The Setting. The story.
A camera slides along a track above rosary necklaces lying along a strip of dirty white felt on the floor. The rosaries are among the thousands of personal belongings of migrants that Tom Kiefer secretly collected from the trash while working as a janitor at a U.S. border patrol station in Ajo, Ariz., from 2007-2014.
Kiefer said he first began recovering the migrants' belongings from the trash because he couldn't believe they were being thrown away. Later, he decided to photograph them as a testament to the migrants who risked their lives in attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and to the dehumanizing effects of immigration policy.
Without the object, "Who would have believed me?" he said.
The items Kiefer collected fill his photography studio, his house and rooms in friends' properties around town: 1,600+ water bottles. 3,000+ toothbrushes. 300+ backpacks. 300+ combs and brushes. 150+ pairs of jeans, and much more.
Yet the number of collected objects pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of migrants who dare to make the trek over the U.S.-Mexico border each year, some to their own peril.
Nearly 350,000 migrants were caught by border patrol in 2017. Nearly 500 people who attempted the journey died in the desert. Countless more made it across or are missing.
Like them, many migrants were apprehended and processed at the border patrol station where Kiefer worked as a janitor. There, he would hear the crying, despair and appeals of the captured migrants -- elderly to children -- as immigration officers processed them.
What they left behind, or what was taken from them as they attempted to cross the treacherous Sonoran Desert, gives a narrow glimpse into the migrants' identities, their hopes and values.
Why this story. Why now.
Custodian / Custodio chronicles the artistic practice of Tom Kiefer, a photographer and obsessive collector of objects who fled Los Angeles to pursue photography and the American Dream of home ownership.
Kiefer chose to move to Ajo, situated in one of the deadliest regions for border crossings, and when Tom took the part-time job as a janitor at the U.S. border patrol station, he had no idea he would find a personal mission in the trash. Years later, after amassing thousands of migrants' belongings recovered from the trash and after leaving the job at the border patrol, Tom began photographing the belongings.
The items lead to so many questions: who carried the objects, why did they choose them, where were they going and coming from? Photographing the items, and presenting them in a beautiful way, has become a spiritual experience for him.
The items are worth saving, Kiefer says. They help answers questions about the migrants who set out across the Sonoran set for the United States in the late 2000s to early 2010s.
Having that record is especially important now, as death tolls rise along the U.S.-Mexico border, raising questions about the ethics of U.S. border policy.
With a mission to document each item, Kiefer sees himself as the custodian of the migrants' belongings, someone who conserves and protects them until they find a more permanent resting place where they can continue to tell their stories: a museum or center for migration studies, Kiefer says.
Co-Director/Cinematographer/Producer // Seth Gadsden is an artist, and current director of Indie Grits Labs in Columbia, SC. Focusing on public art, documentary filmmaking, and media installations, Seth has exhibited his personal work across the US and completed murals and outdoor sculptures in places like Mexico, North Dakota, Boston, Houston and his hometown of Clover, SC. His video work as a Producer/Director/Cinematographer/Artist has been featured in Vimeo Staff Picks, the Tribeca Film Festival, Indie Memphis Film Festival, Oxford Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, and the Blackstar Film Festival among others. Through Indie Grits Labs, Seth has curated and a range of projects and produced works with over 80 artists including documentary films and new media in the past five years. He has taught video production in the Film and Media Studies program at the University of South Carolina. Seth is a founding member of the artist collective, Transit Antenna, with which he spent two years traveling across North America developing community-based art projects. Seth is also a founding member of the Redux Contemporary Art Center (Charleston, SC) and the Boston Young Contemporaries at Boston University.
Co-Director/Impact Producer // Amada Torruella is a Salvadoran artist and storyteller residing in Santa Ana, California. Her work explores migration, identity, memory, language, and cultural dissonance. She is a National Association of Latino Arts and Culture Fellow and a VONA Voices fellow, the only multi genre workshop for writers of color in the US. Amada has worked as a journalism intern for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA is the lead UN agency working to end gender disparity) and the Salvadoran government. Before moving to California, Amada was the Programming Coordinator and film series curator at South Carolina’s only non-profit Art House Cinema: The Nickelodeon Theatre. In 2016-17 Amada was the lead curator and producer of the “Visiones Project” in which she facilitated the production of over a dozen media artworks by Latino artists from across South Carolina. Amada has been a film programmer at the Indie Grits Festival since 2016, and she is currently spending time working on her writing and documentary filmmaking practice.
Co-Director // Jamie Self is a news reporter in Columbia, South Carolina, where she has written in-depth about the state's teacher shortage and other education, criminal justice and healthcare issues. As a long-time statehouse reporter, she covered many legislative issues, including passage of a law allowing guns in bars, failures in the state's child safety net, legislative ethics reforms, and racial disparities in school discipline policies. A challenging but memorable part of her career, she covered the historic debate that led to the removal of the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds after a racially motivated massacre at Charleston's "Mother Emanuel" AME Church. She also has covered two S.C. governors, several state political campaigns and two presidential primaries and nominating conventions. In a feat she's not sure how she pulled off, she covered South Carolina's delegation at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland while five months pregnant with twins. She has won several first-place awards with her state press association for her reporting on state government, education and politics.
Editor // Kelly Creedon is a documentary filmmaker and visual journalist whose work focuses on using intimate storytelling as a means to explore communities and the issues and questions that unite and divide us. Her short film work has been featured in Vimeo Staff Picks, National Geographic, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, the Huffington Post, REEL SOUTH, the PBS Online Film Festival and the Bitter Southerner, among others. Her short documentary In This World screened widely at festivals around the country and was recognized by Pictures of the Year International and the Alexia Foundation. Her editing credits include the feature-length documentary Farmsteaders (2018) and the Tribeca IF/Then-supported documentary short Santuario (2018). She has taught visual journalism and documentary storytelling at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism, where she received her MA in Visual Communication. She is also a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
The Current Status and Timeline
We are currently finishing up production. Seth and Amada just finished shooting with Tom in Ajo for the final time in late September. Post-production has begun as the editing process is officially underway.
Once the edits are in, the film will go for sound design and color correction. Then we'll be ready to finalize our impact campaign, and release the film to the world.
How Can You Help?
Donate funding! Seth and Jamie have paid the way for the film so far out of pocket. Your support will help us pay the professionals needed to bring it home, specifically: editing, sound and color correction and finalizing the project for film festival submissions and our impact campaign.
$7,500 is the bare minimum that we need to see this project get to the finish line. Our stretch goal is $10,000.
Reaching our stretch goal will see this film get the best treatment possible -- from top notch sound design and color correction to a final edit that will make us all proud. It also will help us reach the largest potential audience by expanding our festival outreach into Central and South America and Europe.
Can't donate? You can still be a HUGE supporter by FOLLOWING the film on Kickstarter and Facebook. And most of all, you can spread the love by sharing the campaign on social media and giving us a shout out. Tell your friends!
Check out our updates page for more information on the story and the progress!
Risks and challenges
This project has been underway since February 2017. As with any verite documentary featuring over 20 hours of coverage, editing a beautiful, cohesive, an effective 10-20min short can be incredibly challenging. Having a focused and accountable team with a talented editor is important. Seeing this film to the finish line will be full of challenges including the possibility of needing additional production trips to Ajo, Arizona for follow-ups with Tom. This film also presents a unique challenge with the intended audience. Our team wants this film to be accessible to both an English-speaking audience from the United States and Europe AND a Spanish-speaking audience from across the Americas. This will be challenging within the frame, but also in physically building an impact campaign to reach audiences at festivals and communities around the world. Effectively utilizing language, visual imagery, and unique marketing approaches, along with having a diverse team behind the camera, will help us reach these goals.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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