Iliana Sosa’s ‘What We Leave Behind’ authentically captures grandfather Julián Moreno, steals audience’s heart at SXSW

Sofia Treviño, Life & Arts Reporter

Dressed in long-sleeved flannels with a sombrero perched atop his head, Julián Moreno shines in “What We Leave Behind.” Directed by Iliana Sosa, Julián’s granddaughter and a UT radio-television-film assistant professor, the documentary premiered at South by Southwest on March 11. Spinning ordinarily mundane moments into candid memories of Julián’s last few years, Sosa’s documentation of her grandfather leaves the audience emotional and in awe of the loving 89-year-old.

After spending two decades traveling between Durango, Mexico and El Paso, Texas to visit his daughters, who live permanently in the U.S., Julián’s trips become too much for a man of his age. Sosa joins Julián for his journey back to Durango, hoping to document Julián’s past as a bracero — a Mexican agricultural worker allowed into the U.S. for seasonal periods. However, Sosa’s film changed direction when she saw Julián’s determination to build a new home, one he hoped would bring his dispersed family together.

Sosa’s intimate portrayal of Julián, prodding him with reflective questions, shows a deeper connection growing between him and his granddaughter. Honest scenes, such as one where Julián tenderly sweeps his late wife’s grave, show Julián’s care of his loved ones.
Cracking jokes with his son, swatting at flies, attempting to cook huevos fritos and helping with home construction, Julián’s witty and tender personality makes its way off-screen and into the audience’s hearts. One audience member said, “I didn’t get to have my grandfather growing up. I felt like I got one from you.”

Sosa portrays Mexican American families and experiences with accuracy. Everyone speaks Spanish throughout the film, and slow, deliberate shots capture Durango’s calming beauty. Still frames slow to a comfortable snail’s pace, allowing for careful attention to the rhythm of Julián’s surroundings and adding to the authenticity of the documentary.

As intimate as ever, Sosa respectfully shares grieving moments with raw footage. One scene powerfully depicts Sosa as she walks through the new house quietly sobbing behind the camera. The addition of Julián singing “San Juan Del Rio” as the credits roll beautifully wraps up the film.

With both funny and sincere moments, “What We Leave Behind” serves as a stunningly intimate remembrance of Julián. Impossible not to love, Julián’s on-screen presence at the SXSW premiere was a heart-warming yet emotional experience for the audience.

5 San Juan Del Rios covers by Julián out of 5