There’s a kind of poetic circularity to the immigration debate in the United States. As certain as the sun rises each morning, the same tropes and talking points are dredged up every election cycle, with the occasional contextual flairs reflecting our hopes, fears, and anxieties. It is a complicated issue, and any measured answer must navigate a minefield of human rights issues, business and economic needs, and the challenges facing a rapidly changing demographic and labor landscape in the United States.
Farewell, Ferris Wheel aims to narrow the scope and frame the discussion around the challenges facing one of the most-overlooked groups affected by current immigration policy: legal migrants who come to the States for seasonal, non-agricultural work. Focusing specifically on the primarily Mexican workforce in the U.S. carnival industry, the fate of this group of workers (almost exclusively male), recipients of the H2B visa, is fraught with allegations of workplace abuse, injuries on the job, diluted wages, and withholding of pay that has caused opponents to view the visa as a form of modernized slavery or indentured servitude. Proponents argue that it provides the laborers with much better work opportunities than they would otherwise have remaining in their home country, and allows them to earn enough to help their families and communities. The answer, as in most debates, lies somewhere in between.
Co-directors Jamie Sisley and Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez began working on this project in the summer of 2008, and spent the better part of the last eight years fleshing out the story they want to tell us. The seasonal nature of their subjects’ work, as well as major changes in both Sisley’s and Martinez’s lives, meant that this “summer project” ended up taking close to a decade.
“I started this documentary and I’m happy to say that I saw it through,” Sisley says, with a relieved laugh. The Virginia native is sitting in his apartment in Los Angeles, a recent California transplant after several years working in film in New York. “It’s tough.”
Sisley, a former music industry professional turned film school graduate, is taking his time to scope out new opportunities in Tinseltown, but at the moment he’s focused on getting as wide of an audience for Farewell, Ferris Wheel as possible.
Martinez, Sisley’s co-director and partner in this endeavor, has had a couple of busy years, between directing music videos, his stunning portrait work, and generally playing a crucial role in the creative renaissance enveloping his adopted home of Washington, D.C. Despite all of their successes, both of them remain humble, gracious, and affable as ever.
These two long-time friends and collaborators have finally put the finishing touches on their passion project, and are sharing their thoughtful portrait of the lives of men who are the backbone of the carnival industry.
Farewell, Ferris Wheel has been selected for participation at the AFI Docs, running from June 22 – 26 . Screenings are Saturday, June 25 and Sunday June 26. You can find tickets here.
*[For the sake of full disclosure, I have known Jamie Sisley for the better part of a decade – he was my boss when I interned at Red Light Management]
Brightest Young Things: I’d like to hear a little bit more about how you two came in contact with each other. How did you connect, and how did you decide to collaborate?
Jamie Sisley: We met back in 2008 when I was still working at Red Light Management. He was someone who reached out while I was there, wanting to inquire about why there weren’t more Latino artists coming through Charlottesville to play. I thought that was a good question, and so Miguel and I sat down for lunch, and we just kind of became friends. That’s sort of how it happened.
When I started thinking about filmmaking more, I naturally thought of Miguel – I knew he had done music videos in the past. And I really didn’t know any other people in the area who had the kind of experience he did. So it was a natural fit to come to him and see if he might be interested in working on a project together. Also, a large part of the project has to do with legal migrant workers, and I knew part of Miguel’s background and story, and I thought it might resonate with him. Mig, am I missing anything?
Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez: Nah, that’s it, man. And you thought I was extremely awesome. [Both laugh]
Jamie, you showed me a short trailer of Farewell, Ferris Wheel in 2008. We’re in 2016, and the documentary is finally about to premiere. I understand that the actual production process was somewhat arduous, partly because of the challenges and logistics involved.
JS: Yeah, it was! Actually, a large part of it also was that Mig and I – and Mig, feel free to chime in – we were developing this and it was our first film. It was the first time I had ever held a camera, period. So, you know, a lot of it was learning how filmmaking works, from things like story structure, which is pretty complicated, to the more simple things like… I dunno, making sure we’re wiping scenes correctly. It serves the whole spectrum. Part of it was just that.
I went to film school a couple of years into it, and so I kept feeling like every year I was learning more, and the more I was learning I realized how little I actually knew. I think that helped inform the film, but it delayed the film from being finished. On top of that, the topics we cover are very organic and fluid, and they’ve changed a lot over the years. It’s taken us time to make sure we have a grasp on everything, and to make sure we represent all sides of the story, because it’s a complicated situation.
MM: In a nutshell, that’s pretty much what it is. Like Jamie said, we’re first time filmmakers. Even though I had worked on a couple of music videos, this is completely different. It’s a documentary, and there are so many things that go into making one that we didn’t know.
How did you come across this very specific take on immigration? Why the decision to focus on temporary, legal migrant workers? It’s not an obvious topic for audiences.
JS: Yeah, you’re right, and that’s a big reason why we decided to explore it. I first read an article in a newspaper many years back, while still in Charlottesville, about how the carnival was being jeopardized because of some legislative proposals that were happening around the H2B visas. For me, the carnival stuck out. It was something that was very nostalgic to me as a boy – I remember going, and I remember having a good time. I thought it would something interesting to explore.
The more we looked into it, the more we realized how rare of a subject legal migrant workers were when it comes to films. Illegal immigration has been covered “adequately” [laughs nervously], but I don’t think that people understand that there are thousands of migrant workers from around the world who come up here legally, and jump through a lot of hoops to try to live within the boundaries of the law, and how difficult that is for them to do.
MM: A lot of people don’t know much about the H2B. Even now, when we tell people about it, they’re still learning about this visa. It’s kind of crazy! Illegal immigration has been covered thoroughly, but we rarely talk about the legal migrant workers and what they go through. The obstacles they have to go through. I’m originally from Mexico, and that whole rhetoric about migrants taking work away from us [Americans] – I’ve heard that for a long time, and it’s not true. It’s not all illegals; there are legal immigrants who come here and try to do things right.
JS: Legal migrant work in America is a super complicated issue. There’s a lot of really great employers out there who are trying to abide by the rules, and a lot of great workers who are trying to abide by the rules. It’s really that a lot of the laws that exist aren’t helping either side – they’re kind of outdated, and you can maybe begin to see why a lot of people go the illegal route. I’m not advocating for illegal immigration by any stretch, but you can begin to understand better why illegal immigration is such an option when you see how complicated and outdated some of these legal visa systems are in the U.S.
BYT: In a way, the timing of Farewell, Ferris Wheel couldn’t be better. There’s been a lot of conversations in the last eight years about the issues, merits, and drawbacks to immigration reform – you’re dealing with an audience that is more informed than ever. What do you guys hope to achieve through telling this story?
JS: Yeah, it’s funny, man – I remember sitting down at a coffee shop with Miguel in the summer of ’08, thinking “this is only going to take a summer!” We had planned to shoot this film, edit, have it all done in a few months. Obviously, this shows how more naive I was then than I am now. But I think we got lucky that we took this much time, because people caught up with the issues a little bit more over the last few years. To answer your question: we just want to start a dialogue and conversation about legal migrant workers. If people start talking more about these visas – both policy makers and regular people – we’ll be very happy with a broader recognition of the issues surrounding these visas.
Like Miguel mentioned, when you talk about H2B or H2A, most people have no idea what they are, and they don’t understand that a lot of people who come here are legal.
MM: At the end of the day, we just want to spark a conversation about this. Immigration laws change so much that it becomes confusing to a lot of people, especially if all you hear are little sprinkles here and there throughout the news, particularly in an election year – that’s when you’re most likely to hear more about immigration. But it’s a real issue for a lot of people, and for a lot of Americans – especially business owners. We want to shed a light on legal immigration.
JS: There are a lot of members of Congress that I have deep respect for – in what they believe in and what they fight for. But I feel like a lot of those same members are on the wrong side of this H2B issue, and because a lot of the time they only hear one side of the conversation. The migrant worker part of the conversation really doesn’t exist in a lot of ways, because these people don’t really have a voice in Congress. They’re not American citizens, they don’t vote. They’re not any members of Congress’ constituents. So, it’s easy for them to not hear their [the migrant] side of it. I think it’s unintentional, but all the same, hopefully this adds some awareness of that side of the H2B conversation.
BYT: Did you follow the same group of people over a period of years? How many subjects did you follow for the documentary?
JS: We followed two migrant workers from the same town of [Palapacuyan], which is where most carnival workers come from in Mexico. We followed them from the very beginning, and all the way to the end. We also followed a carnival owner, and the main recruiter who recruits most of the carnival workers in the U.S. – so those are the four story lines.
BYT: Are you itching to get back to making another documentary soon, or do you feel like you’ve “learned your lesson” and decided to steer clear from it? Or is this a medium you find yourself wanting to explore further, in different directions?
MM: Personally speaking, if the opportunity comes to do another documentary, and it’s something I feel strongly about, yeah – probably. Right now the focus is on wrapping this up and putting it out into the world. Whatever happens after that, happens. I’m focusing on photography in my day to day, but that’s me.
JS: I feel the same – I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity to do this. It’s a great way to learn about the issues we started looking into, and also about filmmaking in general. Any time you have a chance to make a film, I think I’d gladly take it.