Lucia Gaja's "My Life Inside" at Tribeca Film Festival
(from brinkzine.com 4/30/08)
In film festival tradition, Tribeca is presenting a number of documentaries about tragic events and circumstances in countries around the world. "My Life Inside" is different because it is about a heartbreaking situation right here in America, specifically Bush's Texas, where there is a special brand of courtroom "justice." Moreover, it's the rare documentary about America that was directed by someone who crossed the Mexican-American border heading north. Mexican director Lucia Gajá's heartfelt, powerful film tells the grim story of Rosa Jiménez, who came to America at the age of seventeen to make enough money to help her family back in Mexico and today finds herself behind bars for the rest of her life on a murder charge. She says she is innocent, but she had little chance to prove it during a outrageous trial where conviction was the only option. Gajá's great hope is that her film will call attention to Rosa Jiménez's plight and a public outcry will result in a new trial and justice being served. I met the director at the festival.
Danny Peary: What's your background?
Lucia Gajá: I'm from Mexico City and studied cinema there. I specialized in direction. Then I went to Cuba to the School of San Antonio de los Baños to do work shop in documentary. I went to several seminars with Patricia Guzmán. Basically I've done documentaries. This is my first feature.
DP: How did you get interested in this story?
LG: In the beginning I wanted to make a documentary about Mexican women in jail in the United States. For years we'd known a lot about male Mexicans in American jails and death sentences they have received. And we know of all the Mexicans who have died trying to crossing the border. But there really had been nothing about Mexican women in jails. I was really interested in that. I began investigating the prison system here, and how the women get cut off from the world and their families. She is in jail not in her country, and it's not her language or the same culture, and because of the separation from her children and family, it can be really, really hard for her. So that's why I started this. I began interviewing some of these women with the help of the Mexican consulate in Austin. And I met Rosa Jiménez there in January 2005.
DP: Are there estimates of how many Mexican women are in Texas prisons?
LG: When I finished the movie in August 2007, I couldn't get an exact number. But according to the Mexican consulate, there were 1,640 cases in the whole country under review just in 2006. But I think it's only Texas.
DP: Why did you choose Rosa Jiménez's case as opposed to all the other cases?
LG: Because she was the only woman I interviewed who hadn't been sentenced yet. There is another woman I interviewed who has a very small part in the film. She had spent four years in jail. But Rosa's case was very interesting to me because I was going to be able to follow her. Her trial was coming and I was hoping to shoot it, which I did. I didn't know all the things that would happen.
DP: So you filmed for two years?
LG: Yes, and the editing a postproduction took another year.
DP: Did you have a hard time getting permission to speak to her?
LG: Not really. One of the women who worked on the documentary at one time worked for the Mexican consulate. She got all the permits. In that way, Austin was really a nice place to be and shoot in. People in Austin are great and everyone helped us a lot.
DP: How often did you speak to her?
LG: I saw three times before the trial. Then I saw her every day during the trial. And I had just one interview with her after the trial, two months later. I wanted to interview her again but couldn't. She already was in another jail and it was really hard to get to her.
DP: Did she want you to tell her story?
LG: Yes, she wanted her story to be known. She wanted other Mexican women to know what happened to her because she didn't want any other women to go through what she has.
DP: Is she political?
LG: Not at all. She is the normal very young Mexican immigrant without papers. I met her when she was twenty-two, now she's twenty-five.
DP: And she was convicted…
LG:...and sentenced to ninety-nine years for murder.
DP: Who died?
LG: A boy. She was a nanny. He choked on some paper towels. She had been taking care of him for six months and there had been no problem. There had been no signs of abuse. She got accused of killing him in an awful way, of holding the boy down and stuffing the paper inside of his mouth. She says she wasn't looking when he stuffed the paper in his own mouth. The prosecutor says she did it.
DP: And I'm sure many people feel that in Texas, guilty or innocent, she was going to be convicted. And such injustice is going to happen over and over again.
DP: How were you feeling emotionally during the filming as you saw her getting a raw deal?
LG: It was really hard. I'd never been inside a jail, not even in Mexico, so that was hard, but the hardest thing was the trial. I was there from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day for twelve days. It was really difficult. Then I had to start over, doing the other interviews for two months after the trial. So I had to get myself off again. And editing was hard, too, because I was doing it at the same time.
DP: During the trial was it so hard because you went home and broke down?
LG: A little bit, yes. It's not a nice story.
DP: Is this part of the "illegal immigrant" issue that has increased hostility toward Mexicans?
LG: I think it has to be. I don't know if it's like that outside of Texas. I just got to know Austin jails. I think there are a lot of Mexican males on Death Row now. When I shot the movie there were no Mexican women on Death Row, but that may have changed.
DP: Is there anything going on with her case?
LG: They are trying to reopen her case by reviewing what happened during the first trial. There were things about the first trial that...well people should see the movie. There is a new lawyer working with the old lawyers and she reviewed the whole case and she is going to do something for her.
DP: And what about you? Do you want to continue making documentaries?
LG: Yes, yes, yes.