Documentary ‘The Quiet Force’ puts ski town immigrant communities in spotlight
The documentary "The Quiet Force" opens with President Donald Trump on screen at a rally promising to build his "great wall" and spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric. Headlines about immigration then flash across the screen in the film's early moments, interspersed with shots of young Latin skiers on the slopes.
The timely 35-minute film, by Jackson Hole-based ski filmmakers Hilary Byrne and Sophie Danison, paints a multi-faceted portrait of immigrants in American ski towns, their vital place in the tourism economy and the pall of fear cast over the community in the Trump era.
Byrne and Danison met while working on the popular 2014 all-female ski movie "Pretty Faces" and began talking about using their storytelling talents to be agents of change.
"We have been having a conversation since then about doing something with a little more meat that inspired social change," Byrne said in a recent phone interview. "We were both in a similar rut where we were doing cool stuff but not satiating that desire."
In March 2016, the publication of David Page's Powder magazine article "The Quiet Force," about immigrants in American ski towns, inspired the pair to start adapting it for the screen.
"And then Trump got elected and it became even more relevant," Byrne said.
The film will screen tonight at the Wheeler Opera House, as part of the two-day 5Point Aspen mini-festival, playing in a moment when the government has been shut down and Congress is gridlocked over the president's demand for a wall on the southern border.
The film profiles immigrant families with varying citizenship status in Mammoth and Jackson Hole, along with a young Salt Lake City woman with DACA status. The filmmakers also shot in Vail, but ended up cutting the footage from the film. It brings in elected officials, business owners, law enforcement officers, immigration experts and attorneys to frame the issue.
"It's not a ski film," said Byrne. "It's using these ski towns and industries to talk about an issue that can be applied everywhere."
It argues that, while immigrant labor props up the economy nationwide, its necessity is laid bare in smaller service-driven ski communities where infrastructure would crumble without immigrants.
"They are the people who keep this machine running," Mono County Sheriff Ingrid Braun says of the Mammoth area immigrants in the film. "It's unseen, the quiet workforce."
The movie also profiles young Latino skiers who have never known any life but the American ski-town life, who still live with the fear of losing family members to deportation or of being deported themselves.
"Skiing makes me feel alive," one young skier says in the film.
"The best thing is I'm a skier," Diana Zunga, the DACA recipient in Salt Lake, says, later adding while ski-touring in the Tetons: "It pushed me to be somebody who I wanted to be."
The film introduces viewers to characters like a Jackson Hole-area carpenter, with a wife and two American-born children, who was brought here from Mexico by his parents as a teenager. He is now raising his kids as ski-town rippers while living in the shadows.
"The Quiet Force" debuted, to a sold-out audience, at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts in November. The 5Point Aspen screening comes as it tours the west, with post-screening discussions with local immigration experts at each stop. After the Wheeler screening, Byrne will discuss immigration issues with Aspen Skiing Co. sustainability director Matt Hamilton and Valley Settlement director Jon Fox-Rubin.
"Our original goal was to spark conversation in our communities," Byrne said. "The idea is to see the film, feel some inspiration, then through the local experts on the topic figure out what exactly people can do in their community. We want people to walk away with a clear idea of what they can do."
And while ski-town residents, ski-industry leaders and local government officials tend to favor paths to citizenship over deportation and advocate keeping immigrant families together, the filmmakers believe the ski community is failing its immigrant community.
"A big reason we made this film is that we believe the ski and outdoor industries can use their voice a lot more," Danison said.
They want to see immigration reform become a priority for the industry on par with its advocacy for action on climate change and for protecting public lands.
"The industry has so much power and can speak up more for these people in our communities," she added.
Aspen Skiing Co. has made its pro-immigrant stance a prominent plank in its recent values-based marketing campaigns and political activism. Skico CEO Mike Kaplan, in a widely distributed December 2016 op-ed titled "We're Still Here," called for deferred action policy for so-called "Dreamers" who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children and wrote "we are the Latino community — and we will remain a sanctuary for these co-workers and neighbors, students and parents, who will always be welcome in our schools and businesses and homes."
Hamilton said that the company's advocacy for immigrants is based in the company's economic needs and in its community values.
"Our success is not only tied to our company's success but the broader community's success," he said, reached by phone this week at a Florida conference of American businesses on immigration reform. "And that includes the community of immigrants."
National policy changes, like stricter limits on work visas, have harmed the company's ability to employ and retain foreign works who, as Hamilton put it, "meet the cultural needs of our guests." This winter, Hamilton said, 12 foreign Skico employees, in the week before they were schedule to begin working, were denied H-2B visas at the last minute because a government limit had been reached.
Hamilton, who also sits on the Roaring Fork School District board, said fostering a safe and welcoming community in the valley is equally as important.
Hamilton said he hopes locals will contact their elected representatives after they leave today's screening and call for humane immigration reform, echoing the mission of the company's ongoing "Give a Flake" campaign for climate change policy.
"The most critical thing, whether it's immigration policy or climate policy, is that elected officials are not hearing from constituents," Hamilton said. "If there is one action people need to take, it's talking to elected officials about this government shutdown over border security."
Jon Fox-Rubin, executive director of Carbondale-based immigration support nonprofit Valley Settlement, said the situation outlined in the film mirrors the one in the Roaring Fork Valley, where immigrants are the backbone of the service industry and where a majority of Roaring Fork School District students are first- or second-generation immigrants.
Demand for Valley Settlement's services increased in the lead-up to the election in 2016 "when the rhetoric was getting harsher and harsher."
Policy tweaks and the president's rhetoric have made it less likely for immigrants to report crimes or serve as witnesses in the court system, Fox-Rubin noted. His nonprofit has focused on early childhood education for immigrant children, mentorship and services for adults such as language classes and degree opportunities. Fox-Rubin chooses to view "The Quiet Force" and events like today's 5Point screening as a source of hope in this often-bleak moment.
"For me, it's sharing this hope of people really settling in their new community," he said of the movie. "Watching kids in the film say 'I am a skier' and defining who they are that way, that's a hopeful sign that they feel like they are a part of this country regardless of the stress and trauma that is in their background. That's a path to the American dream."