Julio Torres' New Film Unmasks Real, Ridiculous Work Visa Hurdles

The writer, star and director of A24's "Problemista" drew from his own life for the surreal movie.
"Problemista" is a surreal, wild ride into the visa system and the gig economy. In an interview with HuffPost, Julio Torres discussed the Craigslist jobs and demanding bosses that inspired it.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo:Getty Images, Courtesy of A24
"Problemista" is a surreal, wild ride into the visa system and the gig economy. In an interview with HuffPost, Julio Torres discussed the Craigslist jobs and demanding bosses that inspired it.

Securing a work visa in the United States can be a bureaucratic nightmare, with long wait times and expensive legal fees. Comedian and writer Julio Torres is all too familiar with this process. To make ends meets amid his own work visa limbo, Torres, who is originally from El Salvador, often took odd Craigslist jobs while he was living in New York City.

“I was an assistant very briefly ... and not a particularly good one,” Torres told HuffPost. “This one person I worked for, for like one day. She just handed me her cards and she said that she needed a washer and dryer.”

Torres had never purchased either appliance, and didn’t know where to begin when it came to shopping for them.

“I felt like if I was like, ‘I need more information,’ then she would not like me and fire me,” he said. “And then I wouldn’t be able to make rent.”

That precarious period of his life is the inspiration for the new semi-autobiographical film “Problemista,” which he wrote, directed and starred in. The A24 film is out Friday nationwide.

Drawing on work from his actual life was “a little bizarre sometimes,” Torres acknowledged. “It was mostly fine, and then I had little moments that truly gave me PTSD.” Torres plays Alejandro, an aspiring toy-maker who is also from El Salvador and living in New York City. Alejandro sees his life turned upside down when he loses his job and has a month to find a new employer to sponsor him, or else get deported.

The countdown to deportation is depicted as grains of sand running out in an hourglass and an endless maze of trapdoors, vents and locked doors that Alejandro must go through. The stakes are existential: When other visa applicants run out of time in an immigration lawyer’s office, they vanish before our eyes.

Watching the movie, you feel the stress of knowing that every day Alejandro does not find a sponsor is one day closer to him disappearing. “There’s still this idea that admitting someone into the country, or that making it easier for people who have less, that that is charitable,” Torres said.

“If you download an app and the app is clunky to use and it’s hard to use, then in the next upgrade, the app improves,” Torres continued. “And that’s because the corporation wants to retain you as a customer. But the visa system is not interested in improving, because it doesn’t think it’s to its benefit to make it easier. It’s really frustrating that it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky there’s even a path at all.’”

Job and visa application systems have absurd rules, and one of the film’s strengths is in pointing them out. Alejandro wants to work at the toy company Hasbro, but as he notes to a hiring manager, the online job application doesn’t feature an “other” option for people who are living outside of the U.S. If Alejandro loses his work visa, he will lose his chance at his dream job for an arbitrary reason.

The corporations and invisible systems that can decide if you’re going to make rent or stay in this country are also not just paperwork in “Problemista” ― they’re living, breathing characters.

Take, for example, the process of securing a steady paying gig, which can be its own nightmare. In the film, Alejandro needs money after losing his job, and that stress is represented by Craigslist (Larry Owens), a hallucinated spirit who whispers in Alejandro’s ear about Ikea bookcases and shady gigs. Bank overdraft fees are another example. After his card gets declined, Alejandro’s tense phone call with a Bank of America representative (River L. Ramirez) is not just an argument ― it’s a surreal gun standoff.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about emails, phone calls, notifications,” Torres said about depicting the stakes of his and Alejandro’s journeys. “Cinematically, they’re small actions.”

That’s why Torres, a “Saturday Night Live” alum who wrote dreamy, melancholic sketches like “Wells for Boys,” leaned into showcasing the surreal emotions those actions cause.

The film also pays close attention to the ways that employers can deliver the worst news of your life with sanitized language. In Alejandro’s case, the boss who fires him and imperils his visa does so with a vague “we’re sorry.”

Torres said that he’s long been fascinated with the peculiarities of corporate speak. “Most of the people using this language are putting it on as an armor, as a sheet of glass between you and them that they need, so that they feel detached from what they’re doing,” he said.

The audience sees Alejandro trying to channel this in a video job application for Hasbro ― without success.

“He’s trying so hard, and that’s because I tried,” Torres said. “I really gave it a shot and I feel like I was just so bad at it. ‘Following up,’ ‘kindly bumping’ ― it’s not something that is second nature to me.”

This desire to fit into the corporate mold can require using language that is unnatural and robotic in order to be taken seriously by people in power.

“There’s a moment in the movie that we ended up cutting,” he said. “But it was based on a real thing that happened during a job interview where I was desperately trying to get a job. The interview was not going well. And at one point, I just said, ‘I love corporations.’”


Alejandro and his toys. #Problemista is now playing in NY and LA!

♬ original sound - A24

“Problemista” is also a comedic satire about a real hard truth: We often spend more time with absurd bosses and colleagues than we do with our own families ― and these people can teach you some unexpected lessons.

In his urgent quest to find a new employer to sponsor his visa, Alejandro meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an art critic who agrees to potentially sponsor Alejandro if he helps her put on a show. Elizabeth is the kind of difficult, demanding boss too many of us are familiar with — she needs you to drive her across state lines and learn a redundant software ASAP. But the unlikely pair forge a bond.

Though Elizabeth is unforgivably rude, she’s also Alejandro’s first art peer in New York to see his creative potential. He’s not invisible to her. Torres said the bad boss character of Elizabeth is based on a few people he’s worked with in real-life situations where “because of circumstance, I had to stick with it because I didn’t have the luxury of just being like, ‘This is insane and leaving.’”

“That sort of forced partnership really makes you get to know people better,” he said.

In the film, Elizabeth’s rage makes her a monster. When she yells at Alejandro, their arguments become fantastical duels: Alejandro is a medieval knight trapped in a cave, and Elizabeth is the many-headed hydra he must slay. But ultimately, Elizabeth is a monster with good advice for Alejandro on how to subvert a system that was not built for him.

“Who is ‘they’?” Elizabeth asks when Alejandro tells her about how Hasbro’s incubator program keeps ignoring his application. “Get a name and become a problem for them.” Following this advice is what finally gets the company to notice and hire Alejandro.

Torres said one message of the film is that making yourself more visible to faceless, invisible systems can help people like Alejandro get ahead. And in Torres’ view, Alejandro faces the monster, but he won’t become one like Elizabeth.

“We’re allowed to pick and choose what we learn from people. We don’t have to absorb them in their totality,” Torres said.

Torres, pictured here directing "Problemista," said that he did not feel like a boss on set. "I felt a joy in the collaboration, and I felt like it was more of a Socratic seminar-style class as opposed to a lecture," he said.
Jon Pack / FreezeCorp / A24 Film
Torres, pictured here directing "Problemista," said that he did not feel like a boss on set. "I felt a joy in the collaboration, and I felt like it was more of a Socratic seminar-style class as opposed to a lecture," he said.

At the start of the film, Alejandro is rejected by systems, but by the end, he joins them. He has a visa sponsor and now works at Hasbro. Alejandro goes corporate.

But Torres shared that he doesn’t think Alejandro would stay happy at the company for long. “There were earlier versions of the script where he works at Hasbro, and then we cut to like a few months later, and he hates it so much,” Torres said. “And I actually think that’s what happened. I think he branched out and did his own thing.”

“I think that when we are outside of the system, and when we’re drowning, all we’re thinking about is swimming and succeeding in it. And it takes ― at least for me ― a taste of that to be like, ‘Wait, this whole thing’s actually wrong.’”

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