Doc Star of the Month: Denilson Garibo, 'Homeroom'
Winner of the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award: US Documentary at this year’s Sundance, Homeroom is the final piece in Peter Nicks’ Oakland Trilogy. The vérité project began with 2012’s The Waiting Room and continued on through 2017’s The Force, which notably provided Documentary with the chance to chat with the Oakland Police Department’s Deputy Chief LeRonne Armstrong for this very column.
Interestingly, the OPD—specifically the battle over where and how it should be deployed—also figures quite prominently in Homeroom. Embedding with Oakland High School’s class of 2020, Nicks and his team follow along as a group of highly engaged BIPOC seniors navigates the everyday stresses of tests and college applications all while trying to rid their school district of its divisive police force. And this is before a global pandemic and a season of racial justice protests turn their microcosmic teenage world even more upside down.
One of the OHS leaders centered most prominently in Nicks’ doc is Denilson Garibo, who served as a student director on the Oakland Unified School District board, and now graciously serves as our August Doc Star of the Month. Just prior to the film’s Hulu release on August 12, Documentary spoke with the tenacious activist—and onetime Dreamer—about the pros and cons of being trailed by a camera during what turned out to be one roller coaster of a final year.
DOCUMENTARY: You’re an outspoken activist, but you’re also a member of a family that’s undocumented. Did the Trump Administration’s crackdown on immigrants, which was taking place throughout production, give you pause about participating in the film? What was that discussion with your family like? What ultimately convinced you to go ahead?
DENILSON GARIBO: There was most definitely a lot of hesitation happening before filming. I remember Pete’s team came to interview me, to see if I was a perfect match [for] Homeroom. I remember them knowing that I was part of the student union, and one of the student directors; I stood out to them.
They let me know how the film is gonna take place and what it’s about. It made me really want to do it, but at the same time I was reflecting, Am I gonna be able to represent Oakland youth the way they should be represented? And not just that. Am I gonna be able to keep myself and my family protected from any consequences that the film might bring?
So it took a lot of conversations with my family, especially with my parents. I let them know that I was being a part of this film, that it was gonna be premiering in about one or two years. We were on the verge of getting our residency. And it’s crazy because my family just got their residency, only two months ago.
But my parents didn’t want that to be the reason for stopping me from being part of the film. They thought that I earned that; coming here at the age of six, crossing the border.
With all the challenges I faced in my educational journey, I never thought that I would be here. They knew that, and they wanted me to share my story with the world and inspire undocumented youth who might be facing these same struggles.
D: It sounds like your family was quite brave to let you do that. But I guess they’re also used to your activism. I would have been a little bit scared and hesitant, especially considering how close you were to getting the residency.
DG: Most definitely. And you can see that in some scenes. I couldn’t make it to a protest because there were too many cops, or something else was happening; because of my status, I just wasn’t able to make it. So there were times when I took a step back from organizing for that reason: to protect my family and myself because it did get scary sometimes.
D: It seems like there’s this ongoing dance that you have to do when you’re undocumented, right down to what’s safe to post on Facebook. Which brings me to my next question. The film uses quite a bit of self-recorded social media. Were you given directions for doing this, or was it a part of your daily routine that the filmmakers then incorporated?
DG: Well, social media itself is something that’s just part of our day-to-day life, especially with Instagram, Snapchat and now Tik Tok. I remember them filming us recording everything on Instagram and all of that because that’s something that we just did. So they just took the footage that we’d recorded on our phones—obviously we gave them permission to do that—but it wasn’t directed at all.
All of that was something very natural that we all just did. And especially with the Zoom meetings we had when COVID hit, that was all that we were doing to keep the student movement going, to keep strategizing. Even though we weren’t able to see each other in person, we still wanted to keep working; we knew we couldn’t afford to have a setback. If we had to start from page one all over again, then it would be harder, more difficult to get to the part where we wanted to be. So we kept the organizing going. And with social media we strategized around sharing all our posts. Everything that was happening was updated through Instagram, creating fliers and all of that.
D: Was creating these dispatches more freeing than being followed by a film crew—or did the camera not matter that much?
DG: I feel like it did not make any difference because, in the end, we were already doing the stuff we were doing before we were being recorded. So we were able to ignore the camera and focus on what we were doing and ourselves—on what’s important, what we had to do to strategize. We were so busy with everything that was happening that the camera was not there to us.
D: That says a lot about the camera crew. They must have been very nonintrusive in your life.
DG: Most definitely, yeah. That’s something they were really good about. And the communication that they had with us—they would make us feel comfortable. They knew to give us a sense of privacy when it came down to it.
Like after that board meeting in the film, when we had a moment outside the building where we had a little restorative justice circle. These circles tend to be private, and [the filmmakers] asked us for permission [to record]. At first we were skeptical because it’s something just for us. But then we were like, You know what? Let’s share this with the world. Let’s share how powerful restorative justice is, and how special it is to our community.
D: So when COVID hit during production and everything went online, was that a burden or was it inspiring to know that the film was still continuing?
DG: Honestly, now that I look back at it, it’s like we didn’t really know what was happening with the film because the production and everything got shut down. So we figured that they were just gonna use the scenes that they’d already recorded. But then they started getting in touch with us, wondering if we could record our Zoom meetings to show that the work was still happening, and the organizing was still moving, and we were like, Of course. And that’s how we came about them having these Zoom meetings, recordings, and also the fliers and our messages. We were able to screen-record our messages to let them know that we’re still in communication with everyone.
D: It’s quite thrilling that you were able to keep going through the pandemic.
DG: I think that just comes with being from Oakland. Just coming from a place of resilience and determination, where we have been taught that we are the only ones who have the power and responsibility to fight for what we believe is right. There’s a sense of trauma in our community that does not let everyone take part in the fight, which is why we continue to fight for those who are vulnerable to decisions that are being made and that affect them.
"I’m representing undocumented students, not just in Oakland but all around the world, who share the same challenges that I did."
- Denilson Garibo
D: Yes, on the one hand you’re dealing with nationwide and even universal issues, yet it’s very specific to Oakland—and honestly, to other multiethnic cities where the liberal white demographic seems to dictate all the decision-making. There are several scenes with adults, such as that community meeting that got hijacked by protestors and the cringe-worthy sit-down with Mayor Libby Schaaf, that were really frustrating for me to watch. Which makes me wonder if there are certain scenes that are difficult for you to view, or ones that you’re particularly pleased made it into the final cut.
DG: The scene that made me really emotional is the one where I literally poured my heart out to the board. I told them that my family was undocumented and that I felt very much pushed to the side. Because I was sitting in that position for them, I wanted the board to not just hear us but to listen to what we were saying—to do their job and represent us the way that they should. I cried the first time watching it because it was like, Wow, you could feel the passion within me.
D: Did it affect your family, too?
DG: Yeah, they were proud of me. I was watching with my cousins, and they cried with me. It was very special.
I guess the other scene that really stuck with me was the party scene. In the beginning when I saw it, I was, like, Wow, that was us out there partying. But at the same time we don’t get those types of moments a lot, to just have fun with each other the way youth should do.
D: It’s important.
DG: Right. It’s important because it’s self-care and we deserve that. We deserve to have fun. Most of the time we’re out here fighting for our education, in the streets, fighting against all of the disparities that we suffer in our community. So just seeing the youth being happy made me love the scene even more.
D: It’s nice that you pointed that out. Often with films focused on social activism, we don’t see the joy in it. And there has to be joy somewhere, even just the joy of connecting with others. Otherwise, why would people keep doing it? We see that camaraderie with all the students—although I also noticed that you became the doc’s main character pretty quickly. Did that come as a surprise? At what stage of production did this happen?
DG: I think I only knew when it came out. Nobody really knew where the documentary was gonna go until we saw the final product. But in the end I don’t see myself as the main character. I just see my story being represented. I’m representing undocumented students, not just in Oakland but all around the world, who share the same challenges that I did. But there were also a lot of things that didn’t make it into the film.
D: Like what?
DG: We had the Oakland Youth vote; we were able to give 16- and 17-year olds the right to vote for their school board members. We had scenes being recorded with us canvassing and having all these important meetings with student council members and community leaders.
D: Sometimes that happens. Sometimes filmmakers have too many storylines and they have to decide which ones they’re gonna go with. So are you in school now, or are you working? Both?
DG: I’m currently attending Long Beach State University. I am majoring in political science and minoring in communications and film.
D: Was that always the plan, or did this film influence your choice to minor in film?
DG: I think it was something that I always wanted to do, but this film inspired me to do it more. And I’m planning to transfer to USC by the end of this year and apply to see if I get accepted.
"It’s so inspiring to me that storytelling does this to people. It motivates them to get engaged and keep going."
- Denilson Garibo
D: I was wondering if the film has changed you or your life in any way. It sounds like it might have done just that.
DG: Most definitely. I did notice the impact that it had within me because I’m very inspired by the power of storytelling now. The impact that Homeroom is having right now—I’m having youth from all these different states, all around the world, hit me up on Instagram, asking how to organize and all of that. It’s so inspiring to me that storytelling does this to people. It motivates them to get engaged and keep going. So that’s what I want to do in the future: give space to those stories that we haven’t heard from many communities—specifically Black and Brown communities.
D: So your plan is to combine politics and filmmaking in some way? What does that look like?
DG: Yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do. Right now I’m interning with Pete’s team, so I’m getting tips and advice on how to do storytelling and all of that. One idea I came up with, as a former Dreamer myself, is that there are many things that are currently happening with DACA. There are many teens out there that are having challenges with their education, are being impacted by this political issue. So just being able to shed light on what it is to be a DACA student, and how those decisions being made by political leaders are affecting these youth.
D: That’s a great idea. So what are you doing with regards to the film’s upcoming Hulu release? Are you on a social impact tour?
DG: We actually just had a community screening. We’ve been super excited to see the community come together and watch the film; there are so many people that haven’t watched it yet.
D: Are you bringing it to schools as well?
DG: Yeah, I believe so. When it premiered at Sundance, they also shared it with Oakland High, and with many students across Oakland, so many high schools were able to show it to the students.
D: That’s good to hear. So do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
DG: I just hope that this film brings some type of inspiration and motivation, and to see that young people are leaders and that we want a better world. We are experts in our own reality, and we have so much to contribute to our education.
So whether that means being actively engaged in your community or just sharing an Instagram post—anything counts, and that’s what I hope that this film brings to students, but also adults. And I hope that adults invite students into their own work, as partners, not just as students. Because in the end they are making these decisions that are impacting the education and the future of these youth.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.