Local resident films documentary surrounding successful immigrant-rights campaign in South Philly

Kristal Sotomayor captured a grassroots effort to end the city’s PARS agreement. The piece, “Expanding Sanctuary,” is seeking $10,000 for post-production funding.

Scenes from “Expanding Sanctuary” (Photo special to SPR)

With a DSLR camera in her hand, aspiring filmmaker Kristal Sotomayor causally attended a meeting last year surrounding a campaign to end the city’s Preliminary Arraignment Reporting System (PARS) – an agreement that granted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement access to records used by the courts, police, the District Attorney’s Office and other law enforcement.

At the time, though, the recent college graduate did not know she’d be archiving one of the most historic moments in the city’s fight for immigrants’ rights.

From the crusade’s inaugural gathering at Juntos, a South Philly-based nonprofit that supports the welfare of Latino immigrants, to Mayor Jim Kenney’s official ceasing of the Philadelphia PARS contract in summer 2018, Sotomayor fortuitously captured the entire narrative through her first independent short film, “Expanding Sanctuary.”

Sotomayor, a 24-year-old resident of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood, filmed the documentary from March to August 2018, primarily centering the story upon the experiences of South Philadelphian Latino immigrants as the PARS fight unfolded. 

“It was honestly fate that I just happened to go to the first meeting for the PARS campaign,” she said. “I had no idea what I was honestly walking into…I really think that South Philly and Philly are a microcosm for the immigrant issues that are happening in the country. Philly is one of the leading immigrant-rights cities in the country, and I think this film really goes to show it because we’re one of the first cities to have done this.”

Sotomayor, the daughter of two Peruvian immigrants, grew up in Pittsburgh before attending Bryn Mawr College, where she studied comparative literature with a minor in film studies.

After graduating in 2017, Sotomayor was accepted into the West Philadelphia-based Scribe Video Center’s Film Scholars program, a series of workshops helping to foster the projects of emerging documentary filmmakers. 

While seeking concepts for a 30-minute short, Sotomayor also searched for a community to call home as she adjusted to moving to Philadelphia on her own. Soon, she’d come across Juntos, which would not only serve as the premise of the film but Sotomayor’s second family.

“My parents are Latino immigrants, so immigration has always been a big issue for me and something that I’m very passionate about,” she said. “So, I mostly tried to find the communities that I wanted to join. I tried to find the Latino immigrant community because that’s who I feel most comfortable with because we share a lot of the same experiences.” 

In the spring of 2018, Juntos invited Sotomayor to attend the first PARS meeting, where the focal point of her film bloomed into fruition.

Surrounding the grassroots campaign, the film follows Juntos’ executive director, communications manager and community organizer.

Though the story is focused on Philly, Sotomayor says emotions toward national images and rhetoric regarding immigration naturally surfaced in the film. 

“People were really upset about that and looking for a way to channel all of that – all of those feelings into trying to do something to help,” she said. “So, Juntos really mobilized allies to help and that really was a push that helped end this contract.”

Kristal Sotomayor (right) filmed a documentary, “Expanding Santuary,” from March to August 2018. The film centers upon the experiences of South Philadelphian Latino immigrants as the PARS fight unfolded last year. (Photo special to SPR)

Though the film features interviews with the Juntos staff as well as local South Philadelphians, Sotomayor says the short is primarily comprised of observational footage, encompassing impactful scenes such as vocal protests or moments of silence. 

Gradually during filming, a central character emerged named Linda, an avid member of Juntos, who was planning her wedding amidst the PARS campaign. The marital ceremony, which was also filmed, concurrently served as a major protest opportunity at City Hall. 

“I think we relate a lot to people that we see in films,” Sotomayor said. “So, I really want the viewer to follow Linda and her journey of growth and connect to her, because she is the sweetest, kindest – the best person ever. I just love her so much…I think the best way to tell a story is by having this personal connection, so instead of just telling you facts, I’m showing you the realities and showing you people organizing.”

Though filming has wrapped, the documentary, which was was selected for Doc Society’s Good Pitch Local Philadelphia and the Work-In-Progress Lab at the 2019 Philadelphia Latino Film Festival, is currently seeking funding for post-production through a Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign.

Sotomayor, who independently filmed the entire project, is hoping to raise $10,000 by Aug. 14 to hire individuals who will assist with editing, sound mixing, color correction and music composition.

The film, which is fiscally sponsored by CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia, was awarded an Arts and Change Grant from the Leeway Foundation to hire an assistant editor but Sotomayor says more funding is needed to hire the post-production team. 

She hopes to hire local filmmakers who have close ties to the film’s themes. 

“Often, stories like this are so untold, and they aren’t told by people who really share a lot of the same experiences as that community,” Sotomayor said. “It’s often people who have no relation coming in and telling these stories. And, so, I really wanted to make sure that I was embedded in the community, that I’m working with Juntos as a community and that they’re holding me accountable throughout the filmmaking.”

Ideally, the project will be ready for rough-cut screenings by the end of the summer, which will be followed by a final completion in the fall. 

Scenes from “Expanding Sanctuary” (Photo special to SPR)

“Expanding Sanctuary,” Sotomayor says, is the first installment in a larger project, Expanding Sanctuary of CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia, which plans to document the state of immigrant rights in Philadelphia through the Juntos community.

As both the daughter of immigrants and a budding cinematographer, Sotomayor describes “Expanding Sanctuary” as a passion project. She hopes a range of individuals, including those of all races and political standpoints, gain new perspectives from the film. 

However, she intends for immigrants and other minitories to gain a particular awareness. 

“I mostly want people to learn about the different systems of policing and surveillance that affect communities of color, because this issue of the sharing of the police database doesn’t only affect Latinx immigrants,” Sotomayor said. “It just happens that Latinx immigrants-rights organizations were the ones that kind of led this, but it doesn’t mean that it just affects them. It affects all immigrants, and it also affects all people of color…If someone can learn more about how to liberate themselves from these systems that just want to imprison communities of color, then I think that’s it.”

To donate to the Seed and Spark effort, visit: www.seedandspark.com/fund/expanding-sanctuary.


Twitter: @gracemaiorano