Venezuelan-American writer, director, and actress Maria Corina Ramirez is sharing her family's immigration story in Bridges. Ramirez wrote, directed, and stars in the film, which follows a fictional Maria, a young woman who alternates between ordinary and exceptional, as she prepares to graduate high school. But there's a catch. Maria doesn't have papers to be in the US after escaping the crisis in Venezuela — similar to Maria Corina and her sisters' real-life story.
"I really set out to make the film I wish I had," Ramirez tells POPSUGAR. "This is so personal. And I really did experience these things in my own skin . . . A lot of the undocumented-experience stories, I don't want to say all, but a lot of them, are not told from that lens. [And the experience] tends to get lost in translation between the person who experienced it and the people who tell it." For example? "A lot of the times, immigration stories have to do with crossing or getting here and not as much with the day-to-day once you've been here for a while, once you're set up . . . For me, I came when I was 8, but when I was 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, I was still experiencing the consequences of [being undocumented]."
"A lot of the times, immigration stories have to do with crossing or getting here and not as much with the day-to-day once you've been here for a while, once you're set up . . . "
Bridges, which also stars Dominican-American actress Julissa Calderon, Marialejandra Martin, and Tiffany Lighty, dramatizes those consequences, but subtly. You never hear the word "undocumented" in the film. And Ramirez says some audience members don't even know that's what's going on until the end. Because of that, watching Bridges doesn't feel like learning a lesson or hearing an argument but rather coming to understand a particular family and a particular person, in this case, a character based on Maria Corina's sister. The filmmaker calls her "the most brilliant one," and says she's now a biomedical engineer, but also the one who had a habit of keeping things to herself, boiling them down, and taking on all these responsibilities on her own. "I was more like the little sister in the film — annoyingly optimistic," she says. The combination of these perspectives makes Bridges a film that's sometimes hopeful, sometimes heartbreaking, but also a humanizing picture of what it is to be young and undocumented in the United States.
Indeed, Ramirez populates the film with the day-to-day details of how being undocumented affects you — not being able to claim a scholarship or get a driver's license, losing a job, and knowing that engaging in regular teenage stuff like sitting on a roof or going to a party can have much bigger consequences for you. Ramirez makes a point to not vilify anyone or anything in the story. "It feels like you're fighting this giant that is 10 times larger than you when you have to fight this big structure that is the American immigration system."
By focusing on the lived experience, she's breaking down what it's really like to be undocumented and hopes it helps people going through it. Ramirez made the film primarily "to reach the people that it represents," like Dreamers and those just arriving in Venezuela, so they "feel less alone and like they have potential answers to some of their questions." She doesn't dwell on the "miseries" but rather asks, "How can we move the conversation forward for all? How can we understand how we've gotten ourselves in this sticky, painful situation as a human race? And how can we then avoid it?"
Part of the answer to that question is to better understand each other. As Ramirez puts it, too often policymakers and voters forget "that there are actual humans who are complex and enjoy music and wake up and brush their teeth in the morning and have feelings" behind any given human rights issue. And seeing that humanity can be the first step in fixing it — something Maria Corina has first-hand experience with, too. Growing up in Miami, she heard a lot of opinions about immigration and immigrants but didn't share her experience, saying that being undocumented is something you live in secrecy about. But when her theater troupe got selected to go to Scotland and she couldn't go, "the truth kind of finally spilled out. And suddenly a lot of those friends that had all these opinions about people not being allowed here changed. Because now it was about their friend."
With Bridges, Maria Corina hopes more people can see undocumented families as friends, neighbors, classmates, and as humans. And hopefully, that will spark real change, making the United States a safer, more welcoming place for immigrants.
You can watch Bridges at the 25th annual Urban World Film Festival, taking place Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 2021.