It was no surprise really that American filmmaker James Gray would be asked for his opinions on immigration policy during the Cannes press conference for his latest work “The Immigrant,” simply given that title. Still, his response was a solid one that shed a great deal of light on the defining reason he went down the period route (it’s set in 1921) for the first time with this film.
In the film, Marion Cotillard gives a superb performance as Ewa, a Polish woman with a mysterious past who immigrates to New York in the hope of a better life for her and her sister. When her sister is detained by authorities and confined after she shows signs of illness, Ewa meets a seedy show runner (Joaquin Phoenix), who takes her in and forces her into prostitution. With the money earned, Ewa hopes to free her sister and be reunited.
“I guess I’m unabashedly pro immigration,” Gray said. “I feel like immigration is the thing that keeps the country vital and interesting and growing. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, which is where I live, it would be easy to write off Los Angeles as a bunch of Hollywood people — and who cares about all that. But the truth of the matter is there’s a very interesting cultural undertow going on in that city and the mix of Latino culture, Asian culture. They add an amazing richness and cultural depth to the place. They make it really alive.”
“When I was researching this project,” he continued, “I went back and looked at all the stuff that people said about all the groups that came into the United States. 1840s, potato famine Irish: ‘They’re dirty, they’re stupid, they’re lazy, can’t let them in.’ But then they became part of the fabric of the country. Then the Italians: ‘They’re dirty, they’re stupid, they’re lazy, can’t let them in.’ Then they became part of the fabric. The Jews: the same thing. So when I see debates now in which people use code words about Latinos, basically saying that, I wish I could remind them, from in front of my newspaper, that this is the same argument that’s been going on for more than a hundred years in the United States. After a while you have to accept the fact that that is part of what enriches a society. It doesn’t debase a society. I wish that we would free ourselves a little bit from racism and from that kind of prejudice, because I think it’s one of the most important aspects of a dynamic culture.
“Sometimes to speak a truth that you believe in is best done with a little bit of distance, hence the period. Maybe people can look at the history to understand the present.”