From reportorial nonfiction to epic drama, from the couch to the art house, immigrants past and present will be at the forefront of 2014 film offerings — not to mention your cable news network of choice. As the Congressional debate over immigration reform heats up and the midterm election gears begin to turn, here are four things to watch for:
1. If you don’t already know the name Jose Antonio Vargas, you will.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, filmmaker, and “creative disrupter,” who came out as undocumented in The New York Times Magazine in 2011, is set to appear on a television near you in late spring or early summer — after screenings around the country — when his remarkably frank film “DOCUMENTED” airs on CNN. Delicately woven from personal history and political conviction, it is the product of a reporter’s ear, a cinephile’s eye, and a memoirist’s vulnerability.
“It was very important to me for this film to be seen as a piece of art, and for it to stand on its own,” Vargas told me in a recent interview. “I want all of us to unite and to pass immigration reform, but more than that, as a film, I wanted to honor the story… I think we have to embrace complexity.”
Though he first envisioned “DOCUMENTED” as “‘Waiting for Superman’ meets the DREAM Act” — he cites DREAMers’ potent testimonies, posted to YouTube at great risk, among his inspirations — Vargas’ aesthetic reflects influences as diverse as Frederick Wiseman, Woody Allen, and James Baldwin.
“I cannot overstate this: I learned about America through film, through music,” he said. “Culture is at the heart of how we see ourselves as people, and how we define American. To me, politics is culture.”
But it was seeing Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” that liberated him to test the possibilities of the documentary form. It was, he said, the moment he realized he could be “in charge of my own narrative… Can you as a director trust yourself enough to go to places where you might have a blind side? How can you trust yourself to not go overboard? To not make this a sob story?… This is not about making me look good.”
Indeed, “DOCUMENTED,” refracting the struggle of undocumented Americans through the prism of Vargas’ tumultuous journey, is at its most powerful when Vargas’ calm snags on life’s unpredictable shoals. It is in the space between learning that the Obama administration approves protection from deportation for child immigrants and learning that he’s too old to qualify, between describing his relationship with his mother as “purely transactional” and seeing her face (via Skype) for the first time in years, that it becomes possible to hear the ruptures in his past, the silences between his notes.
Vargas remains an inveterate reporter — he began enough sentences with “Let me ask you this question” to make me wonder if he was interviewing me — but it is his willingness to apply tough questions to the muddier complications of his own life that marks “DOCUMENTED” as a moving and intimate work of political advocacy.
“As an undocumented American,” he said, “my whole life in America has been a gray area.”
2. At the very least, it appears that 2014 is the year of “The Immigrant.”
Perhaps James Gray is fated for neglect, or at least a kind of cult status. His ambitious, desperate crime drama “The Yards” (2000) flopped, the victim — per Peter Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures” — of a Miramax hatchet job; even the praise for “Two Lovers” (2009) seems tepid given that its sensuous, troubled rendering of a jagged love triangle is one of the last decade’s great New York romances.
Now his period drama “The Immigrant,” which premiered in competition at Cannes to middling reviews, wallows in indeterminacy: picked up by Radius-TWC for concurrent VOD and theatrical release in early 2014, the exact date remains unclear. Anne Thompson’s description of the script (“listless and repetitive”) gives me pause, but the narrative of a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) caught between a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a magician (Jeremy Renner) in Jazz Age Manhattan — not to mention Gray’s directorial bona fides — seem to ensure that his will be a bold, distinctive take on border crossings. I wouldn’t expect anything less.
3. One of the year’s most anticipated biopics has everything to do with immigration, whether the film’s backers like it or not.
Executives for Participant Media, set to release “Cesar Chavez: An American Hero” (starring Michael Pena) on March 28, may consider immigration policy “apart from” the film’s narrative, which follows the Arizona-born labor icon’s leadership of the 1965 Delano, California farm workers’ strike and the national grape boycott that accompanied it. (Richard Ray Perez’s documentary about Chavez’s spiritual devotion to the cause, “Cesar’s Last Fast,” screened at Sundance.)
But “Y Tu Mama Tambien” heartthrob Diego Luna’s drama is not only a transnational production, funded in part by Luna, Pablo Cruz, and Gael Garcia Bernal’s Mexico City-based Canana Films and shot on location in the Mexican state of Sonora. It’s also the most visible film yet to depict the United Farm Workers, a union that counted numerous Mexican and Filipino immigrants and first-generation Americans among its rank-and-file. Whether the film engages the complications of Chavez’s own changing views on unauthorized immigrants and guest workers or hews to the traditional biopic’s more straightforward arc remains to be seen. Either way, “Cesar Chavez: An American Hero” promises, in the current political climate, to provoke debate.
4. In the new film “The State of Arizona,” local politics hold national implications.
Embracing a series of poignant juxtapositions — between legislative debate and direct action, Tea Party rallies and ESL courses — Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini’s timely documentary emerges as a compelling work of pro-immigrant advocacy not because it is opinionated, but because it is fair.
Airing tonight at 10/9c on PBS’ “Independent Lens,” “The State of Arizona” strikes a chord of journalistic balance. Sandoval and Tambini recognize that one need not misrepresent the views of figures like Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County and a hero of nativist politics, to convey the xenophobia that imbues anti-immigrant sentiment. Even the strenuously polite Kathryn Kobor, a focal point of the film, cannot temper her racialized vision of dystopia. “If you’re illegal, go home,” she says. “I don’t want to live like I’m in Calcutta!” Set against Jorge Martinez and Ampero Mendez, undocumented immigrants operating an ice cream truck and raising a teenage son, it’s Kobor and her compatriots who seem most likely to go rogue. All it takes to achieve border security, one anti-immigrant protestor’s shirt contends on this point, is ammunition and good aim.
Glimpses of the rationale behind such language, namely misplaced frustration with structural economic changes that have made labor cheap and homes worthless, prove too complex for Sandoval and Tambini to pursue at length. The film succeeds more as a snapshot of grassroots organizing on both sides than as an analysis of the immigration debate’s sociopolitical underpinnings. Even so, as the camera rolls, the core illogic of the anti-immigrant position becomes clear: Kobor, nostalgic for an Arizona that supposedly was, traces her ancestry, like so many Americans, to somewhere else. As “The State of Arizona” communicates with assurance, it’s precisely because belonging is in the eye of the beholder that rights must be universal.