John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra share a whimsical and avant-garde sensibility for cinema. Individually and as a powerful couple, they created a new and experimental cinema. And this year, they each receive their own MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the âGenius Grants,â making them the first married couple to win the prestigious award at the same time.
Deportations, immigration and the US-Mexico border remain the themes of their work, individually and together. They worked together on their first production in 1999, on a documentary on indigenous communities in Mexico and the United States. For the film, they traveled to Mexico for a conference on the subject, and got into trouble when they tried to meet a group of Zapatistas. who had been excluded from the event.
âThere was a government official at the conference who came up to us saying, ‘Article 13 of the Mexican Constitution says foreigners cannot interfere in national affairs,’ Ibarra recalls. “So we were very nervous (when they) threatened to kick us out.”
âWe were almost deported from Mexico,â says Rivera. “And that was kinda on our first date.”
For Cristina Ibarra, the stories about immigration and the border are deeply personal
Ibarra was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Juarez, Mexico. “I grew up with a family on both sides, crossing the bridge every weekend to see my abuelita in Juarez, my tÃa or my tÃo,” she says. “But every time I turned on the television, it was always white. And here I am, that brunette girl. I just felt like I never saw myself represented.”
Ibarra was the first in her family to go to college. At the University of Texas at Austin, she learned about social justice movements and Chicano history and studied film production. She began to explore her Mexican-American identity by directing films, like her comedy short, Dirty laundry, A TV home. She put together clips from old family movies and recruited those close to her to star in her fictional coming-of-age story.
âThis is about a young girl who discovers masturbation while sitting on a washing machine the night before her cousin’s quinceanera. And so she has to decide whether to confess or not,â Ibarra says. “She was too embarrassed to tell the priest and will ruin the party if she doesn’t come back. So it’s a tragedy for a 12 year old.”
Ibarra then made a documentary titled Las Marthes. Aired on PBS, it featured debutantes in Laredo, Texas, who dressed in colonial-style ball gowns to portray characters from the American Revolution.
During the making of the film, Ibarra learned that every year for generations las Marthas (like Martha Washington) celebrated George Washington’s birthday and that the biggest commemoration for the first US president was in Laredo.
âI was very curious as to why these Latinas and their families are celebrating the Conquest, basically,â Ibarra explains. âWhat I discovered as I followed them as they prepared for their presentation was that in addition to celebrating the patriotism of the United States, they also celebrate the founding families of Laredo, and how they were able to maintain their status and power even after the Mexican-American War … where many other families lost their land in Texas. “
Her film was about the historic ties between English-speaking and Mexican families, all wrapped up in sparkling dresses.
As one of the young debutantes put it, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. My family has been under the Spanish, Mexican and American governments and has not budged an inch.”
Alex Rivera’s films have also been influenced by immigration stories, as well as activism and science fiction.
For Peruvian-American Rivera, the border was more of a concept.
âI grew up in New York, going to Peruvian restaurants for Inca Kola and talking to my abuela in Lima, and hearing stories about Shining Path and the bombings in Lima,â he says. “Like, I’m in New York, like watching Gilligan Island on TV and I have a Peruvian family facing a guerrilla war? And what is that? And so thinking about boundaries, and theorizing about a kind of third space, you know, that was a way to get a hold of my own experience. “
As a teenager, Rivera worked for folk musician Pete Seeger, who showed her how to mix art and political activism. At Hampshire College, Rivera made her first film, Daddy daddy.
It was an experimental documentary about two Peruvian immigrants: the ancient Inca potato, the daddy (on the way to becoming a crisps) and his immigrant father, his daddy (and his journey to becoming an assimilated American couch potato).
Rivera says his film was meant to be “a kind of humorous and absurd, but hopefully heart-felt, nostalgia, identity and what it means to be uprooted.”
Rivera has made music videos and wedding videos while working on his own films, including several science fiction films about immigrants whose work has been replaced by machines. Sleep merchant was his 2008 cyberpunk thriller set on the US-Mexico border.
He developed the screenplay for Sleep merchant at the Sundance Institute lab, where his advisers included directors Alfonso CuarÃ³n, Wes Craven, actress Sigourney Weaver and producer Anthony Bregman.
Their wedding in 2018 was followed by even more collaboration
Rivera and Ibarra had a daughter and got married in 2018. They also teamed up to make a film about a group of undocumented youth, “Dreamers”, which infiltrated a Florida detention center.
“Our mission: to stop the evictions. Our strategy: to organize, to intensify, to stop something”, explains Marco Saavedra of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. In the film, they infiltrate the for-profit institution imprisoning hundreds of multinational immigrants, without trial.
Infiltrators was a hybrid film based on real events: part documentary, part scripted reenactment. After its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, one of the other main characters in real life, Claudio Rojas, was deported to Argentina. Rivera and Ibarra say they felt it was in retaliation for denouncing the detention centers. They worked with activists to get Rojas back to his family in Florida.
âWe just thought their work was phenomenal,â says Marlies Carruth, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. She says Rivera and Ibarra are honored for telling relevant American stories, both individually and together.
âCristina almost brings a patient and graceful eye to her solo work,â she says. “Her goal is one of joyful enchantment and youthful anticipation. There is a local magical quality to her work, and she shows a deep respect for ritual and ancestry.”
In contrast, she says, “Alex’s lens is more of an impatient activist. He wants to quickly draw your attention to political issues at a very high level: workplace exploitation, flawed immigration policy, technology. abusive, alienation from work. “
Together, Rivera and Ibarra claim that their MacArthur Awards will allow them to continue what they love, which Rivera describes as “doing experimental work, punk the system, build our own thing outside of Hollywood”.
Now they will have the funds to make more independent films in their own way.