If you watch the brilliant new film from Mexican-American director Rodrigo Reyes, Sansón and Me, without knowing too much about the details of its production, you may find yourself wondering exactly what kind of film this is. Part documentary, part biopic/docudrama, part avant-garde experimentalism, Sansón and Me is a fascinating amalgam of cinematic modes that seem to evolve into something new as you watch. Most importantly, though, Reyes’ film is a deeply empathetic portrait of an imprisoned young man whom you will likely never see, on camera or in person.
Sansón, you see, of the film’s title, was in 2012 a mere 19-year-old undocumented Mexican migrant—Sansón Noé Andrade—who was charged with two counts of murders in the California court system. He was behind the wheel when his younger brother-in-law shot and killed two men; Reyes was his interpreter. When Sansón was found guilty of both counts and sentenced to consecutive life sentences without parole in Pelican Bay State Prison, Reyes continued a decade-long correspondence with the young man that totaled some 900 written pages. But he was not allowed to make the film of Sansón’s story he had planned: authorities declined the request, citing that a film would be a reward unearned for a convicted murderer.
And so, Sansón and Me—the “me” being Reyes—enlists a cast of Sansón Andrade’s relatives to portray the young man at various stages of his early life as described in his correspondence with the filmmaker. These are framed by a series of filmed conversations with Reyes, onscreen, interacting with that cast, and in a formal staged interview setting, with Sansón himself. Or, at least, so it seems, because in this complex meta-nonfiction examining the life of a man who cannot be filmed, an inevitable truth comes to light: Sansón—the real Sansón, imprisoned, for life, without parole and doubly so—cannot be seen.
Reyes’ choices here are fascinating. Of course, it can be difficult, impossible even, to make a documentary when no part of a subject’s experience has been (or can be) photographed or filmed. Many a documentarian (from Robert Flaherty to Errol Morris and since) will employ reenactments in such a situation; Reyes’ choice to do so is hardly unprecedented. But in framing those re-enacted sequences with conversations between himself and Sansón about the difficulty of the project, the limits of memory, the family Sansón will never see, Reyes adds another layer of complexity to an already-complex undertaking.
As these scenes unfold, Sansón recounts his life story to Reyes: his childhood in Tecomán, his father’s early death, time spent living with an abusive grandmother, a stint at an orphanage. Eventually, he makes his way across the border to the United States to live with an aunt, but with a newfound measure of freedom comes an oppressive structural racism that eventually takes its toll. The conversations between Reyes and Sansón cover these events and more, including a brief marriage and an abandoned son: no matter the topic, Reyes remains an empathetic correspondent, and the depictions of the events by the cast—many of them Sansón’s family members—are re-created in a detailed, nuanced, and expressly cinematic presentation.
For a moment, you might wonder if the approach that interrupts these scenes with Reyes’ interviews is too cute by half. But it’s not. Straddling borders between coastal Mexico and California prisons, between truth and fiction, Reyes’ boundary-pushing approach to documentary filmmaking ultimately foregrounds a sobering truth about the young man who is his subject: ultimately, even if Sansón is depicted by others and his story told, he is invisible. He literally cannot be seen.
Reyes notes his intention is not to try to free or otherwise absolve a man unjustly incarcerated (like, say, The Thin Blue Line or Making a Murderer). It’s impossible to imagine it might. Sansón’s fate is sealed, regardless of the success of Reyes’ film. However, in presenting Sansón’s life from orphaned Mexican child to American prisoner, and doing so in a way that foregrounds the difficult of telling an invisible man’s story, Sansón and Me becomes less about the singular experience of an imprisoned individual and more a treatise on the systemic forces that result in staggering rates of young men of color being incarcerated in America.
Could Reyes tell this story by other means? Possibly. A traditionally expository documentary full of talking heads seems out of the question. A loosely-fictionalized docudrama without the meta-fictional layering? Perhaps: that’s the tack taken so adroitly by Teodora Teodora Ana Mihai in adapting the story of Miriam Rodriguez to La Civil. But then, viewers would lose out on the friendship developed between the two men here, filmmaker and subject, even if it is largely epistolary in nature. Theirs is a vibrant correspondence, one that celebrates small milestones and asks big questions, in the process pushing the boundaries of nonfiction storytelling form, and ultimately giving at least a small moment of visibility to a man who is otherwise, and for the rest of his life, unseen.
Sansón and Me (Sansón y yo), directed by Rodrigo Reyes, opens Friday, March 3 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City, followed by other cities. A Cinema Guild Release. Mexico/USA, 2022, 83 min. In Spanish and English with English subtitles.