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Middlebury Animation Studio Short Addresses Family Separation

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A still from "Estrellita" - COURTESY OF MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE
  • Courtesy Of Middlebury College
  • A still from "Estrellita"

"What if the day that you grew up was the day your parents got taken away because they were undocumented?" That question comes from Daniel Houghton, an animation and video production instructor at Middlebury College and director of the school's Animation Studio. It's the heart of a newly released animated short that grapples with deportation and family separation in the U.S., framed in the context of undocumented migrant farmworkers in Vermont.

Two years in the making, the eight-minute wordless animation called "Estrellita" ("Little Star") was initially slated to travel the film-fest circuit later this year and into 2019. Recent news changed the filmmakers' minds.

"There are pretty horrific things happening right now with family separation on the border," said Houghton. "The decision to put ["Estrellita"] online now definitely followed where the news stories were going. [We wanted] to participate in some way in the bigger dialogue." On June 20, the film was uploaded to Vimeo, where it already has more than 4,500 views.

The animation tells the story of a young girl who helps her undocumented father on an American dairy farm. The U.S. Border Patrol, depicted as an amorphous, evil-looking black morass, arrests her father, causing her world to crumble. The film's closing credits, presented in English and Spanish, read, "Inspired by Vermont's farmworker families who live and work under the threat of deportation and separation."

Seeking to create a story that would be significant both locally and beyond, Houghton began researching Vermont's undocumented population in 2016. The suggestion came from Middlebury College economics professor and honorary consul to Mexico Jessica Holmes, whose son, Justin, a recent Middlebury Union High School graduate, did the film's rigging.

Houghton's inquiry led him to establish connections with migrant families and their support communities, who helped shape the animation by sharing their experiences and offering feedback.

Smithi Skunnawat, a Middlebury College film studies major, edited the film. Currently a development intern for the Cartoon Network programming block Adult Swim, Skunnawat said that "Estrellita" changed many times during production.

"Our attitude in the beginning was that we didn't want it to be a political piece," he said. "But as the political situation developed more and more, it felt ... like a statement of human rights."

Skunnawat added that earlier versions may have been too rosy. "None of the iterations felt right, because the message I was trying to get across is that it's not that things are fine," he said. "We'd rather express viscerally how wrong the situation is."

According to Will Lambek of Migrant Justice/Justicia Migrante, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Border Patrol arrests about one Vermont resident per week. Most of them are farmworkers.

"We know of several cases where a parent and primary breadwinner has been detained by immigration authorities and deported, leaving their children in Vermont," Lambek said. "This, of course, is a traumatizing and horrendous experience for the family separated. And the possibility of being detained and separated from your children by deportation is a fear that every undocumented immigrant parent lives with."

Houghton hopes the film will work as "a lever to humanize what's going on." Of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, he said, "It's this intense ratcheting up of the policy, with cruelty and malice seeming to be the strategy ... All of this is very real and complex and causing a lot of pain for a lot of people."

Of those not directly impacted by U.S. immigration policy, Houghton said, "I hope they recognize what a profound blessing that is."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Family Interrupted"

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