WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND is a powerful documentary directed by Iliana Sosa and starring her grandfather, an unlikely hero, Julian.
This movie, whether intentionally or not, is a perfect example of the history of our country being created on the backs of folks who, after we used their labor and resources, turned our backs on them. In Julian’s case, it was his experience as a bracero during World War II that illustrates just how poorly we treat other human beings that are either just trying to be helpful during a time of worldwide strife or trying to make a better life for their families, or both. WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND shows the power and closeness of the Mexican community and their relationships with their elders, specifically in this family, and communicates the dedication to a lifestyle and ideal that doesn’t believe in slowing down because of age.
Julian is an 89-year-old man from Mexico who regularly makes the long journey to visit his family in El Paso, Texas. That alone would be cause enough to write a review if this was just a sentimental look at the director’s grandfather, but this gentleman’s life is filled with such a rich history and quiet dignity that it’s surprising that the runtime of this film is contained to just over an hour.
Julian looks like how people describe American cowboys. Decked out in jeans and a cowboy hat, he exudes that machismo that folks who haven’t worked a day in their life pay thousands of dollars to emulate. The man dry shaves for crying out loud!
As Julian’s family migrated to the US to enrich their lives, he struggles to maintain those close family relationships. Making monthly trips across the border to see his family and collect some money, he shows the dichotomy of living here. When asked why he goes home so quickly, he responds something to the effect of “I just sit around all day here.”
Over the course of the movie Julian and the director reflect on his life, and show that even though he has gotten older, doesn’t mean he has any less to teach his family, and by way of the camera, the audience. The movie relishes the quiet moments and the mundane activities that fill Julian’s days, and the physical toll that a life of living off the land has taken on his body. Julian exemplifies the axiom of “the mind and spirit are willing, but the body is weak”.
There is a little bit of aimlessness to the narrative, and the pacing is slow, but watching Julian is like being with your own grandfather, and you find yourself listening intently just in case something prolific comes out of his mouth.