Genius grant fellows to launch Latino filmmaking lab at ASU’s Poitier Film School

portraits of two people

Filmmakers Alex Rivera (left) and Cristina Ibarra have joined the faculty of The Sidney Poitier New American Film School.


A grant from the MacArthur Fellows Program, commonly known as a “genius” grant, is the stuff that artists’ and researchers’ dreams are made of: a $625,000, no-strings-attached award to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.

You can’t apply. You have to be nominated, then selected. Previous MacArthur Fellows currently teaching at ASU include Pulitzer prize-winning poet Natalie Diaz and dance legend Liz Lerman.

ASU students will also have the opportunity to work with two recent MacArthur Fellows: Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera, who are joining The Sidney Poitier New American Film School to build a lab for Latino filmmaking and representation in film. The pair will be based in Los Angeles at the ASU California Center.

Cheryl Boone Isaacs, founding director of The Poitier Film School, said that Ibarra and Rivera are “the kind of faculty who, by the breadth and depth of their work in Los Angeles, are going to be incredible additions to the faculty, and we look forward to their contributions to The Poitier Film School, particularly to our community college transfer program and our semester in L.A.”

Ibarra and Rivera were honored by the MacArthur Fellows Program “for telling relevant American stories, both individually and together.” Ibarra is primarily a documentary filmmaker; her work often focuses on life on the border between Mexico and the United States, what she calls “a ‘third space’ where you learn to live with contradictions. "It is both English and Spanish, Indigenous and colonized, surreal and ordinary.”

Rivera is a filmmaker and media artist who explores issues around migration, globalization and technology. His first feature film, “Sleep Dealer,” is a cyberpunk thriller set on the U.S.–Mexico border that won awards at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival.

Ibarra and Rivera co-wrote and co-directed the 2019 feature “The Infiltrators,” a docu-thriller based on events that took place at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Florida in 2012. 

In addition to collaborating professionally, Ibarra and Rivera are married and have a child. 

“I've personally known Alex and Cristina for many years,” said Peter Murrieta, deputy director of The Poitier Film School, “and when the opportunity came to invite them to be part of our school and our new program in Los Angeles, I was so thrilled to find my other colleagues at ASU were also familiar with their work and felt like I did: that they would be an incredibly important addition.

"Their work in such recent films as ‘The Infiltrators’ speaks to their commitment to storytelling in new and challenging forms as well as their hearts and what they believe in. Our students are going to be so inspired by being able to take classes with them as well as participating in their lab as Alex and Cristina envision new works.”

Below, Ibarra and Rivera talk about their path to filmmaking, why teaching film matters and why they chose ASU.

Question: How did the two of you first meet? 

Cristina: Very early on, soon after graduating from UT Austin, I was really interested in Latino independent cinema. I was working at CineFestival in San Antonio, the longest running Latino/Chicano film festival in the country. I saw a piece that really inspired me; it was “Papapapá,” Alex’s first short film. So I saw Alex's work before I even met him.

Alex: We met through our work in the late 1990s, both working on films about the borderlands, broadly conceived. We met in that mental space and in the community of artists working around these issues.

Q: Where did each of you grow up?

Cristina: I grew up along the Texas–Mexico Border, in El Paso, with family on both sides, constantly crossing back and forth between Juarez and El Paso. Growing up along the border has shaped the way that I look at the world, growing up there, in that hybrid space.

Alex: I grew up in a very different border town — in and around New York City — but also with a bifurcated point of view on the world, in my case between New York and Peru. My dad is an immigrant from Peru, and my mom is Irish American from Brooklyn.

Q: What drew you to film as a form of expression?

Cristina: In my case, I had these very urgent ideas that I wanted to express to my family back home when I was in college. I felt like I didn’t have the right language. We grew up speaking Spanish and English, mixing the two, and it just seemed like both languages were failing me in trying to express some of the ideas I had around this sense of betrayal by my public education. I wanted to explain how impactful it was to see myself represented when I saw a Chicano film for the first time. I ended up turning to film as a way to express my growing consciousness because I saw other filmmakers, like Hector Galan with “Los Mineros” or Lourdes Portillo with “La Ofrenda,” working in this storytelling medium. It dawned on me that this is actually something that is possible to make. You can speak back to the images that you see, you don’t just have to accept them. That idea blew me away and it’s just something I've been pursuing from then on, just trying to figure out ways of communicating. My Chicano studies classes (in college) were a huge influence and a part of what led me to film.

Alex: I went to college and my original idea was to study music and politics. I was inspired by, of all people, legendary folk musician Pete Seeger. I grew up around Pete Seeger, in upstate New York, and meeting him planted the seed in my mind that art and culture could play an important role in social movements and changing the direction of history. In college there weren’t a lot of classes about music and politics, but there were a lot about the moving image and society. So I started by working inside of media studies and then pivoted to media making. I studied a lot of outsider artists: people like Marlon Riggs, a Black queer video maker from the Bay Area, Lourdes Portillo, Guillermo Gómez-Peña; these kinds of independent outsider artists expanded my sense of what was possible and also gave me a sense of affirmation that I could enter this process of making moving images and telling stories about the world. Stories specifically that Hollywood would never tell — at least wouldn’t until now. 

Q: What does teaching mean to you, and starting this lab?

Alex: Through my career, I’ve primarily learned in a mode of applied learning — by making work, by being in a community of like-minded artists. Filmmaking is an extremely rich and complicated art. You absolutely can learn about it in books and in seminars, by watching and reading, but the core learning comes from working with the material, getting your hands into it — from writing, shooting, editing, from screening work and getting feedback. So when I teach, that’s how I try to construct my classes; we read, we screen films, we look at film history, but we always, always get into the making. I like to design classes in which students, at any level, can start to tell unique, fresh, stories with pictures and sound. I usually start this process with editing. I’ll often design exercises where students work with found footage and start cutting and seeing, right away, what it’s like to shape a story in this form. I’ve been both a student and a teacher for the past 25 years; I’m always learning by doing and also trying to share what I know with my colleagues and community, which now includes, deeply, ASU.

Cristina: I started teaching through the collaborative work I was doing with Fulana (a Latina media collective that Ibarra co-founded in New York City in 2000). We produced work in a collaborative process, and we started teaching that way of practice to students. I learned that project-based work, learning through practice, is the best way to learn. I see teaching as a form of collaboration as well. You’re part of a discovery process as a teacher, where you’re sharing tools, you’re sharing knowledge, but it’s also done in a way that empowers the voice of the person who wants to say something, the student who’s trying to express their authorship. That’s how I've found it to be the most fulfilling, when we learn in a collaborative space where we all contribute towards one project in order to define and identify storytelling tools, and then we apply that learning to then create our own individual work. It’s this kind of two-part process that might seem a bit contradictory at first — collaboration and self-authorship — that is the most nurturing and boundary-breaking.

Q: Why ASU?

Alex: Before getting to know ASU, I’d never heard the mission of a university articulated with inclusion right at the top. That’s exciting. Innovation right at the top, too.That’s exciting. Cristina and I are coming to ASU to teach, to serve, but we’re also coming as researchers to try to see if we can accelerate our production and the production of a generation of LatinxA gender-neutral or nonbinary alternative to Latino or Latina. artists, borderlands artists, who’ve been excluded from Hollywood and also, in many ways, excluded from the academy. The center for this work will be a new research lab. The idea is to create a whirlwind of activity: new research, new knowledge, new cinematic production, to address the crisis of Latinx under-representation and to teach students — and the world — how this cinema can be made and what it might look like. This is a “moon shot” for us, and it feels like ASU, with its focus on inclusion and innovation, with the interest at The Sidney Poitier School in applied learning, is the right place to make it happen.

Cristina: I feel like the way that ASU is the borderland itself, the way the students are borderland students, it resonates with my own practice. Every film that I embark upon is a way of coming back home to the borderlands and a place I left behind. So the lab and being at ASU is a way of building a homeland for myself through the practice of filmmaking with the students who are going to study here. It’s a way of building a sense of belonging together. 

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