Documenting Ourselves

By Kristin Oakley

More immigrants passed through Ellis Island on April 17, 1907, than any other day. To mark this historical moment, NYC’s Office of Immigrant Affairs kicks off Immigrant Heritage Week on this date each year. To begin this year’s programming, the Museum of the Moving Image showed a preview screening of the new documentary film, Documented, by Jose Antonio Vargas. A panel discussion followed, which included Vargas himself, filmmaker Paola Mendoza, and NYC commissioner Nisha Agarwal. Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and founder of Define American, started working in 2011 on a film focusing on the undocumented youth who call themselves DREAMers, but quickly found that he could not begin to tell anyone else’s stories before he confronted his own past. Vargas “came out” as an undocumented American in 2011 through an essay he wrote for The New York Times Magazine, after having kept his status secret from his friends and employers since the age of 16. Vargas came here from the Philippines in 1993 at the age of 12, but did not discover he was “illegal” (a word Vargas begs we not ascribe to any human) until he tried to get a driver’s license.

Documented, an intimate documentary in which Vargas relives coming to terms with his citizenship status, puts a complex, human figure on the face of a large-scale political issue. The film starts with Vargas’ life with a single mother in the Philippines. Vargas then takes the audience on a journey around America and through his past that helps explain what life is like when deportation is a constant, all-consuming fear and could mean returning to an unfamiliar country. The deeply personal nature of the film highlights moments in which Vargas despises his family for lying about his status, confronts his mother after hiding from her for 15 years out of fear, and learns that he is slightly too old to be qualified as a DREAMer by President Obama’s standards and remains at risk for deportation.

Rather than narrowing the focus of the film to make it simple, Vargas includes details that complicate his story. Vargas, who is gay, comes out a second time to his family as gay. He also includes, in a somewhat ghostly manner, his deceased grandfather as one of the guiding characters. The film provokes convoluted feelings in the viewer, especially during scenes like the one in which Vargas’ mother explains how upsetting it was that he did not accept her Facebook friend request for over three years. Both humorous and heart-wrenching, these moments leave the viewer in a twist. The film sustains many such moments of levity throughout but also brings the viewer to the verge (or past the brink) of tears.

The follow-up discussion had a similar tone of emotional contrasts. Panelist Paola Mendoza (creator of the film Entre Nos) could barely restrain her emotion as she thanked Vargas for his film, and one audience member reached the microphone for a question already holding back tears. Looking to the future, many people asked about how to get involved and what could be done next – but much like the current path to citizenship for undocumented Americans, that path is murky and unclear. The message of Documented matched many of the comments from the panelists and the audience: Get organized. Change the culture. Talk to people. Share your stories. Keep on keeping on.

Immigrant Heritage Week concludes tomorrow. Documented will be showing at the Village East Cinema May 2-8.

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