Building the American Dream is an impactful documentary that came to fruition through filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez's hustle and a successful crowdfunding campaign.

The film explores the mistreatment of undocumented workers on Texas construction sites, with a focus on Dallas, Houston, and Austin. These workers often experience wage theft, unsafe working environments and life-threatening heat stroke. Hernandez's documentary introduces viewers to the families seeking restitution and new safety ordinances to protect others from the same dangers.

The film premiered at SXSW on March 10. Hernandez and producer Marisol Medrano Montoya sat down with No Film School to discuss how they got their funding and how they found the documentary's narrative threads.

The importance of crowdfunding

Building the American Dream began a Seed&Spark campaign in 2016. Later that year, Seed&Spark and Project Greenlight Digital Studios began the #UntoldStory Crowdfunding Rally, which would award the winner funding and equipment.

"We didn't have any money at the time," Hernandez said. "We had gotten a very small grant from the Austin Film Society, pretty much to pay our grant writer, and then we saw this opportunity with Seed&Spark to do crowdfunding. What we liked about it was that it was a competition. So, there was this contest, and there was going to be 30 grand to win on top of the money that you crowdfunded."

It was a lot of work, she said, and it involved a lot of outreach.

"We had to be one of the top 10 projects that raised the most amount of money and got the most amount of followers," Hernandez said. "So at the last minute we were frantically reaching out to people on Facebook Messenger. We got blocked a few times. We were just trying to get as many followers as possible."

Thankfully, they got those followers, made the top 10, and were selected by a jury as the best documentary film to win the competition. They were awarded funding and other resources, like a new G-Technology hard drive, consultations, and festival fee waivers.

"I would definitely advise people to at least plan a solid three months out before the campaign, and really set out everything that you're going to do."

Both Hernandez and Montoya were also working full-time jobs as this was going on. Hernandez was an editor and co-producer at a local PBS station for an arts documentary series, Arts in Context. Montoya worked in finance. 

For anyone else wanting to crowdfund a film, Hernandez urged the importance of organization.

"I think we kind of underestimated how much to plan for the crowdfunding campaign," Hernandez said. "So I would definitely advise people to at least plan a solid three months out before the campaign, and really set out everything that you're going to do. That's, like, all the scheduling, Facebook posts, Twitter posts, like all of this social media stuff, coming up with your lists of press. That was something that we scrambled at the last minute [to do]."

Chelsea-hernandezCredit: Bill Sallans

Finding the narratives

Back when the film was in its early stages in 2016, Hernandez had just learned about the Workers Defense Project, which is run by Emily Timm and Cristina Tzintzun. It was through this organization, which aims to help exploited workers, that Hernandez found the Granillo family and Claudia Golinelli. They followed them for months.

"We needed to take time to really flesh out the story," Hernandez said. "We had over 500 hours of footage, so it was cutting all of that down and putting into a form that made sense to the audience. I also was one of the editors, so I was very used to all of this footage, but we needed to make that it was understandable for the general public."

To find their focus, they looked for people who had an arc or a battle to fight. In Golinelli's case, she and her husband were seeking thousands of dollars they were owed as electricians. Golinelli also faced regular ICE check-ins and the threat of deportation. In Dallas, the Granillo family campaigned for the legislation of mandatory 10-minute breaks for construction workers. They wanted this regulation in place after the death of their son, Roendy Granillo.

"So, you know Claudia, she was going through this wage stuff," Hernandez said. "We were in the middle of her about to receive her first check, so that was something we wanted to capture, and then she was having these ICE check-ins. And while we were filming too there was a new administration in the White House, and so things just became a little bit more grave."

Hernandez is from Texas and knew the local Texas issues, but even with the focus staying on her home state, she knew it could still have impact around the country.

"Texas is a right-to-work state, and half of the country are right-to-work states," she said, "so the kind of way of doing business here can continue in those states as well."

"For us as filmmakers, [SXSW] is a great platform," Montoya said. "This is the beginning of hopefully taking the documentary to more festivals. Seeing the boom here in Austin, it really means a lot, because then people get out from the screen, they see the city and how that city has been built."

"I would say, do your research, and really understand the issue or story that you want to pursue."

Her advice to beginning documentary filmmakers

For Hernandez, research and preparation are the most important elements of making a documentary.

"I would say, do your research," she said, "and really understand the issue or story that you want to pursue. I did do a lot of research. We both also sat in at these juntas, or orientations at Workers Defense Project that were weekly. To just sit into the meetings and see what was happening, just to observe and understand what workers were going through. I think that was really helpful, because we then understood the story from a more intimate lens before we brought in the camera. And that was how we were able to pursue certain storylines."

Having this research background can help you be familiar with the issues, which makes writing grant proposals and pitching easier as well.

"I will say that I come more from narrative," said Montoya. "This was my first time jumping into the documentary world. With a narrative, as a producer, you kind of always know what's always going to happen, you plan out for what's going to happen, and you're always two or three steps ahead. I think with a documentary, you have to always be prepared, and you always have to be ready. Like Chelsea was saying, do your research and get to know your subjects."

Hernandez is currently developing a new documentary series about student loans.

Building the American Dream is a Panda Bear Films production.

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.


No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.