the conversation continues.

Visit https://ucla.in/2J6rUZy to read this article with links to the letters, interviews and news coverage mentioned.