mija Director Isabel Castro is a journalist and documentarian who rolls her eyes at all the tropes of immigration stories: despair, grim statistics, victim stories. So she made sure mija looks and feels very different.
The title of the film, which has just been presented at the Sundance Film Festival, means “girl” in English. mija opens with Castro’s main subject, young musical director Doris Muñoz, in a party store, about to celebrate a birthday. She is funny, disarming, unpretentious, nourishing. She thrives as the manager of singer-songwriter Cuco, goes to crowded shows, and helps support her undocumented parents, as well as her brother across the border.
Then she encounters a setback, COVID sets in, and she has to start over. But she’s fueled by a love of music — and her family. She soon aligns herself with rising singer-songwriter Jacks Haupt, another daughter of immigrants, as they attempt to build a future for themselves and their parents.
“These immigration policies are incredibly volatile and unstable, and really threaten people’s livelihoods,” Castro says. “But at the same time, in the immigrant community in the United States, I wanted to show that there is power and agency. …Even though Doris’ family and Jacks’ family are all going through different versions of family separation, they’re not victims. They don’t see themselves as victims and they have power.
Castro also wanted to make a movie that people would want to see.
“What motivated me was to find a story that used some sort of diversionary tactic. And by that, I mean, the central themes of the film are immigration and what that means from a from a cross-generational perspective and from a mixed perspective. But when you hear that, it sounds really boring,” she says. “And so, I was trying to find a way to make it more exciting… a little less,’ Woe to me.’ I just wanted it to feel tonally very dynamic and entertaining. And I thought the best thing I know that can access it is music.
“I’ve always been a huge music fan and, and I felt like it was a way for the film to be marketed and released around the world as a musical doc, and I hope to attract a audience that might not sit down to watch a movie about what it means to be a mixed-status, intergenerational family.
You can listen to our full interview with Isabel Castro on the latest Filmmaker podcast, available on on Apple Where Spotify or above. In the interview, she also discusses how her own background – she was born in Mexico before her family came to the United States – helped her gain the trust of her subjects and incredible access to their lives. Castro did most of the filming herself and captured the Muñoz family in their difficult, intense and joyful times.
“I’ve never been on camera to the extent that they have,” Castro says. “I have so much respect and admiration for people who do it because it’s such an incredibly vulnerable thing to do.”
She compares the process of warming up her subjects for the camera to how we all learn to see past the cracks in our phone screens.
“It’s like when you drop your phone and immediately can only focus on the crack,” Castro explains. “And then, over time, you get used to it. Anyone with a cracked phone can kind of relate to the fact that over time you just ignore it’s there and forget it’s there.
One of the film’s most emotional moments occurs when Jacks – visiting Los Angeles for the first time to work on her music – calls her undocumented parents in Texas home. They fear she is wasting her opportunities as an American citizen by pursuing a risky music career. She wants them to support her in pursuing her dream.
It’s a painful argument because it’s rooted in love: Jacks and his parents want to help each other. Castro has heard from many immigrant parents, including his own, who say Jacks’ parents have a good case.
“I had versions of that phone call with my parents,” Castro says.
We hear in mija that Muñoz’s mother always wanted her to be a singer, and when you hear her sing briefly, she’s great. At the end of our interview, Castro drops a welcome surprise on his main topic.
“She is now trying to launch her own music career, which has always been her dream,” Castro says. “She has an amazing voice, and so she’s going on tour on Monday.”
Main image: Doris Muñoz in mija, directed by Isabel Castro. Courtesy of Sundance.