By Katie Chambers
The 2022 Tribeca premiere Sansón and Me traces a young immigrant’s path from coastal Mexico to a life sentence for murder in California. The harrowing tale does not unfold in a traditional documentary format, but instead uses evocative recreations – many of them featuring members of Sansón’s own family as actors – to explore the meaning of a life fragmented by poverty, borders, and incarceration.
A deep sense of compassion permeates every frame of the film, and compassion is in fact the whole reason the project came to be. Filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes first met Sansón when Reyes served as the young man’s translator during the trial that ended with a lifetime prison sentence for a crime in which Sansón’s involvement was, it seems, negligible. Reyes was left haunted by Sansón’s stoic acceptance of his fate and knew there was a deeper story to explore.
“What has always struck me most about Sansón and Me is the artistic audacity of director Rodrigo Reyes and producer Su Kim. Working together over the course of many years, they created a deeply compassionate and authentic exploration that humanizes this young man’s life,” said NYWIFT member Lois Vossen, Executive Producer of PBS’s Independent Lens, where the film will premiere in Fall of 2023. “Using Sansón’s own words and exquisite recreations that feature members of his family and a deceptively quiet performance by actor Gerardo Reyes, we feel what it’s like to walk in Sansón’s shoes in this stunning work of creative nonfiction. What began with a court interpreter at the trial of a migrant with common roots from Mexico became a work of art about migration, the prison industrial complex, and society’s collective indifference to those who suffer from the cycle of poverty.”
We spoke to producer Su Kim about the team’s unusual, wildly creative, and ultimately deeply powerful approach to sharing Sansón’s story.
Congratulations on your premiere! What does inclusion in Tribeca mean to you?
I am New York-based and for me it feels like a hometown celebration. It’s really wonderful to be able to share the film with my community.
Beyond that, New York is the most important city of immigrants in the world. People, including my own family, have come here chasing the American Dream for generations. Sansón speaks to this universe with an open heart, and in doing so he touches the millions of stories that make up this unique place.
How did this project come to you?
I met [director] Rodrigo Reyes back in 2012, at IFP (now The Gotham) Independent Film Week. We met a few months after Sansón’s trial had ended, and Rodrigo was really shaken up by it. I think we clicked instantly because we were both trying to build our profile. I was immediately struck by Rodrigo’s passion for filmmaking, but also by his deep concern for Sansón.
In talking about the case, Rodrigo told me, “I never got to hear his story.” There was a real pain behind these words, and I encouraged him to reach out to Sansón. Our collaboration just grew naturally from that point. We began working on the film and our own friendship began to grow as we became more and more connected to Sansón and his amazing story.
This is very much a story within a story as the director Rodrigo Reyes enlists Sansón’s family to recreate scenes from his life, and in turn they gain a new understanding of him and reveal their own struggles. You can see their changes play out throughout the piece. What were some of your strategies to approach a project like this, whose tone and direction must have been shifting and evolving in real time?
We really struggled for years to find a way to tell the story. There were so many barriers to access from the system, and from the fact that the media doesn’t think Sansón’s life is worth telling. So when Rodrigo approached me with the idea of collaborating with the family to bring life to Sansón’s letters, I was very excited.
Many films that use recreations rely on actors, but by working with the family directly, Rodrigo made sure to keep us grounded in the truth. This is a documentary, there is a special relationship with reality that you cannot ever forget.
All I can say is that we were not afraid to make mistakes. We were also not afraid to be honest with the family about the limitations of the film in terms of changing Sansón’s case. But we also explained why we felt this process was important. We went into it together. And the sorrow and the joy of the experience was shared by everyone. I think we need to re-imagine how we tell stories that are hard, that question our understanding of the world, and Rodrigo taking a risk with Sansón’s memories is a step in the right direction.
What was your biggest challenge in making Sansón and Me? And favorite moment?
Rodrigo and I have been walking together with this film for 10 years. In the beginning, we were idealistic. We thought everyone would immediately understand the value in Sansón’s story. Perhaps the hardest thing was to learn that this was not the case. People were afraid. They wanted a clean hero, and we got a lot of rejections. This was very frustrating because I’ve always believed, 100% in this film.
Even though it was incredibly difficult, I loved making this work. I am deeply proud of it. One moment that crystalizes that for me was going to Tecomán in May and screening the film for the family. Our friends there set up a big outdoor screen and the movie came to life. It was wonderful, the family loved it.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
Rodrigo likes to say that listening is one of the most transgressive things we can do in life. And I agree. Listen to Sansón. Let his story speak to you because he is not alone.
Every single community across this country has young men who are forgotten, abandoned, and who have been punished too harshly. Their lives are being thrown away because we didn’t give them a chance. We have lost our understanding of what justice really means. But Sansón gives me hope things can be different.
This wasn’t your only Tribeca premiere this year! You also produced Hidden Letters, which we recently discussed with director/producer Violet Du Feng. Both films address various types of systemic biases, cultural prejudices, and struggles tied to identity and family. Do you find yourself naturally drawn to those stories?
I am proud to have two films premiere at Tribeca. My desire is to see the world and tell stories. I do believe the stories we tell can change the world. They can remind us of our common humanity, that we are all connected to each other. Because of my immigrant experience, I am drawn to the lives of outsiders. I want to capture stories from the margins of power. I want to shed light on the world of people who are ignored and fall through the cracks, whether it’s Chinese women who are connected by their fascination with Nushu and their desire to protect its legacy or a Mexican immigrant serving life without parole in California. I have a deep personal connection with all of these characters because I know what it is like to never belong – and therefore never be seen for who you really are.
Was it challenging working on such disparate projects – across many parts of the globe, China, Mexico, California, when you yourself are NY-based – at nearly the same time, and during a pandemic?
I would love to say it’s easy, but the truth is that sometimes I feel a little crazy. We always try to have a good time. If we’re not laughing, it’s just not worth it. But what keeps me going is my directors. I have faith in their vision. I love how Emelie, Violet, Tracy, John, Julie, Eugene, and Rodrigo see the world.
They work so hard to make their films come to life, and that inspires me to stand by them.
What’s next for you?
Hoping that Hidden Letters and Sansón and Me get released in a significant way. I have two films in release, Bitterbrush (Emelie Mahdavian) and Free Chol Soo Lee (Julie Ha/ Eugene Yi). I am developing a new project with Rodrigo Reyes. [And I’m] in production with Baseline (John D. Sutter) and Post-Production with Sarah (Tracy Droz Tragos) and One Bullet (Carol Dysinger).
Su Kim is an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy®️ and Peabody Award-winning producer. Her films in release include Bitterbrush; the Oscar®️ and Primetime Emmy®️-nominated Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Midnight Traveler.
Sansón and Me is an ITVS co-production and received funding through the ITVS Open Call initiative. It will premiere on PBS’s Independent Lens in Fall 2023. Learn more.
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