Heidi Ewing’s ‘I Carry You With Me’ Poignantly Tells a Gay Immigrant Love Story

I Carry You with Me” is a love story in every sense of what the term means, but rooted in a stark and challenging reality. To be gay in many corners of the world still means to face great adversity and even violence. For some this can also be compounded by the experience of migration, of leaving your home for a new and less hostile place. Such is the case for the two men at the center of this story, who are gay and living in rural Mexico. To escape the dangerous homophobia of their community, they migrate to the United States, where being undocumented brings its own forms of discrimination.

This new film by director Heidi Ewing is her first narrative feature, after a long career making memorable documentaries. Still finding inspiration in her artistic roots, Ewing’s film is taken from a true story. “I do believe many stories require different mediums,” Ewing told Entertainment Voice. “Sometimes you hear a story and you think it would be an amazing article in the New Yorker, or an amazing podcast, or an incredible documentary…And this story was about two friends of mine, who told me their life story after many years of friendship. It was very powerful and my immediate go-to was that this could be a documentary. And I did start filming them, and then it wasn’t too long before I realized I was shooting the third act of a movie.”

Blending truth and drama, the film opens with two men, Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo (Christian Vazquez), who we first see living in Puebla, Mexico circa 1994. Even more than today, being gay in this rugged landscape can be extremely dangerous. Working class Iván, an aspiring chef, already has a son with an ex-girlfriend and so lives a dual identity in town. Only his longtime friend Sandra (Michelle Rodriguez) knows his orientation. He locks eyes at a bar with Gerardo, a local teacher who does hang out in the local underground gay club scene. The two become involved, which in this town means having to be absolutely discreet. It’s not hard to see why when we meet Gerardo’s father, a stern rancher who we see in flashbacks trying to nearly torture his son’s emerging orientation out of him. When he walks the streets at night with a drag queen friend harassment easily follows from locals. Sandra starts telling Iván about her friend who moved to New York City and is making good money. Maybe they should consider migrating as well. At first Iván is hesitant, but seeking a better life in the U.S. might also provide him and Gerardo the freedom to be together without fear. But once he and Gerardo reach New York, new hardships manifest themselves.

Ewing’s film has a melancholy power that harkens back to movies like Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.” The love between Iván and Gerardo lacks false sentimentality, which gives it a greater emotional force. It is a love that must survive society and division. Ewing has always been a director tuned into the times. Her famous 2006 documentary “Jesus Camp,” about the experience of attending a fundamentalist Christian summer camp, not only captured the George W. Bush era, but now seems prophetic in light of the fundamentalist culture Trump helped grow more radical. “I Carry You with Me” is about the immigrant stories we don’t see in the evening news. In Mexico Iván and Gerardo have to be together in secret, but in the U.S. are rendered invisible in a different way because of how cruel the system can be towards the undocumented. The price to be together is uprooting themselves, saying goodbye to family and scratching out a new living in the United States. Iván finally enters a restaurant kitchen, but has to be a faceless delivery man until chance lets him show a chef what he’s made of. Gerardo goes from teacher to dishwasher, holding on to the bond with Iván even when the temptation to go back home becomes unbearable. “I was interested in the childhood of these men and the power of memory,” said Ewing, “I was interested in how the memory works for an immigrant who hasn’t been home for many years. A lot of the movie is in the voice of Iván, who is trying to hold onto the memories of where he comes from. It’s also a love story where we can feel the explosion of emotion between these two men, sometimes with just a look in the eye. You can’t really get that in a documentary.”

In its structure “I Carry You with Me” flows between styles. Ewing does not completely abandon the documentary format and does include the real Iván and Gerardo, who we see more of by the third act. In an almost dreamlike haze footage of the real Iván riding a train, his eyes lost in thought while gazing out a window, transitions to the dramatized sections of the film. The real subject thus connects with his dramatic counterpart, who is bringing to life old memories. “I would describe the making of this film as experimentation and continual discovery,” Armando Espitia told Entertainment Voice. “Heidi from the beginning, with her sense of humility, was honest about being in a learning process herself since she’s not Mexican, and this is a Mexican story, and not having Spanish as her first language. So she had the humility to say ‘help me.’ So I’m thankful that she made us feel like creators, like a voice. Myself and Christian even helped strengthen the script dialogue. I felt like a poet, because what Heidi originally wrote in English, and which was then translated by co-writer Alan Page Arriaga, was so poetic, and then they would hand it to me and ask ‘how would your character say this?’ We felt a part of the entire process, in everything from the title to choosing the proper wardrobe. You never felt like in other acting gigs, like a cog in a machine.”

 “Heidi had so much humility. She’s so brilliant and what I would really do was listen. Acting in this film was itself an act of love, by giving life to these personalities,” said Christian Vazquez. “I hope this film works like a bridge, like an example of how cinema can create a greater sense of understanding and create consciousness. Love goes beyond sexual orientation. It has to be something purely human. We need to see each other as human beings who have dreams and who sacrifice for those dreams. We need more compassion. This movie gives a voice to Iván and Gerardo, but there are millions of Latin Americans living under the same circumstances. Some are living in worse situations, in situations that are so complex. There are LGBTQ people struggling here in the U.S. as well, so by creating empathy we can show that immigrants are not the villains here, they’re people looking for just as much acceptance and success as everyone else.” Ewing impressively avoids stereotypes in this film, never utilizing those ossified plot tricks of drug dealers or gangs when telling a Latino story. When we follow Iván through the perilous journey to get to the United States, the sense we get is of the danger and tragedy of trekking with few supplies, risking cold and injury just to get here. 

There is a moment near the end of the film where an immigration lawyer tells Iván and Gerardo, after they have established themselves financially in New York, that they have the absolute freedom to travel back to Mexico. But because of their undocumented status, they cannot come back. To be truly free requires painful sacrifices. For Ewing “I Carry You with Me” will hopefully illuminate audiences on both the immigrant struggle and how for many people around the globe, it ties to their struggles as part of the LGTBQ community. “There was a moment in this country where I think a lot of people thought ‘we’re all good,’ you know, there were shows like ‘Will & Grace’ where everything was perfect,” said Ewing. “But the reality is much more complicated. In the United States, Latin America, and anywhere else, the LGBTQ community is consistently at risk in some way. There’s machismo, there’s harassment and inequality all over the world. It’s important that we don’t deceive ourselves and think these things have been resolved. Human stories, accessible stories, about people that fascinate you and inspire you, it’s important to keep telling these stories. Movies can’t change the world but art can change people’s minds one by one by one.”

I Carry You with Me” releases June 25 in New York and Los Angeles and expands into limited theaters on July 2.