Review by Jonathan Berk
Sansón and Me is a documentary by filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes exploring the life of a young man named Sansón, an undocumented Mexican immigrant sentenced to life in prison without parole. Reyes met Sansón at his day job as a Spanish criminal interpreter in a small town in California. The director is sad to see someone so young lose the rest of their life because of a choice, and wants to learn his story. Reyes isn’t allowed to interview him because of Sansón’s circumstances, but for years the two exchange letters that morph into recreations of his childhood — many featuring members of Sansón's family. The process of making this movie is at the center of bringing up ethical questions of the genre and the role of art with legacy.
Whether it's tiny paintings on a vase, sprawling cave walls, or more modern moving pictures projected on silver screens, our stories have been passed on for generations through visual mediums. The collection and passing on of stories, no matter how big or small, seems to be a fundamental element of humankind. Reyes seems motivated to not let Sansón’s story be lost to the sands of time as another cog in the prison system. However, the film suggests the audience ponder the moral implications and responsibilities that Reyes takes on by telling Sansón’s story.
In one of the early letters, Sansón questions Reyes’s motivation to tell this story. Reyes cautions that this film is unlikely to help Sansón get out of jail or help his case. While filming the recreations, Reyes notes the stress it is putting on Sansón’s family for many reasons. The obligation of the filmmaker to help the subject or at least do no harm is definitely at the forefront of this film, as it blends the process with the final product. There is no definitive stance taken, but it leaves the audience with something to chew on as they walk away from the experience.
Regardless of where you fall on the aforementioned debate, there is no denying the power of storytelling. History teachers across the land are known for saying some version of “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” That phrase is predicated on the idea that we knew things to forget in the first place. However, what if you never knew about it? How many people have walked a similar path to Sansón and ended up with a life sentence or death? Reyes seems motivated by these questions to capture Sansón’s story. He doesn’t seem to want to pass judgment on the actions of the people in the film, but rather etch their existence into the ever-growing tapestry that is human history. He presents the information in interesting ways while turning the camera on himself, and the weight of responsibility in taking someone’s story.
Audiences looking for a true crime documentary won’t likely satisfy that itch with Sansón and Me, but those compelled by the never-ending struggle that is life will. Fans of filmmaking and documentary will appreciate the peek behind the curtain and the ethical debate about a filmmaker’s relationship to the subject. Reyes has an innate kindness about him, and his motivations seem genuine. He can also demonstrate his talent for narrative filmmaking through his recreations, and he is a director to keep an eye on for future projects.
Sansón and Me opens in theaters on March 3.