Film

‘Split at the Root’ Director Talks Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policy – The Hollywood Reporter

The Trump administration in 2017 may have begun justifying the separation of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border to send undocumented asylum seekers to criminal detention and prosecution.

But Emmy-nominated filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton (The World According to Sesame Street) just saw frightened mothers with their children — some babies and toddlers — before deciding to pick up her camera and follow like-minded women across the U.S. as they rushed to reunite migrant families.

“It really is about badass mothers on both sides of the border,” Knowlton told The Hollywood Reporter about her latest documentary, Split at the Root, screening at the Hot Docs festival this weekend. While recognizing her film originated because of a controversial U.S. immigration policy, she ultimately sees the doc capturing the lives of families on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

“It’s what you would do for your child,” Knowlton explains. The feature doc plays with the forces of gravity between migrant families and their collision with Trump’s signature “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

Split at the Root does this by following a non-profit activist group, Immigrant Families Together, that raised more than $3 million to post bond and support 124 individuals and their families as they were released from immigration detention centers, only to struggle to secure asylum in the U.S. through a labyrinth of U.S. immigration courts.

Before starting work on the film, Knowlton even faced a day in a Los Angeles jail after being arrested for protesting against family separation at the southwest border to deter immigration. Here the veteran filmmaker realized she couldn’t stand by quietly as she saw injustice towards mothers and their children playing out on TV newscasts.

“I can’t imagine being separated from (my children) for a day, not knowing where they are,” Knowlton says. And seeing migrant families torn apart at the southern border spurred her into action. “I can’t imagine going through that with my child too. I can’t imagine going through that with my child, I have to do something. This is unacceptable,” Knowlton recalled of her mindset at the time.

Her team — which included co-producer Marti Noxon and executive producer Rosario Dawson — eventually captured the cross-border journeys of asylum seekers Yeni Gonzalez and Rosayra “Rosy” Pablo Cruz, the first two mothers separated from their children and helped by Immigrant Families Together.

Knowlton says she took great pains to respect Rosy and Yeni’s dignity and independence as she asked, while her cameras rolled, for the migrant mothers to relive the trauma of their dangerous journey to the U.S.-Mexican border. “This is not a gotcha film, exploitation. You’re in control. You have the power,” she recalls telling Rosy and Yeni to gain their trust.

Knowlton adds the migrant mothers chose to participate in the documentary to tell Americans, “look what you put us through. Look what you did to my children. There’s many thousands of us that you unnecessarily tortured.”

“It’s psychological torture,” Knowlton adds about the impact on the children separated from their parents as part of the aggressive U.S. border enforcement policy. Production on Split from the Root was hampered by a lack of footage around Rosy and Yeni’s harrowing journey to the U.S.-Mexican border.

That required the use of animation to complement their on-camera testimony. And production for a time, ground to a halt with the onset of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. Knowlton eventually had the IFT volunteers, led by co-founder Julie Schwietert Collazo, use iPhones and voice recorders to document their continuing advocacy for asylum seekers through the pandemic, and Rosy and her oldest son Jordy to use GoPros to record their own lives.

Of course, films of urgency are nothing new to Knowlton. She produced Ryan McGarry’s Code Black, a documentary about life and death moments in Los Angeles County General, which inspired a CBS medical drama; Somewhere Between, a doc that follows four Chinese teenage girls adopted by American parents; and We Are The Monarchs, about girls of color in Oakland, California becoming community leaders.

Knowlton sees Split at the Root as a call-to-action film to lend backing to the Families Belong Together Act now before Congress as it seeks to reunite traumatized survivors of the Trump administration’s family separation policy and offer a pathway to citizenship.

“There’s legislation that’s been proposed, and no one is doing anything about it. And people outside the United States, take action, find out what is your country’s policy? Can you become a sponsor?” the filmmaker questions.

Split at the Root screens on Friday night at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.




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