On December 9, 2023, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism held its annual DocFest showcasing students' work in the school’s Documentary Specialization. One of the three films shown was 2023 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellows Beibei Liu and Mayara Teixeira’s After Landing, which follows a couple in the months after they immigrated to the United States from Venezuela via the dangerous Darien Gap.
“It’s an immigration story, but it’s so much more than an immigration story,” Thor Neureiter, director of video at Columbia Journalism School, said as he introduced the film.
After Landing is propelled by close access to its central figures, Jeczebel Lopez and Jorge Ojeda, as they arrive in New York City searching for work, housing, and stability. Fleeing poor economic conditions and political repression, they made the difficult decision to leave their children back home, hoping to send money and eventually reconnect in the United States.
After struggling in New York shelters, the couple goes to Canada, but they find conditions are not much better. Ojeda works long hours shoveling snow with little reward, and the couple is only able to send a couple hundred dollars to Venezuela. Lopez and Ojeda then return to New York, where they apply for asylum with the help of a pro bono lawyer. The film contemplates the relationship between Lopez and Ojeda as they “start over.”
While often somber, After Landing is at times funny, hopeful, and tender. Liu and Teixeira seek to highlight the enormity of emotions Lopez and Ojeda feel throughout their journey.
“It’s a universal story about love,” Liu said. “And the human capacity to love when life gets complicated. We hope people will see this film and connect with migrants.”
After the screening, Liu and Teixeira fielded questions from June Cross, Columbia University's director of Documentary Specialization, and the audience.
News coverage of immigrant stories tends to stop after they arrive, Liu and Teixeira noted. The period afterward, however, is often just as challenging as the journey to the border. For more than a week in fall 2022, Teixeira went to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to greet migrants as they arrived in New York City. Many didn’t want to be the subject of a long-term documentary, but once she met Lopez and Ojeda, they were immediately interested.
“The first thing I recorded with them was a voice memo because I wanted to get to know them better and ask them about their story,” Teixeira said. “And they spoke for 42 minutes. They really wanted to be seen and heard.”
Liu joined the project once Lopez and Ojeda returned to New York after their stint in Canada. As an international student from China, she said, they all shared a common sense of not belonging that helped her connect with Lopez and Ojeda, even if she didn’t speak Spanish.
“I was filming just by guessing—observing their body language,” Liu said.
“Beibei doesn’t speak Spanish, but they love her,” Teixeira added. “You were not communicating by speaking with them, but you still understood what they were saying.”
Being so close with their subjects led to ethical dilemmas, Liu and Teixeira acknowledged. The pair captured intimate moments—from a Christmas in a hotel room to daily video calls with the couple’s children. Sometimes, they felt they may have crossed a line.
“At some point, especially after Christmas Eve, things got a little blurred,” said Teixeira, who was away from her family in Brazil. “I was feeling lonely. They were feeling lonely.”
Liu observed that Teixeira did a really good job walking the line, knowing how hard it is to watch people struggle. “Sometimes we didn’t make the right choices, sometimes we made the right choices,” Teixeira continued. “We were learning along the process.”
Ultimately, Liu and Teixeira learned the power of the camera.
“I think they got a lawyer because we were filming,” Teixeira said. “Even when I couldn’t help them, the camera was doing a thing of its own.”
For this reason, Lopez and Ojeda’s story may not reflect other migrants’ experiences. “They are the lucky ones,” Liu said. “There are thousands of migrants in New York City and it’s impossible for lawyers to do pro bono for every case. Not everyone can get resources.”
Now, Lopez and Ojeda are both working. They’re no longer in a shelter and are awaiting work permits by the end of the year if everything goes well, Teixeira said.
Eventually, they hope to bring their four children to the United States. Liu and Teixeira aim to bring the film to festivals to amplify the couple’s experiences: “They have an urgency to tell their story,” Teixeira said.