Asha Dahya 00;00;11;17 – 00;03;26;28
Hello friends! Welcome to a special episode of the rePRO Film Podcast, I’m your host Asha Dahya, fighting back against the assault on bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom by amplifying the work of filmmakers tackling a number of repro health topics on film.
rePRO Film is proud to be a community partner of the Cleveland International Film Festival, or CIFF as you’ll hear me refer to it throughout this episode. We all know how powerful films and documentaries are when it comes to changing hearts and minds through personal stories, giving audiences a glimpse into an issue where they can really put themselves in people’s shoes. That is exactly what ‘On The Divide’ does.
The film follows the story of three Latinx people living in McAllen, Texas who, despite their views, are connected by the most unexpected of places: the last abortion clinic on the U.S./Mexico border. As threats to the clinic and their personal safety mount, these three are forced to make decisions they never could have imagined. Mercedes, a tattooed Latina woman in her thirties who used to be involved in gangs, is now part of the pro-life Church movement, embracing the support from the Christian pregnancy center located next door to the clinic. Denisse, a young mother of four, volunteers at Whole Woman’s Health of McAllen and helps guide women into the clinic, providing much-needed comfort and assistance. Protecting the entryway into the clinic is Rey, a Latino security guard in his late sixties who is fervent in his religious beliefs, but also deeply understands the plight of the women who arrive at the clinic. Their life decisions intertwine at this abortion clinic, as they grapple with how their devotion informs their role in fighting for or against abortion rights.
And let me tell you after watching this film, there are some very unexpected moments in each of the characters’ stories, so that synopsis I read is not even the whole story. This topic couldn’t be more timely right now, as we are on the precipice of seeing Roe v Wade overturned. So I had the chance to speak with co-directors Maya Cueva and Leah Galant who talked about making the film over 7 years, why they chose to highlight this particular community in the Rio Grande valley, and why choice really is a matter of survival.
Thank you, Leah and Maya, for speaking with me and joining with me today on all different time zones. Leah, you’re in Europe, and Maya, you and I are here on the West Coast, so thank you for taking the time. Now, On The Divide was released in 2021. Yet it certainly feels very timely, maybe even more so today. Given what is happening in the United States with abortion access, Supreme Court cases and the ever changing political landscape. Before we dive into the film and the info about everything, I’d love to know how both of you are feeling about all of this in relation to your work promoting On The Divide.
Maya Cueva 00;03;28;00 – 00;05;16;19
Yeah. First of all, thank you so much for having us. So to be here it’s definitely a hard, hard time. Unfortunately, you know what’s happening right now in Texas, this has been happening for a long time. So, you know, when we started filming in 2014, we saw that clinics were closing throughout the state and that access was already really dire there. So it’s just really unfortunate that, you know, for people in Texas and for people particularly on the border in McAllen, this is not a new reality, but it has gotten so much worse in terms of restrictive access. And it’s just hard to see our rights being rolled back.
Leah and I were born after Roe v Wade was already a constitutional right but it’s it’s just really devastating to see how all of the restrictions are just making this so much worse, especially the very restrictive abortion law that in Texas, which would prohibit patients from being able to get an abortion after six weeks and would also criminalize, and would also criminalize anyone who’s trying to help assist people from getting abortions. So we know who that’s going to target, right? That’s going to target black and brown organizers that are on the ground doing this work day in and day out to try to help secure access for people because they’re such limited access to because abortions are very expensive, too, in these areas. So it’s just it’s really disheartening to see the access, you know, and how restrictive it’s all been and continues to be.
Asha Dahya 00;05;16;19 – 00;05;17;28
Leah Galant 00;05;17;28 – 00;06;10;05
I think Maya summed it up pretty great how I’m also feeling, although, yeah, I mean, for so long, again, Maya said, the states, especially those in the South, have been ringing the alarm bell for years now saying how hard it has been to access abortion. And I think something that even our protagonist in he says in the film that we definitely want to highlight and in watching this film is just because abortion is legal in all 50 states as of today could change unfortunately at any minute, but it doesn’t mean that it’s accessible. So for us, this film really is highlighting the need for accessibility first and foremost, because, again, these laws and legislation just disproportionately affect low income communities of color the most. And that is what we’re trying to highlight in this film with On The Divide.
Asha Dahya 00;06;11;03 – 00;06;53;24
Yeah, absolutely. That difference between legal and accessible is really being highlighted right now. So let’s take it back to 2016 (which feels like a lifetime ago) where the film begins, and how we see the trajectory of your 3 main protagonists, mom and self-identifiying pro-life advocate Mercedes, who at the beginning calls herself pro-life activist. Mom of four, pro-choice clinic escort Denisse and clinic security guard Rey. You know, we see this play out over the following years under a Trump administration. How much did the political landscape in Texas at the time play a role in you wanting to make this film initially.
Leah Galant 00;06;54;10 – 00;08;48;03
Actually it was 2014 when we first started hearing about what was going on in specific states around abortion access and we came across a few news articles actually that were highlighting the need for traveling abortion doctors. And Maya and I were kind of confused, you know, why would a doctor have to perform a service that should be common and accessible?
But then the more we looked into it, then we started uncovering the laws and at the time HB2 was just about to get passed. And I think there was a period where the clinics were closing and opening within a couple of months, just based on this law. And that’s when we started realizing that other clinics in not only in Texas, but other states and in the South and across the Midwest, were at risk of closing themselves.
And so that’s really what we walked into and what got us interested in even exploring this topic. And that’s how we created our short film together called The Provider, which is about a traveling abortion doctor in Texas. And so while its future is going on, while we’re following this doctor named Doctor Shannon Carr, we went down to McAllen and also to Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley because we had heard that there was only one clinic in this entire region which serves a very large population of people, and some of them are undocumented.
And so if this clinic were to close, the next closest clinic is over 250 miles away in San Antonio, which is through border checkpoints. So many people who are undocumented would not want to risk deportation in order to go to that clinic. So in so many ways that this this is the only option for and house and procedure inpatient abortion care and the Rio Grande Valley.
Maya Cueva 00;08;48;03 – 00;11;41;09
So that’s when we went down during the Women’s March rally and it was surrounding reproductive health care and health care in general. And that’s when we met Denisse and we met Danny sorry, Denny and Melissa, who are the founders of South Texans Reproductive Justice. And that’s when we started talking about collaborating with them on the feature film that became On The Divide. And just to add just to answer your question around the political landscape, you know, when Leah and I went to McAllen, Leah and I both are not from the Rio Grande Valley. We’re not from Texas. And where we are from, access is not as restricted. But as soon as we got there, we just noticed how polarizing everything was as well.
And we also have just been seeing just from working on this film for so long, from The Provider then to On The Divide that the real stories of people that are dealing with this everyday kind of get lost in the shuffle of are you this way or that way or are you anti-choice? Are you pro-choice and pro-life? And we really wanted to focus on the people who are on the front lines of this issue. And that we don’t hear from every day like Rey, who’s the security guard, who’s a religious man was really just his whole life and was as you see in the film, randomly assigned to work at the clinic and didn’t know how he felt at first.
But you really see how much his views have changed throughout the process. And Mercedes as well, just being a very complex person and needs to you know, these were stories that we had had never really heard of when it came to stories around reproductive health care or news reports around reproductive health care. We kind of just saw the more reductive reports around this area.
We didn’t really get to hear from people who are like the three of them. And we also saw that a lot of abortion films were documentaries about abortion that do a really great job of highlighting restrictive laws or restrictive access and going inside the clinics. We didn’t really see a lot of the coverage of people who are kind of on the outside and how it affects their everyday lives.
So that’s why I really felt like this film was really urgent to make. And it was many different films at one point because we were filming for so long, we thought it was going to be about the Supreme Court case that was happening in 2016, and we thought we were going to be following clinics around the country and you know, but it really, once we really met these three people, we were able to really see these are stories we’d never really heard of. And these are kind of like unconventional narratives and complex stories that we think that people, everyday people can relate to and everyone should hear from.
Asha Dahya 00;11;42;11 – 00;13;38;19
Yeah, absolutely. And just to clarify for people listening who may not be familiar with HB-2, it was a law that was signed by former Governor Rick Perry, I believe back in 2015/2014, and it basically put all these unnecessary restrictions on clinics in particular like you have to have hallways that will fit a gurney down the middle, which they don’t use that that’s not something that they need.
You have to have access to hospitals or special relationship with hospitals, but abortion is so safe that patients aren’t being sent to hospitals so it places burden on these clinics and it forced so many clinics in Texas to close it ended up going to a Supreme Court in 2016 and Whole Women’s Health won that case and yet there are still very similar laws popping up that are basically copycat laws.
There was one in Louisiana which went to the Supreme Court last year I believe and it also lost because of the precedent set in 2016 but the fact that these laws are just ongoing you know placing all these burdens and I love what you mentioned about really honing down to who is affected the most who are these providers who are these people on the frontlines and and that complexity that they have to deal with on a day to day basis which isn’t shown and in media stories and news headlines.
And you know with each of these characters Mercedes with Rey, with Denisse, you really can’t ever pigeonhole them or predict where they’re going to end up. I remember, as I’m watching the film at the beginning, thinking, all right, this is where this person fits. This is where Mercedes is. This is who Rey is. But they’re so layered and so complex, and they go on a journey. How important was it for you to show that nuance, which is often missing in larger discussions about abortion, who gets abortions, who provides abortions, who’s there protecting people getting abortions?
Maya Cueva 00;13;40;01 – 00;16;36;05
Yeah, it was really, really important for us to show these complex stories, mainly because again, just like you had said we really never really thought of people being able to be this complex around their views around abortion. We kind of always I think I grew up always being like, oh, it’s one way or the other until I really was able to, you know, be filming this community and seeing all the intersections that come into play.
This is a primarily Latino Latinx community and there’s also a really large Catholic community, religious community. They’re dealing with, like Leah had mentioned, border checkpoints, immigration. It has the largest detention center in this area. Also dealing with low-income communities as well. There’s just such a myriad of different issues that come into play here. I think it was really important for us to be able to show that we’re not a monolith. As a Latina filmmaker myself we’re not a monolith. We don’t fit into one category.We all have different upbringings, different identities that kind of come into play when we make these decisions. So it was just really important for us to be able to show people that don’t fit neatly into these boxes.
But ultimately, what you come to see is that choice is really necessary for survival. And they’re all kind of trying to figure out, how do they deal with these choices, right? And how do they deal and navigate with restrictive access in their everyday lives. So it was just it was really important for us to be able to show that for people to see to be able to see someone like Mercedes and Rey and Denisse and be able to be like, I see myself in that right or I see my family member in that. And I understand that, you know, these are everyday people that are just trying to survive and get through everything right. And you might have a few kids, but be fighting for access to abortion. And be adamantly pro-abortion, but also understand that they have if they want to have kids, they can have them. It’s just so frustrating that this debate can become such one rigid way or the other.
There’s so many people who want to fight for access and are also like, yeah, I have four kids at home too, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to protect other people’s right to choose or that I wouldn’t ultimately make that choice at some point. Or you have Mercedes, searching for community and Rey as well. And who might be still religious but understand why choice is necessary. So yeah, again, it was really important for us to just really be able to show it’s just really not this rigid one way or the other.
Asha Dahya 00;16;37;19 – 00;17;03;22
Yeah. I love that intersectionality of, of all these characters and they really is such a beautiful interweaving in their shared Latin culture, their religious background, their love of family and living in a part of Texas that really straddles the different cultures Can we talk more about the message you wanted to show by focusing on this community in the Rio Grande Valley? Did I say that right? Rio Grande?
Maya Cueva 00;17;04;04 – 00;17;13;20
People say it in different ways. Rio Grande Valley or Rio Grande Valley. I think it sort of depends if you’re saying it like in Spanish or in English.
Asha Dahya 00;17;13;28 – 00;17;27;23
Got it. Thank you for that clarification. Yeah. Talk to me about focusing on the community and what you really want audiences to see by, you know, showing that like you said, that they can’t be pigeonholed, but the importance of really highlighting this community.
Maya Cueva 00;17;28;11 – 00;20;49;01
Yeah it was really important for us to highlight McAllen in particular because you know, this is the area that I had said earlier that we might see on the news and might be seen in a certain way. It can be, again, very reductive. Often the mainstream news kind of paints it in a certain way where there’s like a border crisis happening, quote unquote, or you know, these are brown people who are struggling with poverty. And if they’re talking about abortion, it’s just like in this very calamitous free, like talking about how and in many ways it’s like trauma porn, how the news media can often depict this place.
So we really wanted to be able to meet with community members and really be able to ask like, hey, what are some stories that you feel like aren’t being told about your community? And what do you feel like is being ignored? And as when we went down there again, we had seen not only is there one abortion clinic, there’s many border checkpoints along the way. There’s the largest detention center. And we saw that there are so many intersections that come into play when we’re talking about reproductive health care because like we had mentioned, you have to travel really far to be able to get an abortion if this clinic were to close.
Then you know, people who are undocumented are risking deportation because of border checkpoints along the way and they could be put into the detention center there. It’s just like you’re risking so much just to try to get access to proper reproductive health care that I think a lot of people weren’t aren’t able to see or don’t know about. So we wanted to make sure, too, that we weren’t just coming in as outsiders and being like, hey, we know what the story is. And we’re going to come in and try to find the story and just put our own views into what’s happening here. We really made a point to talk to everyone: organizers you meet along the way, clinic workers, and really ask them what’s not what’s not being represented here? And a lot of them told us, we’d never been asked that before. They’re like there have been reporters who’ve come in, just trying to chase that story. Chase the story that would make the headlines or is the most quote unquote interesting for viewers to read. But they were like no one had ever asked them, what do they think about this? And that was just so helpful for us to understand what what it means, like what they’re dealing with.
And also, how important it is to build trust in communities that you’re coming into and filming. So, that’s why it was really important for us to highlight this community and show how there’s so many different intersections at play here. And it’s important to also talk about faith when it comes to abortion and talk about how there’s a lot of people who were raised religious and might not know how they feel about it now. Because of what they were taught. So how do we kind of also bring those people into the conversation around this?
Asha Dahya 00;20;50;06 – 00;21;39;02
I know one of the feelings that I had right from the moment the film opens and your place as an audience member outside the clinic and you see the protesters and you see the clinic escort and you see the security guard. And I started you know, you feel anxiety from the minute the film opens. And I feel like that’s something that people need to see more like this is the reality of people who work in these areas and who live in these communities and who need access to abortion, safe abortion, accessible abortion. Talk to me about some of the challenges during the years that you were filming. What were some of the things that were highlighted to you when you were following Mercedes, Rey and Denisse and some of the other characters? What were some of the hurdles you came up against?
Leah Galant 00;21;39;23 – 00;24;47;20
Maya and I absolutely learned so much making this film. We learned that, yeah, when we’re talking about reproductive justice and access, we have to look at, as I said, all of the intersections of other elements and systems of oppression that would get in the way of somebody accessing an abortion. And I think also, again, why we wanted to highlight this community in particular is if we’re not listening to the organizers from communities such as McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley, and we’re not taking their word of what they know they need and they’re advocating for and what they want, then we’re not going to get to a place where abortion is safe, legal and accessible for all And I do think that a lot of times yet again, people come into the community and place narratives and expectations about what, you know, what was guiding us too was just listening to the stories that, you know, again, we had never heard before and also we kept asking throughout the production line, I would be what are the stories that you feel are not being told? Or what are the stories that you feel like are being ignored? So that was definitely working with those questions that would guide us with being able to find all three of our protagonists.
I guess other challenges that we faced were kind of more on the film production level. Of being two young women starting out in the industry that were trying to get access to equipment, funds and resources and being able to go down and be able to film in McAllen. So that was absolutely a challenge. But I think mostly it was a challenge. I think finding and remaining hopeful when all of these pieces of legislation were just continuing to come and why, again, we really turned to the work mostly of South Texans for Justice and the incredible work that they had continued and were doing despite seeing an election that happens in the film.
You see another Supreme Court nominee that is appointed. You see the presidential election. So all of these things are happening over the course of seven years. It seems like it’s getting harder and harder, which in some ways it is. Then what we really wanted to find was the hope of the organizing work in this community that I think is unparalleled and why we wanted to uplift these stories and make sure that it’s highlighted. And people not only handing over the mic, so to speak, but really listening and advocating for the organizers in this region so that despite all the challenges, we were looking forward in the production of the film and kept going despite our production challenges as well, and the news. So that’s how we kept going.
Asha Dahya 00;24;48;09 – 00;25;40;23
I love that you mentioned the production challenges, because I think that’s really important for filmmakers who are starting out and who really want to tell these important stories. I think it’s great that you talk about that and are open about that because at the end of the day, this film is so powerful and so timely and congratulations and kudos to you for getting in there and doing that. I think it’s really great to talk about the filmmaking aspect of that as well. You know, being independent filmmakers. Looking ahead to audiences watching the film during CIFF and beyond. What do you want people to do after watching the film? How do you want them to feel or you know, do you want people to stay hopeful despite the current situation? What are your thoughts for audiences after they watch On The Divide?
Maya Cueva 00;25;41;24 – 00;28;25;15
Yeah, that’s a good question. So we definitely hope that this film can spark conversations with people across the aisle, right? So, you know, what would it mean to be able to watch this film and maybe show like a religious grandparent or something and be able to have that conversation that we don’t normally get to have around the table? That’s more hush-hush in a lot of communities. We want people to be able to see how important it is to have choice and have access to choice. The reasons why we’re also we’re showcasing people who are complex and don’t fit in a box. It’s obvious that personal choice is important, but it’s also really important to understand why having access to choice and having that in place is so necessary for survival.
We really are asking this question throughout the film, what does choice even really mean if you don’t have options, right? And this is what’s happening, continuing to happen. Unfortunately, you know, Roe v Wade as a constitutional right is just the floor. You know, it’s not the ultimate. And I’ll be all right. We see that even if we have Roe v Wade secured, there are still states that have restrictive access. So it’s so important for people to understand not why choice is necessary, but also even though this is a really hard time, like Leah has said, we really look to, you know, the organizers on the ground. They give us a lot of hope. They’re doing so much work and we really hope that after people watch the film that they’re moved to look into some of these organizers and abortion funds that are on the ground really doing this work.
Organizations like South Texans for Reproductive Justice, which is the organization of clinic escorts that you see in the film, like Denisse, is a part of that organization. And they also do a number of other really important work around reproductive health care, like giving out birth control and Plan B and community use. And there’s also a number of other really important abortion funds like Lilith Fund. La Frontera Fund is an organization in the Rio Grande Valley that are helping patients there. So we really just hope that people look into that, donate, support, volunteer in those areas. We really want people to be able to be mobilized after watching this film, but also really understand the complexities that come into play here and that, yeah, we don’t all fit neatly in a box.
Leah Galant 00;28;27;03 – 00;29;28;28
I would just add to that in the film not to give anything away, but one of our main protagonists realizes that there’s access to resources that she didn’t know existed before. And that’s another big part of our impact campaign. And work, too, is making sure people are directed and have more information about places where they can either find an abortion and get these abortion funds with the wonderful places that Maya had mentioned, or just if you know you’re a person of faith that’s been struggling with these thoughts, there are communities for you, and these communities include Catholics for Choice, who we’re partnering with. And so I think just being able to let people know that they’re not going through this in isolation and that there is community out there for them that’s wanting to keep them safe and healthy. I think that’s really important for people to take away from this film. And then, of course, the impact campaign work that we’re doing.
Asha Dahya 00;29;31;00 – 00;29;52;20
Yeah, that’s wonderful. I hope people check out those organizations. They are very, very important. Now, more so than ever, but they’re doing wonderful work. So where can people watch On The Divide beyond the Cleveland International Film Festival? What’s the website? What are some screening dates? Is it going to be broadcast soon and where people can watch?
Leah Galant 00;29;54;00 – 00;30;43;09
Mark your calendars for April 18th, which is a Monday, and it’s going to be streaming actually. It’s going to be broadcasting on public television, PBS with the program P.O.V.. And if you have access to your local PBS station, it should be free and accessible to those who are able to find their PBS station or online. It’s streaming. So that’s really exciting and gearing up for that, we are going to have a mini theatrical release as well. So if you live in L.A., New York City, Westchester County, New York or the Bay Area, San Francisco Bay Area or Austin, Texas, we will be playing the film in a theater in the cities.
Leah Galant 00;30;43;09 – 00;31;23;26
Please make sure to follow us: onthedividemovie.com and check out the film, whether it’s broadcast or theatrical or we also have a partnership with an educational distributor. So if you want to take it to your school or your university then we would be happy to share the film with you through good docs as well. And then also we’ll be updating on the website any upcoming film screening film festival screenings, online film festivals where you can stream the film. And yeah, we’re just really excited that everyone’s going to get to watch the film very shortly.
Maya Cueva 00;31;24;16 – 00;32;10;13
Yeah. You know, this is after seven years of working on this film, we’re just so excited to be able to actually have it be released in the world and hear what everyone has to say. You know, we were able to premiere at Tribeca last year in 2021 and we got a standing ovation. It was just really incredible to be able to be in an audience, a live audience of people. And so we’re so excited to be able to also go on this theatrical tour and take it to McAllen as well, or be able to stream it with organizers there and just other people in the community. And yeah, and you can also follow us on socials on Instagram and Twitter, just @onthedivide. So yeah, please stay in touch, watch the film, tell your friends.
Asha Dahya 00;32;11;08 – 00;32;12;14
All the good things.
Maya Cueva 00;32;12;14 – 00;32;16;12
All the good things. April 18 on PBS on POV.
Asha Dahya 00;32;16;25 – 00;32;37;20
Yeah, I’m very excited and Leah and Maya, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope more people watch this film and like you said, start a conversation, share and and really help secure and keep access available to especially underserved communities. So thank you so much for your time today, both of you.
Leah Galant 00;32;38;08 – 00;32;39;27
Thank you for having us.
Maya Cueva 00;32;39;27 – 00;32;41;15
Yeah. Thank you so much for having us.
Asha Dahya 00;32;43;00 – 00;33;25;11
To watch ‘On The Divide’ and find a screening near you, head to onthedividemovie.com. Thank you to the Cleveland International Film Festival for inviting the rePRO Film team to be a community partner this year. As always, you can sign up for our free, monthly Periodical, featuring a short film and podcast, hosted by me around an issue central to reproductive health and justice. Get on the list at reprofilm.org or follow us on our social media platforms @reprofilmofficial. We welcome people from anywhere to join us for the movie and conversation each month. You can also find the rePRO Film podcast on Spotify and iTunes. Keep fighting the good fight, I’ll see you next episode!