The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with each state outpacing every independent democracy in its prisoners per capita. Amid increasing discussion about the prison system, its cruelty and the way it targets marginalized communities, “Sansón and Me” is a bold contender in the documentary scene as it depicts a young man’s heart-wrenching journey from Mexico to the United States — and how he winds up in prison for life without the possibility of parole.
During filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes’ day job as a court interpreter in small-town California, he met Sansón Noe Andrade, a young, undocumented Mexican immigrant who was sentenced to life in prison for murder. Reyes and Andrade exchanged hundreds of letters in a decade-long labor of love and passion in the making of “Sansón and Me.” Reyes ultimately formed a dire examination of the systems that ensnare individuals and set them up for failure in a carefully crafted, tragic portrait of the incarceration system and a young man’s attempts to navigate life and immigration in the United States.
“Sansón and Me” is a meta documentary, in a way. As opposed to the traditional documentary form, which would have Reyes talking to Andrade one on one, the film reconstructs Andrade’s life through letters and memories, largely due to prison regulations that prohibited the possibility of interviews. In spite of this obstacle, “Sansón and Me” masterfully weaves together a compassionate narrative of Andrade’s life. Combining the reading of their letters, interviews with his family and recreations of key moments in his life, this patchwork collection of Andrade’s past comes to life.
As Andrade cannot appear in the documentary, Reyes must hunt for someone to portray him at different moments of his life and read his letters aloud, and this search is included early in the film. Combined with a slow, cinematic start, the documentary takes its time to get moving. But once “Sansón and Me” finds its footing, it establishes an excellent set-up that shifts between Andrade’s past, present and musings of the future.
It becomes clear how much labor has gone into the creation of “Sansón and Me” as both Reyes and Andrade discuss at times the numerous obstacles they encountered: struggles to find industry support, moments where it felt like things would fall apart and the general difficulty of creating a documentary without being able to film or interview the subject of it. But even as Reyes, the production team and Andrade’s family encountered obstacle after obstacle, their love for Andrade brought them back together without fail.
“Sansón and Me” tests the limits of the viewer as well. The exact story behind why Andrade is in prison beyond sentencing for murder eludes the viewer, aside from cinematic recreations and brief mentions, until the end. Reyes pushes the viewer to understand how much compassion they are willing to give to someone who is not the perfect story of a young migrant — someone who has made dire mistakes and now pays the ultimate, cruel price for it. As Andrade’s story settles in the mind and heart, the tragic reveal of the circumstances of the murder reveals the vast injustice Andrade has gone through.
Orphaned at a young age and growing up in poverty, Andrade immigrated to the United States only to be confronted with the same cycles of poverty, organized crime and violence that he saw in Mexico. As he unintentionally became entangled in the systems that damned his peers, Andrade went to jail at 19 — a story thousands of others have lived through. In examining Andrade’s life, structural violence becomes more evidently intertwined with the incarceration systems as “Sansón and Me” progresses.
As discussions about the United States incarceration system continue, “Sansón and Me” emerges as a must-watch. It’s not only a somber exploration of the systems that have condemned thousands of people like Andrade to life in prison, but also an inspiring testament to the love people have for him. It is the recollection of a life that echoes thousands of others.