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Local film ‘Illegal’ goes worldwide

Laz Ayala, left, interviews Mike Naumes for the film, "Illegal." Naumes, Inc. is the world's largest grower of Bosc and Bartlett pears. "Illegal" chronicles the journey of Ayala from war-torn El Salvador to becoming a U.S. citizen and successful real estate developer. Photo by Ezra Marcos.
Laz Ayala interviews a cousin during his trip to Latin America while making the feature-length documentary film, "Illegal." Photo by Ezra Marcos.

Rogue Valley real estate developer Laz Ayala, who went from “Dreamer” to living the dream, is now seeing his story playing out on the world stage.

“Illegal,” a feature-length documentary film chronicling Ayala’s journey to becoming a U.S. citizen after fleeing his war-torn childhood home in El Salvador, is now available on video-on-demand streaming platforms.

“We’ve come a long way since ‘Illegal’ made its film festival premiere in New York City last year,” Ayala said. “This film has the potential to become a powerful vehicle for change in the immigration debate, and we are excited that it is now available for the world to see.”

The film is available to rent or own on Amazon, iTunes, Apple TV, Vudu, Xbox, Google Play and YouTube Movies.

It’s also available on cable and specialty providers AT&T U-Verse, DirecTV, Dish Network, Sling TV, In Demand (Comcast), Vubiquity (Verizon Fios), Swank (hospitals and colleges), and Hoopla (libraries).

DVDs are now available through Amazon and Walmart, and will soon be available at Bestbuy.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and other online retailers.

With a $75,000 budget, Ayala assembled a team of eight to make the self-financed film. Joining Ayala and Rogue Valley filmmaker Nick Alexander were Mark Knox (an Ayala business partner), Alexander’s wife Eveling, Tanner Northrop, Ezra Marcos, and Ayala’s sister, Irma Bernal, of San Bernardino, California.

The film wrapped in December of 2019 and a Kickstarter fundraiser in early 2020 raised $40,000 for production of the film.

“Illegal” has been selected by more than three dozen film festivals around the country, including the Beverly Hills International Film Festival, the Richmond International Film Festival, and the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Along the way, the documentary has been recognized with numerous awards. Among them are best documentary feature, Universe Multicultural Film Festival; best foreign feature documentary, Fort Worth Indie Film Showcase; audience choice award, Richmond International Film Festival; best feature film, Queen Palm International Film Festival; and best feature film, Klamath Film Festival.

Ayala said he is grateful for the support of the Rogue Valley community. “We couldn’t have gotten this far without it,” he said.

Ayala’s friends and family knew the story well. How the killing fields of El Salvador forced his family to flee to the United States nearly 40 years ago. How he, his father and brother were smuggled into the country in the trunk of an old Cadillac when he was 14. And how, through hard work and determination, he forged a path to citizenship and became a successful Rogue Valley entrepreneur.

Ayala wrote and published a book about the journey, on which the film is based.

It was the first time Alexander tackled making a feature-length film.

He knew making the film would be a challenge because of the size of the project and shooting in unfamiliar locations.

“I knew I was going to have to worry about batteries, equipment breaking down, transportation, and even the climate,” Alexander said.

The itinerary included a visit to San Ildefonso; El Mozote, where a 1981 massacre occurred; Perquin, a village about 5 miles north of El Mozote; and San Salvador. They also filmed in Guatemala, Tijuana, and San Bernardino. Immigrants and others in Southern Oregon were interviewed for the film after the trip.

After they arrived in Los Angeles, Ayala hired a driver for the team’s trip south of the border.

In El Salvador, they examined conditions that prompt residents to emigrate to the United States to live and work, and talked with many who want to make the trip. Everybody they interviewed said they eventually would like to return to their home country.

They also talked with migrants along the way.

“We weren’t allowed to enter the migrant camps in Tijuana,” said Alexander, “but we talked to many of them outside the camps.” The migrants shared their stories of why they left their homelands and what their hopes were for the future. Most of the migrants were fleeing violence or economic hardship.

Ayala’s home town of San Ildefonso has changed over the years, but there are still pockets of poverty and hardship. He has relatives who live there.

“Today, the village has improved dramatically,” he said. “They have running water now — it’s inconsistent, but clean. There is a paved road into town. There are more opportunities to get ahead today, and a more diverse social class structure.”

When Ayala became concerned about the state of immigration, making a film was not the first thing that came to mind.

He was frustrated with U.S. immigration policy and the demonizing of immigrants. So, in 2016, he decided to write a book about his experiences and make a case for changes in policy.

“I wanted to be able to provide a voice and a platform for immigrants and get some national attention,” Ayala said. “My intent was to humanize the conversation.” A film was a natural next step.

He hopes the film will be a positive force in reforming immigration policy and help humanize immigrants.

Immigration policy may not be changed by a single film, but Ayala has high hopes for the effort. He wants to give immigrants a voice and help build a better understanding between people.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.