From group home to front of the camera

A Discussion with Nicole Opper, documentary filmmaker



On Wednesday, April 19, Mason’s Visiting Filmmaker Series held a screening of the documentary “Visitor’s Day.” A Q&A discussion with Director Nicole Opper followed the screening, facilitated by Associate Professor and Director of the Global Affairs program at Mason Lisa Bregila.


Opper is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and graduate from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has directed and produced documentaries such as “Off and Running” and “His Name is Cosmo.” Opper is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship and has won numerous awards at Tribeca, Outfest and Silverdocs.


Released in 2016, Opper’s documentary follows the life of Juan Carlos, a teenager living at Ipoderac, a group home in Mexico for neglected and homeless boys aged 6 to 18. At the group home, the boys have small daily chores which help them to learn the value of hard work. This includes tasks such as gardening, cleaning up and feeding goats. Taking care of the animals ultimately assists in the process of creating artisanal cheese, which is how Ipoderac raises 75 percent of its operating funds.


“While the boys are not the ones making the cheese, it’s made by professionals who are trained, they are involved in the chores surrounding it,” Opper said. “They believe you put effort into it and you can overcome anything you’ve been through in life. That’s the very simplistic but kind of powerful philosophy that guides all that happens at Ipoderac.”


As a young teen, Juan Carlos ran away in order to escape an abusive home. He lived on the streets in Mexico City before finding his way to Ipoderac. Carlos is loyal, hardworking and dedicated. He understands that Ipoderac is an opportunity for him to have a better chance at life.


“But sometimes he is sad,” says one of the women who works with him at Ipoderac. He thinks about his father a lot: Why doesn’t he come visit Carlos? Does his dad still love Carlos?


The documentary follows Juan Carlos as he begins to come to terms with the complex relationship he has with his father. Carlos, with the help of the supportive staff at Ipoderac, finds the strength to forgive his father for his absence and abandonment. We also see other young boys like Pepe and Roberto, who carry their own stories throughout the documentary.


Opper knew about Ipoderac from when she volunteered there at age 17. Her experience and close relationship with Ipoderac is what drove her to create the film. After finishing her first film, “Off and Running,” she rediscovered the journal she kept while at Ipoderac.


“I had actually written in the journal there, like ‘Go back and make a film one day,’” Opper said. “So it felt like it was divined and I had to do this thing. And I just trusted that that was a good idea I had when I was 17, not really knowing.”


Opper realized that she has an ethical responsibility to ensure that the story was in the right hands and not exploitative of the boys at Ipoderac.


“I wrestled for a long time with the question, ‘Am I the right person to make this film, as an American, as an outsider, as a foreigner, as a white woman?’” Opper said. “I think that’s why it took me so long to come there and start the work. I was really conscious of the ways in which I could totally screw this story up.”


Yet despite being an outsider, Opper’s camera is practically invisible throughout the documentary, filming very personal scenes as the boys go through this transformative period in their lives at Ipoderac. There is little to no interaction with the camera at hand, even at intimate moments such as group therapy or when Carlos finally comes face-to-face with his father.


“The first few weeks I was always interrupting or in the way and changing the things that were happening around me,” Opper said.


“A few months in, it was like, ‘Don’t you have anywhere else to be?’ It was like, ‘Get a life, don’t you have a story yet? What could you possibly still need to be doing here?’ So at that point they were just bored of me and I could really do my work and blend in.”


Documenting the pivotal years in the life of Juan Carlos gives a glimpse into the positive influence Ipoderac has on the boys living there, especially those with troubled pasts. Sometimes people can’t choose where they come from, but they can learn to come to terms with themselves and choose where to direct their future.  


“Juan Carlos is still working at the same restaurant in [Mexico City],” Opper said. “He’s still there, he’s working his way to management now. He’s loving to cook, has his own apartment and doing well. Has his own girlfriend who he loves very much. He kind of has his own step-son now. So he’s grown up fast — he’s 22 or 23 now.”