One of the defining elements of adolescents for teenagers is the search for their true identity within their high school and community. But what many teens don’t realize is that there is a danger, sacrifice and struggle of obtaining a better life for their some of their peers across the United States. Those heroic teens who show incredible courage and determination as they work hard to triumph over their adversities are highlighted in the new politically-driven sports documentary, ‘Home + Away.’
The inspiring movie was directed by Matt Ogens and produced by Nathaniel Greene, who tirelessly worked together to craft a meaningful message about the teens and families who courageously fight to find and hold on to the American Dream. The powerful documentary brought the families’ struggles to the attention of the world when had its World Premiere in the Viewpoints section of last month’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
‘Home + Away’ highlights how many of the students who attend Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas, have an unusual commute to school: over the bridge and across the border that separates their school from their homes in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Sports represent one possible route to a better life for many of these students, including Erik, a soccer player who dreams of playing professionally; Shyanne, who’s one of the school’s best wrestlers, and sees the Army as a way to get to college, but begins to rethink her course in the current political climate; and Francisco, a hard throwing pitcher and third baseman whose father isn’t allowed into the United States, and has to play each game with that absence in the back of his mind. Each of these students must navigate academics and athletic competition, while also contending with language barriers, a school in need of greater funding and familial strife, during the their final years at Bowie.
Ogens and Greene generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview at The Roxy Hotel in New York to discuss directing and producing ‘Home + Away’ during the Tribeca Film Festival. Among other things, the duo discussed how they were inspired to make the documentary after Tribeca Studios recruited filmmakers to create movies that feature inspirational youth sports stories that are set in communities where socioeconomics are a driving issue. Ogens and Greene also expressed their gratitude that the movie was subsequently accepted to premiere at the festival.
The conversation began with Ogens explaining that the inspiration in making ‘Home + Away’ was sparked when “Tribeca Studios reached out to filmmakers they wanted to work with. They were looking for inspirational youth or high school sports stories, where funding, or the socioeconomic, were an issue,” the director shared.
“I just thought that with everything going on, politically, with immigration and the border, setting this film on the border would be timely and relevant. So I became interested in seeing what the closest high school in America is to the Mexican border. I then found Bowie High School in El Paso, and cold called them. They invited us down there,” Ogens further shared.
Greene then chimed in that he was drawn to help produce ‘Home + Away’ because “I have worked with Matt on several other projects in recent years. Matt then came up with this idea when Tribeca reached out to him, and he then shared the concept with me. He said, ‘We’re going to go down there on a research trip, and I think you’re the right person to come on this journey with me.’ I then said, ‘I’m in,'” the producer shared.
“We then went down to the school on the research trip for about five days, and saw that there’s absolutely a story there. Then about two-and-a-half or three weeks later, we were racing down there to start production during the inauguration,” Greene added.
Further speaking of the research that they did before principal photography on the movie began, the producer explained that “We were lucky enough to be introduced to some people in the community. We spoke to Simon Chandler, an Englishman who lived in Juarez for a couple of years, and now lives in the community near Bowie High School. He brought Matt and me around, including into Juarez, to interview some of the students who lived there. So while we were there, we had someone who was integral in getting us into the community. He’s trusted in the community, so that helped us, as outsiders, as we went into this tight-knit community.”
Ogens added that since ‘Home + Away’ isn’t a historical documentary, “we’re not rehashing what we already know. We were filming the events that are included in the movie while they were actually happening. Like Luke said, Simon showed us around the school. When we got there, it was important for us to talk to as many kids as possible, and finding the right students to feature in the film.”
Further speaking of deciding which students to highlight in ‘Home + Away,’ the duo spoke to hundreds of kids while they initially visited Bowie High School, Ogens shared. “The story of the film is structured around the sports season, even though it’s more than a sports doc. We met with each player from the baseball and soccer teams, one at a time, and had conversations with them. Just like any good storytelling, we discussed what was currently going on in their lives, and what kind of conflicts they had. We also thought about who would be good on camera, and would allow us into their lives,” the helmer explained.
“There’s about 1,200 kids who attend the school, and they each have a story. But we settled on there students-Francisco, Shyanne and Erik-to serve as a representation” of the entire student body, Ogens further divulged.
The director added that he feels that “Sports are a good metaphor for life. There’s a story in each game, as well as the whole season. There are ups and downs and obstacles in sports, just like there are in life. So we tried to use sports as the structure of the journey. But we also tried to transcend the sports.”
Greene also chimed in that “There’s something about sports that anchors these kids to the community, and gives them a sense of structure, family and belonging. I feel like that’s something that a lot of people can relate to in high school sports, as well as in America.” The producer agreed with Ogens when the helmer then added that sports offer a way for the teenagers to prove themselves.
Even though the filming of ‘Home + Away’ took place around the time of the 2016 United States presidential election and subsequent 2017 inauguration, Ogens didn’t want the documentary to become “to heavy-handed, politically. (The audience) already sees the news, so (they) already know the story. I didn’t feel like I needed to recap Trump’s policies, or what he was campaigning about. The issues surrounding the border, and the overall politics, are already there, in the background. So we wanted to focus more on the kids’ lives, in relation to those politics.
In addition to speaking to the students and their families, Greene shared that it was also important to them to interview the coaches. “A lot of the coaches actually attended Bowie High School when they were teens, so they understand what their students are going through now. We felt the coaches could offer a further context and understanding to this journey. When kids are 16- or 17-years old, they may not be able to articulate some of the feelings they’re experiencing at that moment. So we felt that the coaches could get certain points across that maybe the (current) students couldn’t articulate” during the film’s production.
Greene then delved into what his experience of being a producer on ‘Home + Away’ was like, and called it “a challenge. We were not only filming in America, but also in Mexico. When we went down there, we found a phenomenal fixer who had produced films there, and knew where to go and where not to go. We also had a great line producer, who was there day and night for five-and-a-half months with Matt.”
Ogens then delved into the process of collaborating with the documentary’s Director of Photography, John Tipton. The two have previously worked together on last year’s adventure drama, ‘Go North,’ so they “already had a bit of a shorthand. He has won many cinematography awards for shooting sports projects. (Those honors and projects helped us while) we talked about an overall palate. but since we had that shorthand, there wasn’t a lot that we had to discuss.”
Collaborating with Tipton was an experience that Ricci also referred to as being noteworthy. “It was great to be a part of their team, because Matt and John already have that shorthand. So we didn’t have to hash things out; we were able to quickly work together to figure things out.”
After production on ‘Home + Away’ was completed, the duo worked with the documentary’s editor, Dan Shulman-Means, to create the final version of the movie, which Ogens described as being the most difficult part of filmmaking. “We outlined the story, but didn’t have a set script. Just because things look good on paper, they may not always work when they’re in an edit.”
Greene agreed with his collaborator’s sentiment, and added that the crew “purposely shot a lot of material. I think it was essential that we get everything. People may be hesitant to open up to you, so you have to be there in that situation with them. It’s a testament to Matt and his team’s hard work of going down there and saying, ‘We’re going to shoot and be there.’ The relationships you make along away are integral to choosing which scenes end up in the final film.”
“Erik, Shyanne and Francisco have already seen the final version of the film, as they were flown up here to New York for the Tribeca Film Festival. They actually saw it for the first time here,” Ogens also shared. Further speaking of the fact that ‘Home + Away’ had its World Premiere at the festival, the helmer described the experience of being “incredible. It’s a great place to premiere it, and it’s been well received.”
Ogens added that he hopes that all audiences who see ‘Home + Away,’ not just at the festival, can truly embrace the empathy he infused into the story. “We hear stories on the news, whether is about the border, immigration and/or cartel violence, and people have knee-jerk reactions. We then make decisions for other people, and rarely check to see how those choices will affect them. So for me, I want viewers to realize that before people make those decisions, they should check in with those people who will be affected by their choice first. The should get to know them, and see how their lives will change. So we wanted to humanize the topic, instead of just talking about it.”