What We Leave Behind 2022 Movie Review
Between 1942 and 1964, the US government’s Bracero Program saw thousands of people travel from Mexico to engage in manual labour in the US. One of them was Julián, the grandfather of filmmaker Iliana Sosa. She was born and grew up in El Paso, Texas, but formed a strong attachment to Julián’s home in Northern Mexico on visits there, and wanted to address these things in a film, as well as reflecting on the lengthy bus journeys which he would make regularly, for as long as his health remained, to visit his US-based family. What emerged was a well deserved award winner at 2022’s SXSW, a refreshingly nuanced and highly detailed portrait in microcosm of the relationship between Mexico and its northern neighbour.
The poverty of the Mexican region which we visit is starkly apparent, and not something which Sosa wished to conceal, yet Julián, at 89 years of age, seems to want for nothing. His simple life entirely contents him; his ambitions are not for himself but for his family, and to that end he is putting everything into the building of a new house, hoping that it will encourage them to visit him whilst he lives and to spend time together after he is gone. The film follows its construction as it follows his physical decline.
Part of what Sosa’s film challenges is the myth that Mexico is a miserable place whose inhabitants are generally keen to relocate to the US if they can. Despite its poverty, this sleepy rural hamlet is beguiling in innumerable ways, and the sort of place where children, in particular, have fantastic adventures. Sosa takes us to the ruins of a house with many doors, recounting the romantic legend associated with it. She points out the mountain, Il Castillo, on whose summit witches are said to live, sleeping during the day and turning into black birds at night, whence they swoop down to protect the village. The light in the area, which any artist would feel drawn to, is beautifully captured, and the film benefits from a rich auditory landscape of natural sounds. Dogs and cats wander everywhere, watching the camera as it watches them, but mostly going about their own business.
As Julián works, keen to do as much of the house-building as possible himself, Sosa observes him, asking questions, drawing out his stories. He’s the sort of man who rarely receives much attention, but he’s every bit as interesting as the billionaires and celebrities who do. We learn about the forces which have shaped his life and how he took control of his destiny, about the deep and abiding love he felt for his late wife, whom he cared for over many years, and about his love of the world around him. Sosa’s deep affection for this place is apparent in every shot, and it’s difficult to watch it without experiencing that same sense that this is a place where one could be at home.
The pace is slow, in keeping with the rhythms of Julián’s life. Often the camera simply waits, taking in the changing light or the animals going to and fro. Each of these moments offers something to discover, and invites viewers to look at their worlds, too, in a new way. Sosa once got sick when visiting her grandfather; she recalls her mother saying that she couldn’t have survived that life. The film celebrates Julián’s strength even as we watch him fade. Its title is a tribute to him, and also a reminder that Mexico, the ancestral home of numerous US citizens, has qualities which are well worth remaining connected to. Deeply personal yet vast in its implications, gentle and lyrical, What We Leave Behind is a pleasure to watch.