Iliana Sosa’s documentary about her grandfather becomes a beautiful elegy.
What We Leave Behind, which made its world premiere this weekend at SXSW, is a quiet documentary primarily filmed in Mexico. Austin-based filmmaker Iliana Sosa spent time in her abuelo Julián’s small town as he built a new house near his old one. Through her dreamlike narration intermittently inserted in the film, we learn more about Sosa’s grandfather and her memories of him.
The film explores themes of memory, family, and migration as Julián remembers his time as a bracero and how his children started leaving after the death of his wife. He seems to keep changing his mind about who he is constructing a new house for. While he sees this structure as part of his legacy, What We Leave Behind explores how his legacy is much more than a new house that few of his descendants can use.
The power of Sosa’s documentary dwells in the pauses between sentences, the breaks in the stories being told. The filmmaker and her crew make good use of natural light. As Julián is shown shaving, the light and shadow adds a certain beauty to the many cracks and wrinkles of his face. There are a few blurry, out-of-focus shots throughout, but this doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the work, which is visually stunning.
For a film about a rather stoic man, What We Leave Behind is unafraid of honest displays of emotion. Even though we can’t see Sosa, we hear grief in her voice off-camera as she echoes the chanting of family members surrounding a death bed. The film isn’t a sort of hagiography; we see the real man, or at least as much as Julián would show of himself on camera. It’s a poetic appreciation of the man Sosa knew as her abuelo: the man who would travel to Texas by bus each month to visit family until the bus company said he was too old to go alone, the man who tried planning for his blind son to have a place to live after his death, and the man who will live on in his family’s memory.
What We Leave Behind screens one more time during SXSW: 2pm on March 16 at Alamo S. Lamar.