Isabel Castro (MIJA)

Tim Molloy and Eric Steuer • January 31, 2022

Mija director Isabel Castro is a journalist and documentarian who rolls her eyes at all the tropes of immigration stories: the hopelessness, the grim statistics, the victim narratives. So she made sure Mija looks and feels very different.

The title of the film, which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, means “daughter” in English. Mija opens with Castro’s main subject, young music manager Doris Muñoz, at a party store, about to celebrate a birthday. She’s funny, disarming, unpretentious, nurturing. She’s flourishing as the manager of the singer-songwriter Cuco, traveling to packed shows, and helping support her undocumented parents, as well as her brother across the border.

Then she hits a setback, COVID takes hold, and she has to start over. But she’s fueled by a love of music — and her family. She soon aligns herself with rising singer-songwriter Jacks Haupt, another daughter of immigrants, as they try to build a future for themselves and their parents.

“These immigration policies are incredibly volatile, and unstable, and really threaten people’s livelihoods,” Castro explains. “But at the same time, in the immigrant community in the United States, I wanted to show that there’s power and agency. … Even though Doris’ family, and Jacks’ family, are all enduring different versions of family separation, they are not victims. They don’t consider themselves victims, and they have power.”

Castro also wanted to make a film that people would want to see.

“What motivated me was to find a story that used kind of diversion tactics. And by that, I mean, the central themes of the film are immigration and what it means from an intergenerational perspective, and from a mixed-status perspective. But when you hear that, it sounds really boring,” she says. “And so, I was trying to figure out a way to make that more exciting… a little bit less, ‘Woe is me.’ I just wanted it tonally to feel very vibrant and entertaining. And I thought, the best thing I know that might be able to access that is music.

“I’ve always been a big music fan and, and I felt like it was a way for the film to be marketed and put out into the world as a music doc, and hopefully draw audiences that might not sit down to watch a film about what it means to be an intergenerational mixed-status family.”

You can listen to our full interview with Isabel Castro on the latest MovieMaker podcast, available on on Apple or Spotify or above. In the interview, she also explains how her own background — she was born in Mexico before her family came to the United States — helped her gain the trust of her subjects and incredible access to their lives. Castro did most of the filming herself, and captured the Muñoz family in their moment difficult, intense, and joyful moments.

“I’ve never been in front of the camera to the extent that they have,” Castro says. “I have so much respect and admiration for people that do it because it’s an incredibly vulnerable thing to do.”

She compares the process of her subjects warming up to the camera to the way we all learn to see past the cracks on our phone screens.

“It’s like when you drop your phone and immediately you can only focus on the crack,” Castro says. “And then, with time, you just get used to it. Everyone who has a cracked phone can kind of relate to the fact that over time, you just kind of ignore that it’s there and forget that it’s there.”

One of the most moving moments of the film occurs when Jacks — visiting L.A. for the first time work on her music — calls home to her undocumented parents in Texas. They worry that she’s throwing away her opportunities as a U.S. citizen by pursuing a risky musical career. She wishes they would support her as she pursues her dream.

It’s a painful argument because it’s rooted in love: Jacks and her parents want to help each other. Castro has heard from a lot of immigrant parents, including her own, who say Jacks’ parents make good points.

“I’ve had versions of that phone call with my parents,” Castro says.

We hear in Mija that Muñoz’s mother always wanted her to be a singer, and when we briefly hear her sing, she’s great. At the end of our interview, Castro drops a welcome surprise about her main subject.

“She is now trying to launch her own music career, which has always been a dream of hers,” Castro says. “She’s got an incredible voice, and so she’s actually she’s going on tour on Monday.”