Home brew

New docs probe where the heart is — and isn't

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Sign language: Jose Antonio Vargas attends a Mitt Romney campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Jose Antonio Vargas' grandparents — who raised him in Mountain View after he was smuggled into America at age 12 from the Philippines — expected him to grow up, blend in, and live a perfectly ordinary life in his new country. He'd work a "menial job," as both of them had, and eventually legalize his immigration status by marrying an American woman.

Thing is, Vargas was a smart kid who grew into an exceptionally intelligent young adult. He pursued a journalism career that earned him coveted reporting gigs for the Washington Post and CNN, among other outlets, as well as a Pulitzer Prize. He's also gay, and while marriage equality laws are thankfully evolving, that fact complicated his family's hopes for a traditional wedding (and subsequent green card). In 2011, weary of guarding a secret he'd shared with only a few close friends, the 30-year-old Vargas penned a powerful essay for the New York Times Magazine, revealing "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant."

Documented, his film with co-director Ann Lupo, chronicles the months before and after Vargas "outed" himself. It's a highly personal story, especially when the film crew travels to Manila to interview Vargas' mother. Their geographical separation (she can't get a visa to see her son in the US, nor can he leave the country to visit her) has become an emotional estrangement so complex she weeps when he refuses to add her on Facebook. But Documented also taps Vargas' Define American media campaign to broaden its message, interviewing undocumented youths affected by the DREAM Act and sharing in their joy when the bill — providing permanent residency to young, educated immigrants of "good moral character" — finally goes into effect.

Unfortunately for Vargas, who continues to push back in high-profile ways even after he's declared his status (particularly poignant: scenes at a Mitt Romney rally, where a grandmotherly type asks him, "Why don't you just become legal?", as if it's as simple as buying a car or getting a haircut), he's too old to benefit from the DREAM legislation. He's a "walking uncomfortable conversation," as he calls himself in a lecture excerpted throughout the film; though he feels relief at having come clean, he's still unable to make any traction in his citizenship quest. At one point, he phones INS ("Deportation. How can I help you?") to see if anyone's planning to clamp down, as if finally getting "caught" would be preferable to living in extended limbo. The only closure of sorts comes when Vargas reconnects with his mother via Skype, but there's an undercurrent of helplessness to their computer-screen reunion that makes Documented's themes feel especially raw and urgent.

 

MOUNTAIN VIEWS

Back for its second year, the Himalayan Film Festival unspools over two days, starting Fri/16 in SF with Christoph Schwaiger's Kamlahari. The rest of the fest, including Kesang Tseten's Who Will Be a Gurkha, takes place Sat/17 as part of Berkeley's weekend-long Himalayan Fair.

Kamlahari is a social-justice doc that would be right at home in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Filmmaker Schwaiger travels to Nepal's Teraï region to investigate families that sell their daughters to work in wealthier households, an old tradition that persists despite the fact that child labor is now illegal. The girls are treated cruelly by their "landladies" and are deprived of education and medical care; if and when they're allowed to return home, their home life may be no less abusive, and their relationships with the family members who pressed them into servitude are strained.

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