In 2018, searing stories and images captured at the southern border of the U.S. burned into the conscience of an instantly outraged American public, a result of the zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy imposed through the Department of Homeland Security under former President Donald Trump.
Images of small children in tears as their parents were detained by law enforcement at the border.
Stories of family members torn away from each other as they sought asylum in the U.S. from the fear of violence in their home countries.
Photos of children being held, without their parents or guardians, in metal chain-link cages, huddled together under mylar blankets inside of detention centers.
“After the Trump Administration enacted the zero-tolerance policy, there were thousands of kids that were separated at the border,” says Oscar Guerra, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and an Associate Professor of Film and Video in the Digital Media and Design Department at UConn Stamford. “Most of the families that were here in the states were eventually reunited. The problem was for some of the families that were deported. It was not until the Biden administration took office that they changed the way in which this group of people were being treated and the options that they were given.”
One of those families – a deported Honduran mother, and the little girl taken from her – is the focus of Guerra’s latest film, called After Zero Tolerance, which premieres on PBS’s acclaimed investigatory documentary series, Frontline, tonight.
A Years-Long Quest to Reunite
After Zero Tolerance tells the story of Anavelis, who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with her then-six-year-old daughter, Genesis, in 2018. They were forcibly separated by law enforcement at the border, and Anavelis was deported back to Honduras without Genesis – kicking off a years-long quest to reunite with her daughter.
The documentary also offers insight into the work of the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force, a division of the same Department of Homeland Security that was previously charged with separating these families, now empowered to try to bring them back together.
“It was really an unprecedented effort, what they started doing, reaching for these unreachable families,” says Guerra. “It was with the help of a lot of people. Everything started with the ACLU’s lawsuit, activist lawyers, and people searching in Central America – just scouring Central America, trying to find these parents. Because there were no records of these families.”
The separation from her mother took a toll on Genesis, who Guerra met in Kentucky, where she had been placed with extended family, communicating with her mother only through phone calls over the ensuing years and not understanding why they couldn’t be together.
“She’s a wonderful, wonderful kid – so smart, so bright, so kind, and so resilient, and I think that it really tells you a lot about the grit that the Latino migrant community has when you see a story like hers,” Guerra says. “She starts telling the story of how she was separated and that she didn’t know what was going on. That’s what I really try to do with my documentaries. I try to go straight to the source and let them tell their own story, unfiltered, to try to find that human element that we can all connect with. I have a daughter. I cannot imagine being apart from her for a few days, let alone that amount of time.”
After Zero Tolerance – which Guerra embarked on in early 2021 – marks his second collaboration with PBS’s Frontline.
His first short documentary for Frontline, Love, Life & the Virus, aired in August 2020 and followed an immigrant family from Guatemala living in Stamford, the mother’s life-and-death battle against COVID-19 while pregnant with her second child, and the teacher who agreed to care for the newborn infant while the local community rallied to support the family.
Love, Life & the Virus earned Guerra two News & Documentary Emmy Award nominations and an Emmy win for Best Story in a Newsmagazine in 2021.
The film also marks a unique, first-time collaboration between UConn’s Human Rights Institute, Department of Digital Media and Design, and Office of Global Affairs, and Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
Collaboration and Exploration
“Bilingual storytelling has been my jam, really – it’s the type of storytelling I enjoy doing the most,” says Adriana Rozas Rivera, who was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. While studying for her master’s degree at Syracuse’s Newhouse School, Rozas Rivera was asked if she’d be interested in interviewing for a job working on a collaborative documentary project with UConn’s Guerra.
Connected by Guerra and producers at Frontline, both UConn and Syracuse teamed up to provide support for the project, and students from both schools were recruited to help work on the film.
“As both a professor and a producer, I was trying to have academia and the professional industry combine, having our students working, having collaborations between great universities – it’s always a great opportunity,” says Guerra. “This was a collaboration between Syracuse and UConn. We selected students from their program and students from our program, and they all helped out with the production duties.”
The opportunity to work on a project like this is an experience that students can’t really get in a classroom, says Cheryl Brody Franklin, the director of strategic initiatives at the Newhouse School who assisted on the project, but that can help take classroom learning and make it real.
“I think it’s important for students to learn the nuts-and-bolts of how to report and how to film in the classroom,” Brody Franklin says. “But then, when you’re actually doing it, it’s pretty exciting to see, ‘oh my gosh, I learned this in these four walls, but now I’m out in the “real world,” and I’m putting it to use’ and seeing that what you learned in that classroom actually is really going to help you create this really important work. It’s just impactful to see that what you’re learning from your professors translate after you leave here.”
And the unique opportunity for the two universities to work together was “incredible” for a program as young as UConn’s, says Heather Elliott-Famularo, an award-winning filmmaker, head of UConn’s DMD program, and herself a graduate of Syracuse University.
“The Digital Media and Design program was only established in 2013, and the film program, we started just three years ago,” she explains. “Oscar has been working with Frontline, and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications, which is one of the country’s most prestigious schools of communications – has been wanting to work with Frontline and found this relationship through us, with our really young program, to be able to work with it. It’s a huge kudos for us to be able to collaborate with such a prestigious program, and it says a lot about the caliber and potential future of DMD at UConn.”
Partnerships like this collaboration with Syracuse, as well as the growing Human Rights Film and Digital Media initiative – a collaboration between DMD and the Human Rights Institute – offer space for a growing number of student and faculty filmmakers to explore human rights through the powerful medium of film.
“It really is this remarkable marriage between HRI and DMD that’s enabled us to attract these incredible filmmakers who are working in human rights,” says Elliott-Famularo, “because they are drawn to the way we embrace and understand impact in more significant means than social media followers or how many festivals a film is juried into.”
“Heather has built an extraordinary program with several filmmakers who have social justice and human rights at the center of their work,” says Kathryn Libal, director of the Human Rights Institute at UConn. “Oscar exemplifies someone who prioritizes student involvement in the creative process and wants to connect with community around his work.
She says that Digital Media and Design has “transformed in recent years, welcoming collaborative cross-university work.”
“I’m delighted that the Office of Global Affairs, Fine Arts and DMD, and the Human Rights Institute were able to provide some seed funding to make this happen,” Libal says, “and to create a space to work with Newhouse and Frontline. Such relationships are critical to student success and to the sense of flourishing that our faculty members have.”
Honoring the Story
For Rozas Rivera, the chance to work on the project was what she called a “no-brainer.”
“It’s rare to find fully bilingual stories out there in U.S. media, let alone stories that prioritize the voice in Spanish,” she says. “A lot of times we have projects that are interviews that are in Spanish, but they dub them in English. And I remember looking up Oscar’s Love, Life and the Virus project and noticing that he had no dubbing over it. He was leaving it up to the English-speaking audience to read the captions and do the work of understanding the Spanish-language dialogue. That really hit home for me.”
Those duties included the trip to meet Genesis, where several students – including Rozas Rivera – joined Guerra to assist
on both the technical side of the production, as well as interacting with the family. That particular experience and the personal connection made with the family, says Rozas Rivera, has left a lasting impression.
“I got to meet and spend a weekend with this family – a weekend sounds little, but when you’re waking up with a family, and going through their day with them, and listening to the conversations about how difficult the separation was, and interviewing them about this, it’s such a vulnerable place for them to be in and it’s such a personal story that, by the end of it, we cried when we said goodbye to them,” she says. “Because we weren’t sure when we were going to see them next, we weren’t sure when they were going to be reunited with their parents. I think that was the biggest challenge, setting aside your emotions so that you can do the reporting and do the documentary work that you came there to do, but also holding onto those emotions in a way that you’re not being inhumane – keeping that humanity, keeping that compassion there, and knowing that you’re working with people who are going through a really difficult time.”
Finding that personal connection is a hallmark of Guerra’s work, but it’s not an easy road for a filmmaker, says Elliott-Famularo – it involves building relationships that last far longer than a project’s production schedule.
“It’s one thing to make a film about an issue; it’s another thing to make a film about a family, an individual, a person,” Elliott-Famularo says. “The kind of care and respect and trust that’s involved – it takes a very special kind of person to be able to build that space. It’s an incredible honor, as filmmakers, to be given the privilege of sharing these individual stories. They’re trusting us to do the right thing, to be ethical, but also to be respectful to their own individual beings, which is significant.”
Working with Guerra offered the students on the project both the opportunity to hone their technical skills as reporters and producers, but also to learn from someone who “both honored the students and honored the story,” Brody Franklin says.
“I’m just so happy the students got to work with Oscar,” she says, “because even though I wasn’t his student, I was so impressed by his actions and his dedication to the story, and also his dedication to the students, because he wanted to give them a good experience. Obviously, it’s important to learn how to physically make the film and edit and report, but there’s so much that comes from mentoring from someone like him, and I think that that’s probably the part that makes me most excited, the relationship that they got to have with him.”
After Zero Tolerance premieres on Frontline on Tuesday, December 6, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern on local PBS stations and will be available for streaming on pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App beginning at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on December 6.