At first, an ombré dawn bears down on a desert landscape, matched with a collage of voices seeking word of missing loved ones.
Over the next 14 minutes, the documentary Águilas follows the search for Latin American migrants who never completed the hazardous trip through Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. The film’s name denotes Águilas del Desierto (Desert Eagles), humanitarian volunteers, migrants themselves, who travel from the San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix areas one weekend each month in hopes of locating survivors. Sometimes, the volunteers recover remains to offer family members a modicum of solace.
Águilas was directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, associate professor of film, television and digital media, and co-director Maite Zubiaurre, professor of European languages and transcultural studies, and also of Spanish and Portuguese. The collaboration brings visibility to both the solemn efforts of Águilas del Desierto and the unseen who are left behind while crossing.
Zubiaurre, who has volunteered with Águilas del Desierto since 2016, has found both the belongings and remains of the dead.
“In many ways, the objects tell you more about hopes and death than bones [do],” she says. “I have seen bodies in different states of decomposition; it’s worse looking at plastic sleeves [holding] pictures of their children.”
The award-winning documentary is one component of a larger project headed by Zubiaurre about forensic empathy, activism and art centered on the suffering and death of migrants. “We hope to bring the public’s attention to governmental policies that push people to cross farther and farther into more dangerous terrain,” Guevara-Flanagan says.
Watch the trailer:
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s October 2021 issue.