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Split at the Root

It’s so difficult when a documentary about a clearly important subject doesn't quite work. It’s even more painful writing its review. Such is the case with “Split at the Root,” director Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s empathetic yet creaky look at our broken and apathetic immigration system, and the work one group is doing to fix it. 

Pinpointing where “Split at the Root” comes up short, initially, is difficult to spot. By pushing our focus to America’s strategy of separating children from their asylum-seeking parents, sending them to different detention centers in different states, The Zero Tolerance Policy strongly promoted by the Trump administration, there is urgency. By telling the story of two women—Yeni Gonzalez and Rosayra "Rosy" Pablo Cruz—deeply affected by this crisis, the emotionality is evident. And with the inclusion of imperative statistics, painting the full systemic failure at play, we aren’t clueless or unable to grasp the magnitude of the still present mess targeting the most vulnerable. 

What “Split at the Root” lacks, unfortunately, is the best frame to translate this story. Knowlton employs Julie Schwietert Collazo, a can-do mother from Queens, as the anchor for her film. In 2018, upon hearing about Yeni, a Guatemalan mother separated from her children, a horrified Julie organized a GoFundMe to finance Yeni’s release. The courageous act would only be the beginning for Collazo. Armed with a list given by Yeni of other women to help, Collazo, together with her husband Francisco, founded IFT (Immigrant Families Together). Their goal was to provide a financial pipeline and support system to reunite asylum-seeking mothers with their children and provide them with the necessary tools to remain in the country. 

Collazo and Francisco, along with IFT co-founder Meghan Finn, offer viewers a comprehensive view of the legal journey Yeni and Rosy must take to remain in the country and, in Cruz's case, to bring their children to America. We learn about the nefarious ways judges undermine these cases—the audio of one judge in South Carolina is particularly shocking—about the laws so clearly stacked against asylum seekers specifically hailing from Central and Latin America, and how this isn’t symptomatic of one administration, but the decades-long inaction by several (in fact, inaction might be the one partisan tenant of Washington). 

But we mostly learn about these psychological and emotional tolls through the eyes of Collazo and Finn—two white women. And while both do acknowledge the optics of them speaking on behalf of women of color, it can’t wholly eliminate the gnawing feeling that this film would be infinitely stronger if told from the perspective of Gonzalez and Cruz. 

In fact, the documentary’s most clarifying and aching moments occur when the camera is simply pointed at Gonzalez and Cruz as they offer their anguishing experiences, their nourishing hopes, their broken dreams, and their unbendable will. In these instances, Knowlton’s camera never blinks or cuts to stock newsreel footage. She sticks with these women for as long as it takes for them to share their statements and their convictions. 

And so when they have their court dates, or they feel great elation or momentary loss, or they’re merely going through their day-to-day—those events would be all the more impactful if told and followed closely from their perspective. Instead, disappointingly, it’s Collazo and Finn doing much of the talking. Toward the film's end, Collazo explains how Cruz describes this unimaginable process as “being split at the root.” You can’t help but want Cruz to say it in her own words. The same can be said about when Collazo and Yeni tearfully embrace. But it’s not Yeni speaking. It’s Collazo attempting to verbalize the fight Gonzalez has fought on the behalf of her fellow asylum seekers.

This film is another instance of this documentary having well-meaning intentions that do not translate into organic pathos. Those affected by America’s terrible immigration system need a film explaining their difficult plight. Knowton’s “Split at the Root” just isn’t it.             

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Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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Split at the Root movie poster

Split at the Root (2023)

96 minutes

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