Director Daniel Sawka on the Personal Nature of Icebox

By Allie Waxman


Sparked by his own familial history and an indelible image of a child in a detention center, the director of the HBO Film Icebox discusses how he captured the heartbreaking realities of migrants’ lives in his first feature film.

HBO: The topic of this film is extremely timely. What brought you to this subject as a filmmaker?

Daniel Sawka: My dad came as a migrant to Stockholm, where I’m from, and his parents before him, and their parents before them, so migration is something I grew up discussing a lot. I felt like I needed to understand it better for myself, so when it came time to do my thesis project at the American Film Institute, it was a topic that I was drawn to.

The initial inspiration for this particular story was an image I saw in an article as I was doing research. It was an image of a boy in a wire fence cage on a concrete floor, wrapped up in a space blanket. I didn’t understand where this image was coming from — I assumed it was an earthquake or some catastrophe far away that I’d never heard about. I read the article and realized it was taken the same week, an hour’s drive from where I was sitting, and I immediately needed to understand more about this issue.

HBO: How did you approach turning your short film into a feature?

Daniel Sawka: It was a long process of research where I read a lot of articles and reached out to a few journalists who had been writing about migration and the border. I joined up with Robin Hoover, who created the organization Humane Borders in Arizona and has been working along the border for 35 years. He took me along to conduct interviews with a number of migrants and children, border patrol officers, NGOs, lawyers. The Council of El Salvador opened up their doors to talk to us. From that point on, we collected personal stories of what people have been going through and those became the backbone of the short and then the feature.

“What is childhood? Is it a right that we’re willing to protect? Or is it a luxury that some people can afford?”
— Daniel Sawka

HBO: Immigration stories are all complex and can be very different. Why choose to focus on a child’s story?

Daniel Sawka: Probably because that was the first image that drew me in. But it also, based on the people we talked to, felt like the right way in. Going through it from the perspective of a child says a lot about the system. We tried to stick to the perspective that it was all going to be from his emotional point of view; we were going to go through this journey only knowing what he knows.

HBO: Immigration policy has changed substantially in the last few months. Did you update the script to accommodate policy changes?

Daniel Sawka: We were constantly reaching out to new people and the process of the research kept going — we never stopped. Immigration is a moving target because it’s different from state to state. In six months you can have a decision that comes through that changes things. We were trying to stay up to date and were constantly in touch with immigration lawyers and migrants; it was a very conscious effort to try to portray it as authentically as we could.

HBO: Was there anything you learned while making this film that surprised you?

Daniel Sawka: Everything surprised me. On a personal level, I was so moved by how people shared what they had been through. I hadn’t really counted on how much this would become a unifying process for the people making the film as well. On a narrative level, I remember being very shocked that children were not provided with attorneys to defend themselves. I thought that was a very strange thing and I was shocked reading transcripts of an eight year-old trying to plead his own asylum case in front of a judge. We tried to incorporate all those personal, emotional perspectives into the movie.

HBO: What do you hope people take away from watching this film?

Daniel Sawka: At its heart, we’re asking questions about the right to childhood. How do we as a society relate to these children in need? And what does that say about us? What is childhood? Is it a right that we’re willing to protect? Or is it a luxury that some people can afford?