I moved to the Rio Grande Valley of South in Texas in late 2016 because there was just something magical about it and I knew I wanted to film a movie there. I had a dramatic thriller in mind, with a strong female lead and tight-knit plot full of unexpected twists and turns…
Well, I did end up filming a movie in the RGV, but it was nothing like what I originally planned. From 2017-2019, I worked tirelessly on my movie, which ended up being a documentary project on the history of the region. The seed was first planted when a friend who grew up there clued me into the little-known Jewish history of the Valley. He suggested I look into it for myself and the deeper I looked, the more I found.
Thus began a long but rewarding journey that ended with a feature length documentary I directed called Remember My Soul. The film investigates how the Sephardic Jewish diaspora in 1492 set forth the practice of crypto-Judaism in colonial Mexico, and how these invisible Jewish families settled the Rio Grande Valley and contributed to traditions of borderlands culture. In this post, I share how the project came together, what it was like filming in the Valley, and the many photos I took during filming that reveal the marvelous landscapes there.
Before I start, and in case you are interested, here are a few links to media articles about my film, the official IMDB page, and a link to purchase the dvd. There are more article links at the end of this post.
- How History Defines Us from Lone Star Parity Project
- UTRGV student-made documentary now registered with the Library of Congress from The Newsroom at UTRGV
- Remember My Soul IMDB page
- Where to purchase Remember My Soul dvd
When I moved to the Valley, I decided to return to school and finish getting my bachelor’s degree, which I had put on pause about ten years earlier. That first semester back, I took Intro to Mexican American Literature. One of the assignments for the course was to create a media project that explored our personal connection to the Rio Grande Valley. For me this was a head-scratcher because unlike the other students in my class, I did not grow up in the Valley and had just moved there. So I decided to connect the Jewish history of the Valley to my own Jewish background.
My professor loved the project so much, and I enjoyed making it so much, that it gave me the idea to expand the project into a short documentary. I spent the next few months doing research on the history of Jewish people in the region and discovering that many of the Jews that sought asylum in Mexico from the Inquisition were crypto-Jews, acting Catholic on the outside but secretly practicing the Jewish faith inside their homes. This was so fascinating to me and I knew it needed to be included in my documentary.
I began looking into grants that would be able provide some financial assistance to produce the film. I ended up getting a small grant from the Texas Jewish Historical Society and one from my school, the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, called the Engaged Scholar for Creative Works. My professor had connected me to another one of her students who was a film maker and we began working together on pre-production. We even took the bus across the border to Monterrey, Mexico, which has a large Jewish population and rich Jewish history, to meet with some people who could help out with research. I soon realized that with the extensive information and history I was finding, a short documentary would not be enough.
Through my new student-producer, we had brought a film student onboard who had experience doing camera work to be our cinematographer. On a hot summer day we went out and commenced our first official day of filming, getting b-roll around the Valley. However, both my producer and camera operator dropped out of the project soon after because they had too much on their plates already. Since I had pretty good camera experience myself, I decided to take on the camera and sound duties, and began shooting b-roll and interviews on my Nikon (which I had only used for still photography up to that point).
I got mostly positive reactions from people while filming my documentary. There were a lot of people interested in the film, willing to speak to me during my research process and refer me to other people they knew. People let me come up and ask them questions on camera or get b-roll footage of them. Behind the scenes, I felt like some of the machismo culture you see in the region also applies to the film world there. There are not many female film makers in the RGV, and most of the male film makers I reached out to for advice ignored me or didn’t want to help. My (male) screenwriting professor at school bluntly told me he didn’t think I could complete my film!
Luckily, there was another male professor in the film school that was extremely helpful and even let me rent out sound equipment for free. Additionally, I met another local film maker named Ronnie Garza who turned out to be an invaluable mentor to me and made the final edit of my film about 50x better than what it originally was thanks to his feedback. He continues to be a great mentor and friend to this day as I navigate through the world of self-distribution and beyond.
Generally speaking, I would say the Valley is quite welcoming to film makers. It’s not like shooting in Austin, where I have shot short films in the past, and people would get annoyed or suspicious if they saw me or my crew filming on the streets or in public places. I think people in the Valley are excited when someone wants to highlight the region, especially if it’s in a positive light, and not the typical gang or drug related movies that you see taking place on the border. Overall, I had an awesome experience filming in the Valley and hope to do it again.
Another student had signed on to edit the project but he quit fairly early in the process as well (note to self: don’t hire students), which left me to edit, and I had very little experience doing so. Lucky for me, I love editing and I picked it up quickly. Editing was the most consuming part of the entire film process. I would sit in front of my laptop all day long, or sometimes all night long, going through each and every second of the film. But I loved it. The first draft was over two and a half hours! It took a lot of work to cut it down to just under ninety minutes.
But it was all worth it. The documentary got a decent amount of attention upon completion, especially after it was added to the Library of Congress. I was in Washington DC in the summer of 2019 for a scholarship I received to attend a women’s leadership conference. While there, I organized to meet with the staff at the Library of Congress to hand deliver a dvd of my film, which was being added to the Jewish Collection there. I got a private tour of the Library and it’s adjoining building, including the media room where people would be able to watch my documentary. It was an amazing experience!
I also received an official letter of congratulations from my former representative in the RGV, Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, which was a nice surprise. Remember My Soul screened at the Docs Without Borders Film Festival and was a semi-finalist at the Near Nazareth Festival in Israel. Locally, it screened at the San Antonio Film Festival, which I got to attend, and later at the Cine Sol Festival in the RGV. The best screening, however, was at the Museum of South Texas History. The audience had a great response to the film and that led to their gift shop stocking dvds. There was supposed to be a screening at the McAllen Public Library, but the pandemic delayed that and I hope to reschedule in the future, along with more screenings throughout Texas. Finally, the film is now located in the library of several Texas universities.
- Library of Congress Catalog for Remember My Soul
- Local filmmakers navigating through pandemic effects from The Monitor
My main goal for Remember My Soul is to be true to the people who call the Valley home, both past and present. I wanted to capture the spirit of the region and hopefully bring some little-known knowledge to the surface, to help people appreciate their roots and the idea that we are all related regardless of religion and other characteristics that can divide people. I learned so much from the experience of making this documentary, despite the many hurdles I had to overcome, and I got to considerably expand my skills as a film maker. It has led me to so many interesting people and places and opportunities, and if I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat.
Please feel free to email me with any questions about Remember My Soul, my experience filming, or documentary film making.