When documentary makers Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside found themselves in Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s Pacific coast little did they know that a chance encounter with a circus performer would see them filming with one family for several years. From the first frame of América it is easy to see why Stoll and Whiteside were drawn to Diego with his green eyes and his animated expressions. But, what the directors didn’t realise was that Diego had two brothers with similar characteristics and a grandmother who was about to draw the three of them together.
After Diego’s grandmother América has a fall and her sole carer (Diego’s father Luis) is sent to prison for neglect, the young performer announces that he is to return home to Colima to take care of her. Stoll and Whiteside make the decision to follow him and what ensues is an intimate portrait of the complexities of family ties and the beauty of being alive regardless of your cognitive state.
Diego is reunited with his two brothers Rodriguez and Bruno, who share his acrobatic abilities. Their daily lives comprise of a blend of care for América and various gymnastic tricks. Rather than following the boys with a handheld camera, the directors set up static frames, taking in the stunning surroundings and allowing the brothers to move in and out of shot. Although their daily lives mainly consist of the mundane tasks of washing, dressing, feeding and helping América, the brothers fill the screen with their dynamic personalities that also have the tendency to clash.
The highlight of the film is América, who Diego refers to as a “star” when she wants to know why she is being filmed. Although the 93-year-old is confused much of the time, she still manages to discuss the nature of existence, sing her favourite songs and chastise her grandsons and bring joy to her family. Many of the most intimate frames see Diego side by side with his grandmother, showering her with kisses and discussing family photos. Even though it is not clear who América thinks Diego is, the strong bond between them is undeniable, demonstrating the strength of family ties.
It is not all celebration though; the documentary also details the conflict that can arise when looking after an elderly family member. América doesn’t always have good days and she often wants to return home when they take her on trips out. And the unflinching approach to filming means every part of the aging process is depicted, including the need for enemas.
In one of the closing scenes, Diego and Bruno push América around a playground in her wheelchair whilst they sit atop unicycles. Where América is no longer able to walk, her grandsons make up for it in their athletic agility – the three of them spin round and round in a breath-taking moment that captures the vitality of life. Stoll and Whiteside set out to film an exuberant young man and ended up filming an entire family overseen by an extraordinary matriarch.
América had its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, 7-12 June. For more information, click here.
1. Trailer for América. Courtesy of Doc/Fest and Vimeo.