Pandemic kickstarts moving documentary on Edith Espinal’s life in sanctuary
'A Shelter for Edith,' from local filmmakers Elisa Stone Leahy and Matthew Leahy, premieres Saturday via a New York Latino Film Festival virtual screening
Elisa Stone Leahy still remembers the first meeting regarding the plight of Edith Espinal at Columbus Mennonite Church, where Elisa had recently begun attending with partner Matthew Leahy. The group discussed the possibility of the Clintonville church providing sanctuary for Espinal, who raised three children in the United States and has lived here for the majority of her life since her father brought her to the U.S. undocumented from Mexico at the age of 16. In the summer of 2017, Espinal was denied asylum and given a deportation order.
“I don't know if any of us would have dreamt that it would be three years that she would be living there,” Elisa said in a recent phone call alongside Matthew. “Everyone was happy to host her, but I don't think anybody wanted her to have to go through it for that long. That's really not what we were hoping for when we offered sanctuary. We were hoping it would be a shorter period of time.”
Elisa and Matthew are filmmakers, and while they knew Espinal’s story could be well suited for a documentary, they didn’t initially approach this sanctuary project from that perspective. “We weren't coming into this as filmmakers so much as human beings who were passionate about another human being and wanted to do everything we could to further her case,” said Elisa, who is Peruvian American and speaks Spanish. “We came into it thinking, ‘What can we do with the skills we have to further advocate for and help her case?’”
For the first couple of years, the pair filmed various parts of Espinal’s life in sanctuary for use on social media and other projects, slowly collecting footage. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit in 2020 that Elisa and Matthew began actively directing and producing the short film that would become “A Shelter for Edith" (Noonday Films), which premieres with a virtual screening at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18, as part of the New York Latino Film Festival.
The often mind-numbing monotony of isolation during the coronavirus pandemic provided Matthew and Elisa an illuminating window into Espinal’s everyday life at the church. “For a lot of people, the pandemic was a time where we held a magnifying glass up to our own lives — to what was important, who was important, and how we wanted to live life. And for Edith, that was obviously something that was already happening. Those big questions were already there. And all of a sudden, the whole world had the chance to see life the way someone in a situation like that would see it,” Elisa said. “Our entire world had to stop and think. It's a lot harder to ignore plights like Edith's when you are in that kind of situation.”
The pandemic brought to mind not only isolation, but also the reality of living in fear. “That idea of a threat that's waiting out there, that's huge. So many of us, we don't live life that way,” Elisa said. “I don't leave my house thinking, ‘What's out to get me today?’ And suddenly the pandemic was there. ... This was definitely an everyday part of her life at the church, wondering, ‘If I leave to walk the dog, will somebody be waiting in the parking lot?’”
The 25-minute documentary presented a unique challenge: The film’s central conflict involves the crushing weight of isolation and the separation from friends and family, which is difficult to portray onscreen in a compelling way. “It's such a personal, emotional story, and it can be really hard to show that because it's such a lonely story, too,” Elisa said. “A lot of what she suffered during those years was very lonely, very much Edith in the church by herself, afraid.”
The filmmakers proved up to the task, though, all the way through Espinal’s eventual exit from sanctuary earlier this year after more than three years in the church. (Espinal is still seeking a permanent stay in the United States.) The greatest hurdle, though, had nothing to do with documentary filmmaking. “It's hard to watch somebody that you care about go through something like this — just wanting so desperately for Edith to be free and to be with her family,” Elisa said. “Watching her suffer, that was the biggest challenge.”
Elisa and Matthew ticked off all sorts of family milestones in the last few years. Their son battled cancer. Their youngest child learned to read. And all the while, Espinal was living at the church. “It's mind blowing to think about how much life passed by,” Elisa said. “We would go and meet with Edith at the church, and we would be a part of her meetings and her team, talking to her, and then we would go home to our family, but she couldn't.”
In the film, Espinal’s stated desires aren’t overtly political. She longed for simple things, like going to the park or the mall with her family. Some time after the sanctuary period ended, Elisa randomly ran into Espinal out in the community, going about her everyday life, and that simple, mundane experience — living freely, out and about in Columbus — made Elisa want to burst into tears.
“Sanctuary is a last resort,” Elisa said. “It should never happen.”