César Martínez Barba’s short documentary film Dial Home will not win a 2022 Academy Award, but simply being in consideration holds a great deal of meaning for the 27-year-old filmmaker and San Antonio native.

The 20-minute film that explores the life of two Mexican deportees took the top prize in its category at the 2021 San Francisco International Film Festival, earning it eligibility for an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Academy released its 15-film shortlist on Tuesday, bypassing Dial Home. The list will be narrowed to five nominations, with one ultimately winning at the annual televised ceremony in March.

Prior to the announcement, Martínez Barba said, “Regardless of where the film ends up, in terms of its potential shortlisting or potential nomination, ultimately the purpose of wanting to get it there is to get more eyes on the film, and to get more people to find a sense of empathy in this story, and a sense of connection in this story … a sense of understanding for people who might have a life quite different from yours.”

In Dial Home, Martínez Barba follows Oscar and Amanda, two undocumented immigrants formerly living in California who were deported to Tijuana, where they work at one of hundreds of call centers stationed there — in part because of the large population of English-speaking deportees.

Their situation lends layers of meaning to the film’s title, in that those deported from the U.S. often end up working for U.S.-based companies, speaking English to American callers and talking to people living in the place they themselves had, for much of their lives, called home.

Martínez Barba, who was born and raised in San Antonio but now calls New York home, first found Oscar’s YouTube channel, Life After Deportation, then sought out the charismatic personality in Tijuana in hopes of expounding on his situation as a deportee. In all, the filmmaker spent two months collaborating with Oscar and Amanda, revealing the complexity of their lives, their struggles and their achievements.

“I hope that through the collaboration that I had with both characters in the film,” Martínez Barba said, “we’re able to say that the place where you belong and the place where you feel you belong … is far more nuanced than we would ever really like it to be. And it’s more complex and complicated than just nationality or ethnicity or culture or where you’re born or where you live out your days.”

He said his film deliberately avoids making political statements regarding immigration and deportation policies, instead focusing on how those policies affect people’s lives.

“It’s all complicated and messy,” he said. Dial Home gives “more visibility to the difficulty and the consequence, but also the resilience and the strength of the people in the film — and also the absurd nature of an industry that popped up around the community of people who’ve been deported from the United States.”

San Antonio filmmaker Guillermina Zavala isn’t surprised by Martínez Barba’s success. She taught him as a middle and high school student at arts-focused nonprofit SAY Sí, and recognized his filmmaking talents.

“Right from the beginning, I could already see that he was extremely interested in learning more about film,” Zavala said. As a young student, Martínez Barba twice had scripts selected for collaborative film projects made by the class. “He was always very proactive in terms of coming up with new ideas,” she said.

She said Martínez Barba showed his leanings toward documentary early on, particularly in exploring subjects related to his background that mainstream media tends to overlook.

“I could already see also as a young high schooler that he was always very, very interested in seeing other people’s lives, and what was happening, especially in terms of his Mexican American identity,” Zavala said.

Though Dial Home will not win an Academy Award, Martínez Barba said the film already has the Oscar it needs.

“Oscar can hopefully expand his [YouTube] audience through this film,” he said, and lend his advice to others in similar situations.

But giving visibility to the experience of deportees is an end in itself, Martínez Barba said, so they are “not necessarily feeling like they’re the only people in the world who think this is important. Hopefully, the film gives light to the possibility that their experience is also something that should be understood and respected and empathized with.”

Dial Home was recently selected as a New Yorker documentary, and is viewable on YouTube.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...