There are many parallels between the lives of a migrant laborer and a carnival worker. FAREWELL FERRIS WHEEL is a year in the life of men who are both. Allotted controversial H-2B visas, the workers are grateful for the opportunity to provide for their families in Mexico, but also subject to little wage and labor protections. This thoughtful portrait, mostly set in Maryland, focuses on the workers and their struggle as well as an American institution that struggles to keep their business afloat.
AFI spoke to directors Jamie Sisley and Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez ahead of the film’s AFI DOCS premiere.
What led you to documentary filmmaking?
Sisley: I rented HARLAN COUNTY, USA and that was it for me. I saw how effective great storytelling can be in broadening my perspective and wanted to try the same thing for issues I care about. That’s when I decided to think more about stories to explore, which led to FAREWELL FERRIS WHEEL.
Martinez: I saw the medium as another way to express myself. I had previously started the first bilingual (Spanish/English) radio show in Central Virginia, and saw how much it uplifted the community — especially those who had just come to the U.S. They could hear their music being played on the radio. Documentaries gave me a chance to dive into issues that are relevant to the same community as my radio show.
What inspired you to tell this story?
Sisley: We originally set out to make a story about how the American carnival was in jeopardy, and how the industry was surviving due to legal migrant labor that came from one small Mexican town. The carnival is something I distinctively remember as a part of my childhood. It’s very nostalgic for me. So I wanted to capture the reasons why the industry was losing its footing. Once we explored the subject for a few years, Miguel and I realized that the issues were far more complicated than we had first anticipated. The film evolved into something that still explores our original interests, while incorporating many other issues we encountered along the way.
Martinez: I’m originally from Mexico, so I’ve dealt with all of the immigration issues and stereotypes that come along with being from a different country, even though I came here legally. The “they’re taking our jobs” debate is nothing new to me; I’ve heard it ever since I moved here. This film tells the story of people that come here legally.
What was a particular challenge you faced in making this film?
Sisley and Martinez: Since this is our first film — we started making it in 2008 — there were many practical obstacles just in learning how filmmaking works: how interviews work, how to structure a story, what the best ISO was for shooting night footage of the carnival, etc. We dove in head first and that was a major learning curve. The H-2B debate is also a complicated, evolving issue. Keeping up with the changes — and finding a way to distill the information — has been challenging. Fundraising was also a challenge, though we’ve been very fortunate to have the support of some wonderful organizations from the beginning.
What do you hope audiences will take away from your film?
Sisley and Martinez: Since many people only think about illegal immigration, we hope this films helps to broaden the conversation about legal migrant workers — how much they help the U.S. economy, how many hoops the workers and employers jump through to work within the confines of the law and how little of a voice migrant workers have when working in the United States.
FAREWELL FERRIS WHEEL plays AFI DOCS Saturday, June 25 at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday, June 26 at 11:00 a.m. Buy tickets here.