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Full Frame 2019: 'Santuario' directors discuss sanctuary in faith communities

“Santuario” follows Juana Luz Tobar Ortega as she lives in sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro.
“Santuario” follows Juana Luz Tobar Ortega as she lives in sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro.

“Santuario” follows Juana Luz Tobar Ortega as she lives in sanctuary at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro. In April of 2017, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) told Ortega she had to leave within 30 days, so she entered sanctuary instead. “Santuario” follows the first several months of Ortega’s stay, though she is still at the church today. The Chronicle spoke to the film’s directors Christine Delp, Trinity ‘15 and Pilar Timpane, Master of Theological Studies ‘13, following its screening at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. 

The Chronicle: What inspired you to make the film?

Christine Delp: Pilar and I both come from pretty strong faith backgrounds. I grew up in a fairly conservative faith community in a small town in North Carolina. For both of us, a lot of immigration stories and a lot of family separation stories were really weighing heavily on our hearts. We were looking to tell that story through a faith perspective and through a group of people who thought it was their responsibility to do something about it, and also a family standing up for staying together as a family unit and having unwavering faith in a time of severe trauma. We met Juana and connected with her about two weeks after she went into sanctuary. There were still news crews there when we showed up. And we thought that her story needed to be told for a longer period of time, so we kept coming back. 

Pilar Timpane: Juana was the first person in North Carolina to take sanctuary. The sanctuary movement started in the ‘80s. At first it was more in Tucson, Arizona, and then it spread out all over the United States back. So this was a resurgence of that movement. After the 2016 election, a lot of faith communities in North Carolina were concerned and they were thinking, what can we do to support people in crisis? And sanctuary was one of the first things that came up organically as they spoke about what can churches provide. They can provide space. They can provide a setting for families to see each other and meet in a difficult but at least safe way.

TC: Minerva Garcia, the second person to enter sanctuary in North Carolina and the first person to be able to leave sanctuary, is also briefly featured in the film. How did you choose to focus on only Juana? 

CD: Both of us actually thought that the church would be a bigger part of the story at the beginning. We realized very quickly that that was not the priority story, and that the church was really on the periphery. It was the story of going through this traumatic experience that needed to be told. We were already filming with Juana when Minerva went in. Her story became a secondary piece. 

TC: How did you originally think the film was going to play out?

CD: What is kind of interesting about our process with this film is that we thought this was going to be more of a newsy piece. We thought that this was going to be 10 minutes. It was literally just us and our friends going and filming and we didn’t have any money. But we applied to a pitch competition through Tribeca Film Institute called "If/Then Shorts," specifically for regional filmmakers. So we applied for the one for the American South. And we pitched at New Orleans Film Festival in 2017 and won. And so that gave us the funding and the resources and the support to tell a much longer story and then we were able to meet a budget for a 25-minute film, which is what needed to be told. I don’t think we would’ve done the story justice in a 10-minute piece. Because part of the story is time. I mean, time is also the backbone of the story. It’s staying in sanctuary. It’s not knowing when you’re leaving. And we couldn't have told that in a shorter piece.

TC: So your attitudes toward the film have definitely changed. Over the course of filming, did you see the attitudes of Juana’s family, or those of other people in the church, change?

CD: Absolutely. At first, there was a lot of movement around the movement, for lack of a better term. There was a lot of news coverage. But it’s become way more complicated over time. And I think a big question of our film is what is the purpose of sanctuary? It’s both needed, to keep Juana able to see her children, especially those who have DACA and who would not be able to go visit her, but it’s also a prison. She can’t leave, and it’s a deeply sad story.

PT: I think that they’re tired and they feel like they want answers and also what’s unfortunate is that the people who can do something about it are the lawmakers. The church can’t do anything about it. The family is very limited in what they're able to do. And the public, even us, we’re struggling to figure out how we can be of help in that situation, so it’s really the lawmakers who can do something, and they will not respond to the requests to meet or to crate private discretionary bills. Basically they could send those to the top of the immigration chain to give her discretion so she can go home to her family, which is something in the past that has worked. But they refuse to take those calls and those meetings, so they’re stuck. And that makes everyone else feel like there’s no way out of the situation. 

TC: What is going on with Juana now? Have there been any changes?

PT: There have not been any changes. We’re trying to use this film to ask these lawmakers to consider reviewing the case and talking about it more openly and publicly. We hope to visit churches with the story and talk about the faith component of it. Juana is a person of faith, so what is the church’s role to be a part of her freedom? 

“Santuario” will be broadcast May 9 on UNC-TV and PBS as part of the “Reel South” series. For more information, visit santuariofilm.com. 

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