WILLMAR -- The audience sat on folding chairs in the WEAC rehearsal hall Monday night as they watched a 24-minute rough cut of Luis Argueta's film in progress, a documentary about the 2008 immigration raid on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.
Near the end of an open discussion afterwards with the filmmaker, a woman in the audience got to the point. Now that we've seen the film, what should we do? she asked.
It's the kind of question Argueta hopes people will be asking after they view his documentary, "AbUSed: The Postville Raid."
"What I hope is people will hear their stories and hear their voices and hopefully we will make some changes," he said.
The Guatemalan-born independent filmmaker, who now lives in New York, brought a clip of his film to Willmar Monday to help raise awareness of his project, as well as raise funds to finish the documentary.
The May 12, 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant was one of the largest in U.S. history.
Nearly 400 undocumented workers were rounded up and detained, and more than 200 were eventually deported.
The case laid bare the abusive employment practices occurring at Agriprocessors. The plant's owners now face multiple criminal charges of violating child labor and worker protection laws.
Argueta calls his documentary "the first film I truly feel I'm making as an American citizen... I said, 'This is something that has to be told.'"
The opening scenes in the film unfold at a calm, rural pace: country roads, cornfields, cows, and the small-town atmosphere of Postville, Iowa, population 2,320. Then it cuts to a jarring series of black-and-white shots of children running down a school hall and helicopters thundering in the air.
Over the past year Argueta has visited Postville 17 times, filming and interviewing and gathering information. He also has traveled to Guatemala, where many of the undocumented workers arrested in Postville were from and where many of them were sent back, often leaving other family members behind.
Argueta said he has been drawn to the Postville story by the way it illuminates so many of the key social issues being played out in the United States right now: diversity, immigration, the socioeconomic forces that drive immigration, and government abuse of constitutional and human rights.
"There has to be a better way," he said. "These were people that were contributing to the economy of the town and the region."
Most of Postville's undocumented workers came from poor villages in rural Guatemala, had little formal education and were in search of something better -- a story similar to immigration patterns throughout history, Argueta said. "Why do migrants come and why do they get employed? Because the economy needs that kind of work force."
Poverty is a major factor, he said. Among the undocumented workers he interviewed were some who had been deported and then returned. When Argueta told them they were risking arrest, "they said, 'Yes, we know' but the need is bigger than the fear," he said.
It's a point that needs to be made strongly in the finished film, a woman in the audience suggested.
"I don't think people here understand why they need to come," she said. "I don't think we understand that because we don't see it."
Someone else wanted to know if there's a better way to deal with people who are in the United States illegally.
"I think there has to be a path to legalization. You have to deal with reality," Argueta said. "You have to stop separating families... We've got to deal with reality but we've also got to do it humanely and respectfully."
Almost a year and a half after the ICE raid in Postville, the town is struggling to recover, he said. Many people have simply left, and some businesses have closed their doors.
On one of his most recent visits to Postville, however, he saw school-aged children learning and playing together -- a "sign of hope," he said.
"What do we do? I think that's the question. I hope that we can go out and continue talking about this," said the Rev. Naomi Mahler of Paz y Esperanza Church in Willmar, which helped organize Monday night's screening of Argueta's film.
Argueta said he hopes to finish the documentary "sooner rather than later."
"It has totally changed my life. I've worked on this 24/7," he said. "I just think that this is a privilege for me, to carry their voice."
On the Web: www.abusedthepostvilleraid.com