Truth Through Fiction

The Tucson-shot short Hotel Arizona brings empathy and weight to immigration questions and debates

The 12th annual Tucson Film and Music Festival, starting Oct. 6, continues to focus on music-related films, but expands the theme to all stories southwest.

One of this year’s films explores the lives of people involved in immigration issues along the southern U.S. border. Yet it’s done in a way that’s more real and nuanced than a lot of what’s out there.

Hotel Arizona
, a 22-minute short, filmed in Tucson’s Barrio Viejo and in Sonora, Mexico, is based on stories collected by the film’s writer and director Devin Browne, who has been reporting border stories on NPR for the last eight years.

When Browne began this project, she took the idea to development executives. They told her they already have a show about Mexican drug lords. Apparently, they missed the point.

“They literally could not imagine a story that took place at the U.S.-Mexico border that was not about drug trafficking,” she says. “The movement of people is so much more dramatic and compelling than the movement of a substance.”

In her experience, the number of people crossing the border for work and to be with their families, far exceeds the number of people who cross with drugs on their backs.”

Hotel Arizona
stars Flor, played by Marcela H. Macias, a young woman helping her mother run a hotel for migrants in Altar, Sonora, a hub for those attempting a border crossing. Flor hears stories, daily, of people who are taken advantage of and abused by Coyotes, who they pay to help them cross. She decides to do something about it.

She creates a kind of pseudo Yelp on the hotel’s bunk beds by writing reviews about Coyotes on the underside of the top bunk.

The place is based on real hotels, those often run by mothers and daughters. Browne has stayed at a number of such hotels along the Mexico-Guatemala border and the U.S.-Mexico border. She slept on a bottom bunk in one, saw little jokes written under the bed above her, and got the idea.
Tucson-based actors have roles in the film, and several migrants are played by local, everyday people. Browne went to grocery stores and the Southside Worker Center, introducing herself to folks, explaining her project and asking if they wanted to be involved.

One actor is Fausto Olmos Rentería, who Browne approached with a flyer about her project while he was at Curacao Department Store, shopping for a gift for his mother.

Browne got lucky. Olmos Rentería is a local actor who’s been consistently working for 14 years. She was stressed out about finding actors for extras and supporting roles, Rentería says. She didn’t know anybody, but he did.

He plays Tino, a migrant from El Salvador. He was humbled when Browne told him she was giving him a producer credit for all the work he did to help the project.

“Her vision—I love,” he says. “The border theme is overplayed already, but she brings a different aspect to it, which is kind of hard to pull off.”

Browne raised the production budget of $21,680 through Kickstarter. Her idea was that Hotel Arizona would address two things standing in the way of making progress on the immigration debate: a lack of information and empathy, Browne said in the Kickstarter video.

“There’s no greater antidote to apathy or hate than a story which gives you a chance to experience the world from a perspective other than your own,” she says.

In immigration reporting, it’s often hard to use people’s names, faces, locations and identifying details, Browne continues. So through fiction, very closely based on reality, she can show the deeper lives of people whose stories she’s come to know so well.

“It’s easier to criminalize a population that you can’t see,” she says. “Television or film could fill that gap in, a little bit, by fully fleshing out characters who have faces and have those details and have full story lines. And they’re not risking their lives to be on camera.”

Films at the The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress St., $8 general, $6 students:

Opening Film
, Friday, Oct. 7, at 7:30 p.m.We’ve Forgotten More Than We Ever Knew is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi love-story with a bit of a western feel.It’s an unusual movie, “I would encourage people to come expecting mystery and some creepiness,” he said. “People are just very intrigued by it,” said the film’s writer and director Thomas Woodrow.

Q-and-A with director Thomas Woodrow and producer Michelle Cameron.

Documentary Shorts
, Saturday, Oct. 8, at 3 p.m.
All the Little Children (Southwest premiere), Bajo Tierra (Southwest premiere), Being THE KIDS (West Coast premiere), “The Call from the Sea” (North American premiere), The King’s Last Song (Southwest premiere)
Q-and-A with filmmakers.

Feature Music-Documentary
, Saturday, Oct. 8, at 5:30 p.m.
The Promised Band, by filmmaker Jen Heck, follows a rock band comprised of Israeli and Palestinian women who form friendships despite living in countries that are conflicted with each other.

Centerpiece Film
, Saturday, Oct. 8, at 7:30 p.m.
Dead Bullet is a desert noir thriller, written and directed by Erik Reese and filmed in Arizona and Nevada.
“I wanted to tell a story about a dirt poor, small town kinda character, whose desire to hit the jackpot gets the best of him,” Reese says. “Also, the film is deeply influenced by westerns, so we incorporated western iconography which necessitated having grand desert landscapes.”
Q-and-A with producer Joshua Nitschke and actor John T. Ford.

Narrative Shorts
, Sunday, Oct. 9, at 3 p.m.
4D (Southwest premiere), Auto-Cowrecked (Southwest premiere), Bolos (Arizona premiere), Hotel Arizona (world premiere), Last Days (Southwest premiere), Team Work (Tucson premiere), Texting My Ex (Southwest premiere)
Q-and-A with filmmakers.
Browne, who’s interested in doing more projects like Hotel Arizona, will be there to answer questions. To keep up with Hotel Arizona and Browne’s other projects, go to or

At the The Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd, $8 general, $6 students/members:

Feature Music-Documentary, Sunday, Oct. 9, at 7:30 p.m.
The festival’s closing film Gary Numan: Android in La La Land is a glimpse into the life of an iconic musician and performer.

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