Documentary filmmaker Paloma Martínez on storytelling, ‘the hand of the state’ and creative self-discovery

Jan. 17, 2022, 9:33 p.m.

At last Thursday’s artist talk hosted by Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History, documentary filmmaker Paloma Martínez M.F.A. ’18 underscored the value of prioritizing faithful storytelling over developing a distinctive artistic style. Clips from three of Martínez’s documentaries — “The Shift,” “Crisanto Street” and “Enforcement Hours (Sanctuary City Hotline)” — and her accompanying commentary affirmed this principle, demonstrating Martínez’s willingness to experiment with craft while telling stories about the state’s power structures, the tolls of labor and marginalized communities. 

“Formally, I don’t think I’ll ever make two films that are the same,” Martínez said. “But in terms of the themes I’m interested in, those are usually pretty similar.”

Before becoming a documentary filmmaker, Martínez worked as a labor activist. She had always been drawn to labor issues due to her family background: her parents, migrant workers from Mexico, worked low-paying job after low-paying job throughout her childhood, switching from janitors to field workers to taxi drivers. In college, Martínez studied economics, certain that her life would be dedicated towards labor activism. However, after several years of working with labor organizations, she eventually decided — in a moment she described as a “sudden epiphany” — that she needed to move on and do something else.

As it turned out, that something else would be documentary film work; however, Martínez couldn’t pull herself away from the world of labor activism quite so easily. In her documentaries, themes from her days as a labor activist kept rising to the surface. Martínez found herself drawn again and again to the impact of “the hand of the state” — be that law enforcement or the economic conditions created by the government — on bodies, relationships, space and movement.

“If you have inherent friction with the state,” Martínez asked, “how does that affect the way in which you navigate your environment?” Questions like this one haunt much of Martínez’s work, and Thursday’s talk showed that she is constantly looking for new ways to respond to them.

“The Shift,” the first documentary of the night, was inspired by an article Martínez read about an emergency dispatcher’s campaign to receive the same wages and benefits as first responders. The documentary followed 911 operators in San Francisco and interrogated the relationship between labor and the physical body. Though operator work isn’t physically intensive, Martínez wanted to understand how the immense psychological toll of 12-hour, late-night emergency shifts could imprint itself on the body. Stylistically, Martínez described her documentary as “very direct,” with frequent close-up shots of the operators’ body language both during and outside of work. 

Martínez emphasized the limitations she observed upon re-watching the documentary. “The friction of taking those phone calls 12 hours a day — I don’t think it’s something we quite captured because of the length of the piece, because of its form,” she said. To Martínez, the film needed to be taken a step further. The series of close shots could only begin to hint at the physical impact of emergency dispatcher work.

The next documentary screened, “Crisanto Street,” explored the housing crisis in the Bay Area by following eight-year-old Geovany Cesario and his move from a mobile RV to a permanent residence. Much of the documentary is shot by Cesario himself; through his camera, we witness intimate scenes of life in a temporary encampment and meet its many inhabitants. 

While working on “Crisanto Street,” Martínez sought to differentiate the documentary’s tone from that of “The Shift” and ultimately did so by changing the shooting style from direct to participatory. To Martínez, Cesario’s participation in the film “brought this exuberance to the film” that she wasn’t capable of creating on her own. This exuberance emerged in the way Cesario captured ordinary, private moments. In one shot, Cesario’s mother cooks dinner in the RV kitchen while he giggles in the background; in another, the camera jolts and shakes as he excitedly runs around with his friends in the encampment.

Participatory film work also provided Martínez with a chance to question and negotiate the power dynamics of documentary film work. Martínez was often troubled by the relationship between documentary filmmaker and subject, which she described as “a stranger with a camera trying to create accelerated intimacy in a space with so many vulnerable, marginalized people.” However, she found that the character-driven heart of “Crisanto Street” flourished through participatory collaboration. While Martínez’s own camera work could remain distant, Cesario’s was capable of catching all the nuance, personality and grey areas of living in the encampment.

The final film screened at the event, “Enforcement Hours (Sanctuary City Hotline),” chronicled the work of the San Francisco Rapid Response Network, a 24-hour hotline dedicated to helping immigrants involved in ICE raids. At the time she conceived of the idea for this documentary, Martínez was disturbed by the large number of very public calls for raids she saw in sanctuary cities like San Francisco and sought to probe the fear and self-policing created by that environment. 

With “Enforcement Hours (Sanctuary City Hotline),” Martínez aimed once again to diverge stylistically from her previous works. Instead of working again in a direct cinema style or creating another character-driven piece, this time, she wanted to explore distance and anonymity.

“Could we do this anonymously?” Martínez asked. “Could we create a soundscape, a cityscape vision of San Francisco, and make it about how people feel at this moment? Could we navigate through this city in a sort of fearful, dreamlike way?”

Through shots of lamplit city streets, empty corridors and highways that melt into the horizon, Martínez attempted to navigate through space in exactly a “fearful, dreamlike way,” a sentiment only heightened by the disembodied voices of the hotline operators. By focusing on anonymity and disembodiment, Martínez hoped to capture the palpable sense of tension between a community and its own landscape. 

Though it appears simple, “Enforcement Hours (Sanctuary City Hotline)” was the most challenging documentary for Martínez to complete. Throughout the shooting process, she struggled with a sense of non-specificity between the disembodied voice-overs and deserted shots. Martínez was accustomed to tighter, more controlled audio-visual connections in her previous works and found herself compulsively seeking to build those same “logical links” in “Enforcement Hours (Sanctuary City Hotline).” Ultimately, to complete the documentary, she had to unchain herself from that mode of thinking and relinquish the need for a rigidly constructed film. “If you’re using disembodied voices, you can’t have specific imagery; you can’t try to build this specific logic because it simply doesn’t make sense,” she said. “You have to leave space for the voices to be impactful.” 

Taken together, Martínez said that her three documentaries reflect the process of “figuring out who you are and who you formally want to be as a creative.” This quality of self-discovery was precisely what made Thursday’s talk so insightful: it was an opportunity to peer into the energetic mind of a filmmaker constantly questioning how to sharpen her craft and capture the stories she needs to share. With every new documentary Martínez directs, she will encounter new challenges with using craft to negotiate the complicated relationships between film and the lives, goals and traumas of those it seeks to represent. But as Martínez said, “I’m okay, I’m okay with the question mark.”

Lydia Wei '24 is an Arts and Life columnist for the Daily. She loves blackberries. Contact Lydia at lydiawei 'at'

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