Washington, DC - Oscar Hagelsieb was surprised when he got the call. Sure, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Assistant Special Agent in Charge was proud of the work he did investigating criminal cartels, but he didn’t think it was that extraordinary - much less important enough to be featured in a documentary. He was just going to work every day and doing the best job he could.
It wasn’t until Bernando Ruiz, who was in the process of writing and directing a film that would highlight the realities and consequences of drug trafficking along the United States – Mexico border, contacted Hagelsieb and began to interview him that he began to fully reflect on the significance of his job. As Hagelsieb began to share his personal experiences, he realized that the work he does was far from normal, and inherently presented challenges that most Americans will never be faced with.
“As I got into the interview and began telling my stories to Bernando, it was very eye-opening to me, Hagelsieb said. “I didn’t realize how not ordinary my life was.”
“Kingdom of Shadows,” premiered Monday, March 16, at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The film follows three people grappling with the hard choices and destructive consequences associated with the illicit drug trade.” In the film, Ruiz weaves together three seemingly disconnected stories that show the human side of an often-misunderstood conflict.
To share the reality of the experiences many go through in grappling with these issues, Ruiz used an activist nun in Monterrey, Mexico, a U.S. federal agent on the border and a former Texas smuggler to help tell this story. Hagelsieb’s role was to present the perspective of a U.S. law enforcement officer. Specifically, he provides a compelling story of someone who grew up in a border town directly impacted by drug trafficking, who would later become a U.S. federal agent, aggressively investigating the crimes that affected that same area he knows so well.
“The experience made me realize how fortunate I’ve been to become a successful agent,” Hagelsieb said. “I grew up in a very poor area where a lot of friends I knew from high school are either in jail, involved in the cartel or have been killed.”
Hagelsieb, who has been with ICE since its inception, shared experiences of growing up in Socorro, Texas, and the difficulties many have resisting the temptation of becoming involved in drugs. While proud of his Mexican-American heritage, he understands he doesn’t fit the mold of a “typical” agent. Because of that, one of Hagelsieb’s goals in telling his story was to let people know that you can’t put everyone in a box simply because of where they come from. He also wanted to represent the many undercover agents that work in the shadows and whose work may go unnoticed because of its very nature.
“What I really wanted people to take away from the film is that ICE is not the bad guys, which many immigrants in poor areas along the border think,” Hagelsieb said. "I am a little overwhelmed with the reaction I'm getting from people who are watching the film. It's refreshing to hear people tell me they appreciate what we (HSI) do."