In just 26 minutes, Pilar Timpane and Christine Delp render a world. Physically, the world she depicts is a small one—a two-room basement apartment inside a North Carolina church where, since May 2017, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega has lived in precarious sanctuary. But emotionally, Ortega’s world is expansive, and what happens at that church has consequences across the globe. In Santuario, the short documentary screened at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, life comes to Ortega, and the huge impact of the way Ortega lives fills the screen. But what kind of a life is it?
Every day, the mostly white, Anglo members of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro visit Ortega, who speaks mostly Spanish, to drop off food, give English lessons, or simply chat. Ortega’s family comes nearly as often, though they live farther away, about 60 miles south of Greensboro, and they rarely stay overnight. Ortega, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala at 19, is the only undocumented member of her family. She describes visiting the immigration office each year for decades to obtain a work permit, then returning to Guatemala to visit a sick family member. On her journey back to the U.S. she traveled with a coyote, and when she went again to renew her permit, it was denied and she received an order for her deportation. Instead of leaving, she went into sanctuary, becoming the first person in North Carolina to do so.
Sanctuary, the film reminds us, is not a legal concept, but an ethical one.
The film, shot mostly in low light, moves slow and lyrically through the church, the camera’s gaze landing on a swath of sun spreading across the carpet of an empty chapel, following Ortega as she pads from room to room. Her loneliness is palpable, manifest, kneeling in prayer or sweeping the floor. So much of her life is an echo. The moments when she brightens are when her grandchildren visit, when she shares a cup of coffee with another undocumented woman, Minerva Cisneros Garcia, who has just left her own sanctuary after a judge issued a stay on her deportation order, and—most regularly and in all seasons—when tending the garden on the church grounds. Crouching to turn over a leaf, Ortega’s body language shifts and she is all presence, as alive as the green that surrounds her.
Nighttime is the worst. Ortega’s body crumples as her friend or her child leaves and she is again left alone. In the home she used to share with her husband, which he keeps exactly as Ortega used to, he spends an evening in front of the computer, watching a video of his wife speaking about her predicament in a promotional video for St. Barnabas’ work, and his face gives way to tears. As the film unfolds, Timpane and Delp’s scope widens to encompass more fully Ortega’s family and how they are navigating the way sanctuary has affected their own lives as well. One of Ortega’s adult daughters is especially hard-hit, lamenting as she drives a week’s worth of groceries to the church that her whole life has become consumed with caring for her mother, who she doesn’t want to go—but what if that’s what Ortega wants? What if she’s sick of a life in sanctuary, a life that keeps her loved ones from living theirs?
Sanctuary, the film reminds us, is not a legal concept, but an ethical one; ICE is unlikely to enter a church, and it’s not a municipal police force, though ICE can and often does take people into custody just based on skin color or native language if they can’t produce identification—that is, for suspected undocumented status. The white citizens who are members of St. Barnabas use the power and safety that their skin and status provide to create a barrier between Ortega and ICE. But are they a community? Are they Ortega’s community? And when they are all that’s keeping her from deportation, does it matter? The directors don’t offer resolution to these questions and contradictions, but there’s a palpable tension between Ortega and the other members of St. Barnabas. Ortega and her whole family attend Christmas services at the church, and Ortega has a solo; she offers up the hymn “Noche de Paz” (“Silent Night”) open-mouthed and true. But there’s so much bodily hesitation between the white parishioners and Ortega. It’s the language barrier and more than that; Ortega and Garcia smile, laugh together, and embrace in a way that is indicative of deep shared understanding, something that the white parishioners just don’t and can’t have.
What part of this work is solidarity, and what part charity? Impossible to say, but the work is necessary, and the tensions are worth naming. Ortega should not have to depend on the care of strangers for her safety; she should be able to live with her family.
What part of this work is solidarity, and what part charity? Impossible to say, but the work is necessary, and the tensions are worth naming. Ortega should not have to depend on the care of strangers for her safety; she should be able to live with her family. And the white members of St. Barnabas are showing up as they can, following the lead of Ortega’s family as they organize actions like inviting the governor of North Carolina to a 4th of July barbecue to meet Ortega and her family and perhaps to change his mind about the status of undocumented people. (Of course, one of his staffers answers the door, and the governor never shows.)
Yet rather than focusing on the cruelties and power of ICE, the immigration office, and the American legal system, Timpane and Delp focus, as Ortega and her family must, on the daily continued work of showing up for each other, towards an uncertain future, with all the resources available to them. Lush with empathy and stark with reality, Santuario is not optimistic—it is about the future, and the long care work of the present. So what does sanctuary really mean, and how does anyone keep moving through? The best answer I have is from Gwendolyn Brooks, whose poem “Paul Robeson” ends this way: "we are each other’s / harvest: / we are each other’s / business: / we are each other’s / magnitude and bond."