Some have fled violence. Others have lost loved ones. Many have endured time in immigration detention centers.
But for residents of East Austin’s Casa Marianella, an emergency homeless shelter for recently arrived asylum-seekers and immigrants — both legal and unauthorized — from around the world, navigating a new life in an unfamiliar country means another set of challenges.
While many films document the journey immigrants take to reach the United States, few capture the realities of surviving in the country immediately after their arrival or release from detention facilities. That’s what former Austinite and film director Jason Outenreath hopes to change with his latest film, “They Live Here, Now,” which premieres at South by Southwest at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Additional screenings will follow Monday and Wednesday.
“They Live Here, Now” weaves documentary portraits with two composite characters inspired by real people. The hybrid film tells the story of a fictional Mexican teenager whose brother was murdered by gang members. She makes her journey to the U.S. and ends up at Casa Marianella. That’s how the audience meets the residents of the shelter and gets a unique glimpse into their daily lives.
Viewers see how Casa Marianella residents build fellowship, pitch in to do chores at the shelter, cook together and attend English classes before they move on to live independently. The film highlights Iraqi and Somali refugees who share their stories of acceptance, forgiveness and starting a new chapter. Salvadoran immigrants talk about fleeing gangs in Central America, and a young man from the northeastern African country of Eritrea recounts how he was sent to a detention center in Florida that separated him from his wife upon arrival.
“Standing in a room with people from 20 different countries, including all over Africa and the Middle East, gave me broader sense of this crisis of empathy,” said Outenreath, a University of Texas alumnus. “It’s not a monolithic experience.”
Casa Marianella, which has operated in Austin since 1986, has seen its population evolve over time from survivors of the Salvadoran war to asylum-seeking refugees and other immigrants from nearly 40 countries. In the shelter’s communal room, a map hanging on the wall has push pins and string zigzagging across it representing all the countries where residents began their journey.
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“Immigrants are people just like us,” said Jennifer Long, executive director of Casa Marianella. “I think that most people think differently about immigrants when they meet them. I hope through the film, people meet residents they can relate to and recognize their humanity.”
When Casa Marianella, which also offers access to legal and medical resources, launched 32 years ago, one home housed men, women and children. In 2003, a branch of the shelter called Posada Esperanza opened exclusively for women and children. Now, the nonprofit operates 13 homes in the city that serve more than 300 people annually. The demand, Long said, continues to grow.
There aren’t many places across the country operating immigrant homeless shelters, which Long said makes it challenging for the nonprofit to find partners it can work with to relocate residents. Several do exist in Texas, in cities such as El Paso, Fort Worth, San Benito, Houston and San Antonio.
For Outenreath, who spent more than a year at Casa Marianella building relationships with residents and staffers before filming, the issues illuminated in the film go beyond politics: “I’d love for people to have a stake in what happens next because, regardless of what side of the political aisle you’re on, every human being deserves respect, dignity and help in a time of need.”
“They Live Here, Now” screenings
4:30 p.m. Sunday — Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, 1120 S. Lamar Blvd.
5:45 p.m. Monday — Austin Film Society Cinema, 6406 N. Interstate 35, Suite 3100
1:30 p.m. Wednesday — Rollins Theatre at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive.
Screenings open to film, interactive and music badge-holders as well as film festival wristband-holders. Limited tickets might be available to the public depending on attendance.