DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT Jefferson Stein on BURROS “Burro is also the name of someone who brings drugs across the border on burros (donkeys)”

BURROS is a beautiful, moving story of a six-year-old Indigenous girl who discovers a Latina migrant her age who has lost her father while traveling through the Tohono O’odham tribal lands into the United States. This topical film qualified for OSCAR® consideration when it won the Best Live Action Short award at the New York International Children’s Film Festival and has been receiving numerous accolades; including the recent Moonwalker Best Short Award at the Nòt Film Fest.

In southern Arizona, twenty miles from the Mexico border, a young Indigenous girl discovers a Latina migrant her age who has been separated from her father while traveling through the Tohono O’odham tribal lands into the United States.

The capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation is twenty miles from the Mexican border and spans both sides of the U.S. and Mexico. The Sonoran Desert hits triple-digit temperatures in the summer months, and thousands of migrants travel through these lands. Due to the dangerous conditions, according to Border Patrol data, 7,209 migrants have died while crossing over the last 20 years, although the non-profit organization Border Angeles estimates the toll is higher. Thousands of children have also gone missing.

Director Jefferson Stein’s short TUMBLE DRY LOW screened at Seattle International Film Festival, Maryland Film Festival, and was selected for the Shoot New Director’s Showcase. It also premiered on Short of the Week and garnered 2.5 million views. The award-winning film BURROS is his acclaimed current film, and his debut feature script, WHERE THE SUN MEETS MAGDALENA, is set in the same world as BURROS; the script was an Academy Nicoll Fellowship in Screenwriting quarterfinalist.

We caught up with the director Jefferson Stein to talk about this wonderful film.

Burros is the first acting credit for both Amaya Juan and Zuemmy Carrillo, what was it that you saw in them both that said, ‘They are the ones?‘ It’s one of those things where you write a character, and then you hope and pray that you find the right person, the person, really. But you’re half-terrified that you won’t, that you’re just out of your mind. But what I’ve learned is that more than you finding the right person, they find you. It’s like magic, really. That was the case with Amaya. I’ve worked with a lot of non-actors or first-time actors. I just knew that Elsa had to be out there, but finding her was a long process. When I met Amaya, I was excited but mostly relieved because I knew then that the film would work. With Zuemmy, it was a similar situation. Ena doesn’t understand Elsa, so for the majority of the film, she’s acting without dialogue. She needed to be someone who could be expressive but in a subtle, realistic way. Zuemmy embodied that. They did so well. I’m so proud of them both.

What made you choose Tucson as the location and more importantly the Tohono O’odham nation? I was drawn to this place after learning that the Tohono O’odham Nation spans both sides of the US-Mexico border, and I discovered the detrimental effects that cause for families who live on both sides when the border is militarized. But it was after meeting the members of the Sells community council like Bear and Luella and connecting with so many others like Camillus and Elsa that I knew I wanted to tell this specific story. I’m so thankful they chose our team and me as much as I chose them.

Burros is an interesting name for the film; what made you choose this? I had heard about burros before going to the Nation for the first time. It was the first thing I tried there, and it’s delicious. Fry bread is equally amazing. Food is such an integral part of the community, and it’s what Elsa is searching for throughout the short. A burro is also a small burrito, and the two girls are small people. Burro is also the name of someone who brings drugs across the border on burros (donkeys). The donkeys are actually left in the Nation, so there are hundreds of abandoned donkeys that the ranchers adopt and take care of. It’s a word with so many meanings and layers it felt fitting for a story about a community with as much history as this one.

Your debut feature script “I’itoi” (“Man in the Maze”) uses the native American I’itoi or maze, Burros seems to be a follow-up again with a native American theme. What is your interest in the nation? I’ITOI, now named WHERE THE SUN MEETS MAGDALENA, is set in this same world but set about twenty years ago, just after 9/11, with some new characters. It’s about a man who returns to his birthplace in the Nation after he was adopted away as a child and experiences the Sells community as an adult for the first time. Sells is so vibrant, and any depiction of it requires so much nuance and understanding— there’s only so much that can be communicated in a short. I’m not quite ready to let this story go just yet.

The scenes in the film show vast bleak spaces and out of nowhere there is a casino with its dramatic blazing neon lighting, tell me a bit more about the collaboration with the sound designer and cinematographer. We thought a lot about both the sound and cinematography and tried to make deliberate choices. When working with James Parnell, our Supervising Sound Editor & Re-Recording Mixer, we wanted to always be hearing things off-screen, either before we see them visually or after they have left. I wanted to give this feeling that Elsa’s world is rich and layered and filled with exciting things to touch and play with all around her. I wanted to hear things that adults might dismiss but that a child would hone in on to put us in their world. Cole Graham (my DP) and I agreed early on that it was paramount we shoot on film. We were also fortunate enough to get to shoot on the unicorn of 16mm lenses, the Hawk V-Lite16 1.3x anamorphics, which are crazy sharp, and balanced out the softness of 16mm, but also gave this mini-anamorphic look. We thought a lot about this being a mini-epic and capturing the feeling of scope of the place. The pastel tones of the 16mm film went a long way toward making the colors feel almost surreal, which is how it might feel to Ena after such a long journey. It’s one of those rare stories where the setting is the movie, so we really wanted the visuals to capture that feeling.

How important is the festival circuit for you and your works?
What themes are you exploring for future works?
It’s been instrumental. Not only have I been able to meet so many audiences and share this film, but the festivals and the people who run them have been so supportive of the film after it’s played and opened the doors to otherwise out-of- reach opportunities. I always think I have the same thematic questions swirling in my work, but who knows? I find myself writing a lot about strained father/child relationships during times of loss and change and how families that extend over generations cope and grow from that loss.


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