Abstract: Producing Border South: Documentary Film and Immigrant Rights Advocacy in Mexico (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Producing Border South: Documentary Film and Immigrant Rights Advocacy in Mexico

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
John Doering-White, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, SC
Background and Purpose

This paper considers documentary filmmaking in the context of ethnographic research along the Central American migrant trail through Mexico. Throughout 2015 and 2016, while conducting fieldwork as a volunteer-researcher in and around grassroots sanctuary spaces that aid people migrating undocumented through Mexico, I collaborated with documentary filmmaker Raul Paz Pastrana on Border South, a feature documentary film that traces the parallels between U.S. and Mexican immigration enforcement initiatives. While the film focuses on a broad array of stories, this paper examines the role that the film played in helping a migrant shelter that served as the base for my ethnographic fieldwork to confront extra-legal violence committed against Central American migrants, both during and after filming.


This paper takes an auto-ethnographic approach, drawing on 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork as a researcher-volunteer at a migrant shelter in Central Mexico. An auto-ethnographic approach, I suggest, draws attention to the processual nature of ethnographic fieldwork while highlighting the representational dilemmas that surround ethnographic filmmaking in collaboration with aid workers.


This paper describes opportunities and challenges with integrating social work advocacy during three phases of filmmaking: filming, production, and presentation. I also reflect on ethical dilemmas and strategic compromises during each phase.

First, filming: while films are often framed as a way to create social change by sharing humanizing stories, the process of filming itself is often overlooked. This section illustrates how the act of filming can provide safety and security, as well how the presence of cameras and other equipment has the potential to put people in danger.

Second, production: as with other creative processes, moving from raw footage to finished product involves making representational decisions that highlight certain narrative elements while minimizing or overlooking others. I focus in particular in this section on the rhetorical impact of cinema verité, or observational filmmaking, as opposed to interview-based filmmaking.

Third, presentation: this section focuses on the value of documentary films as mechanisms for social change. While documentary films are often viewed as tools for changing the hearts and minds of viewers, I focus on other, perhaps more concrete benefits that can be gained by through strategic screenings.

Conclusions and Implications:

These findings illustrate opportunities and challenges associated with harmonizing ethnographic filmmaking and social work research. In addition to reaching a broader audience, the process of ethnographic filmmaking—including filming, production, and presentation--offers opportunities for integrating advocacy throughout the data collection process. However, harmonizing these aims presents significant ethical dilemmas, especially in relation to social work research with undocumented immigrant individuals and immigrant rights organizations.