“Life is hard work,” Julián Moreno tells his granddaughter, filmmaker Iliana Sosa, as she interviews him from behind her camera. He’s about 90 when he says this, and there isn’t a note of complaint or regret in his words. There’s more than a little fond teasing, though, when he puzzles over Sosa’s “different way of working,” one that has nothing to do with raising crops or building a house. A man of few words, all of them well chosen, Moreno is the focus of What We Leave Behind, a poetic meditation on family, mortality, tradition and the U.S.-Mexico border.
Receiving a theatrical release via Ava DuVernay’s Array before its streaming debut on Netflix, Sosa’s concise but unhurried ode to her grandfather, which received two special jury prizes at SXSW, strikes reverberant chords, regardless of whether you’ve ever been to rural Mexico, where most of the documentary unfolds. (And if you have traveled through that country and met the locals — as opposed to jetting in to a resort — it’s a lovely reminder of a certain down-to-earth openness.) Unfolding over a few years, What We Leave Behind is alive with the poignancy of witnessing someone’s aging within a compressed time frame, an affecting film phenomenon whether the subject is a child or a nonagenarian.
What We Leave Behind
The Bottom Line
First-person filmmaking at its eloquent best.
Release date: Friday, Sept. 30
Director: Iliana Sosa
Screenwriters: Iliana Sosa, Isidore Bethel
1 hour 11 minutes
Every month for about 20 years, Moreno boarded a bus for the 560-mile bus trip from his home in San Juan del Río, in the state of Durango in northwestern Mexico, to visit his daughters and grandchildren, including Sosa, in El Paso, Texas. He came bearing candy and other gifts, and would make a quick exit after a day or two. As Sosa begins her film, Moreno is making the last of these trips and turning his focus to a new project back home. In a Texas living room she captures her mother, or perhaps one of her aunts, bundling him up like a toddler for the return trip. He insists, though, that his white sombrero takes precedence over the parka hood.
Widowed at 45 and the father of seven — some still living in their hometown, some stateside — Moreno knows about hard work. He shows Sosa his 1964 Alien Laborer’s Identification Card, from his days as a bracero, a seasonal contract laborer in the U.S. At 89, he begins overseeing the construction of a cinderblock house on the plot next to the small home he shares with his son Jorge and a sturdy, brindled dog of supreme mellowness named Pinto. The new house, like the cross-border visits he made for years, are for Moreno a way of ensuring the strength and stability of family bonds.
During a kitchen table interview with her uncle Jorge — whose blindness is revealed only gradually, so assured is his navigation of the house’s interior and yard — the director gently digs into the matter of her grandmother’s death at 39 and its effect on the family. Perhaps, she suggests, it hastened the move to Texas by some of the siblings. But Jorge doesn’t draw the same conclusions. Sosa and her astute editor, Isidore Bethel, who also co-wrote the film with the helmer, let the silences play out, along with the sense of a psychological border being lovingly broached.
Sosa punctuates the scenes involving Julián, Jorge and a few other members of the family with lyrical interludes that combine her evocative voiceover musings with static shots of San Juan del Río — roosters in silhouette against a multihued sky, a once-grand house in ruins. The eloquent camerawork, by Sosa, Judy Phu and Monica Wise, is perhaps most stirring in its close-ups of Moreno’s handsomely creased face (recalling similarly Hollywood-antithetical notions of beauty in A Love Song). A sequence in which Moreno suggests frying up an egg, “nice and crispy,” and then does so, is entrancing in its engagement with simple everyday pleasures. He’s also fun to watch swatting flies.
As the wiry Moreno becomes frail, and then tiny, it’s heartening to recall an earlier scene of him visiting his wife’s grave with younger members of his family, and the social activity and vibrancy of the cemetery, with its bursts of color from fresh garden bouquets and paper-flower arrangements. It’s possible that with better medical options at the time, things might have turned out differently for the grandmother Sosa never knew — “Some said it was cancer,” Jorge tells her — and for Jorge himself, born with visual impairment but not complete blindness. Still, the interventions of the hospital-industrial complex have nothing on the inspiring scenes of Julián’s final days, scenes that are likely to stay with you for their unvarnished focus on comfort and love. Inviting us to sit a while in this world of tradition, What We Leave Behind offers a vision of a good death as well one of a good life. The time will go by quickly enough, and they both matter.