Last month, I attended a screening of the film, Documented, by Jose Antonio Vargas. Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant who is leading the conversation about what it means to be an American, and the struggle undocumented immigrants face trying to become “legal.” The screening was the night of my 10th wedding anniversary. I skipped a night out with my husband to attend – that is how important it was for me to go. Truth be told, my husband and I had a celebration of sorts with a trip to Mexico with our daughter this month, but that’s another story. The screening was at the Roxie Theater in the Mission. I remember the theater well because that is where I attended the screening for Ricki Lake’s The Business of Being Born. I figured that Documented had to be a great film if Ricki Lake’s film was any indication. Also, the Mission neighborhood is in such a flux these days due to the dichotomy of it being an old San Francisco ethnic neighborhood/newly gentrified techie neighborhood. It is that mix of diversity and technology that is the Bay Area, where Vargas hails from. The point is that I love the Mission, respect The Roxie Theater, and really had to see Documented with my colleagues even though it was the night of my 10th wedding anniversary.
Now to the movie – it didn’t disappoint and I was really touched by it. The sign of a good film is when you are still deep in conversation about it on the BART ride home, as we were. I have to describe the movie from my point of view. I am an immigration attorney. I tell people’s stories for a living. I protect people. I empower them. I advocate for them. I reunite them, or keep them with, their loved ones. I help them get to the place where they can “exhale” when the process is over and they are able to live here permanently, or take refuge here in the States when they are afraid to return to their own countries. Immigration is stories. It’s peoples’ stories and lives. This movie is Vargas’s story, as well as others’.
Vargas’s story is that he was brought to the States by relatives when he was a little boy to give him a better life than what he had in his native Philippines. It is unclear as to whether or not his mother knew that she would see him again (at this point, the future of Vargas’s immigration status and ability to travel abroad is unknown), or whether she would follow him here in the near future. As a mother, that was hard for me to watch. I did attachment parenting with my own daughter. There is a pattern, not only in the Philippines, but in other countries, of immigrating without the children, or in this case, sending the child alone. Over the last 14 years, I have seen the devastating psychological effects it has on the children and parents. In my profession, the most important thing I do all day long is psychologize people, so I can best tell their stories and anticipate how an adjudicator would react to them. No doubt, the separation has affected Vargas, and he makes his resentment towards his mother clear. Much of the movie is Vargas’s story of this psychological conflict between his love for his mother and feeling of abandonment by her, and his feelings for his family of origin and adoptive U.S. family, who are his kindred spirits.
His mother is indeed the catalyst in his life. I recently read Dr. Wayne Dyer’s new book, I Can See Clearly Now. In it, Dyer realizes that his alcoholic father’s abandonment of him and his family was his greatest gift in life because it led to his resiliency and life’s work. It’s the same with Vargas’s mother. In a way, her abandonment may be his greatest gift, because it has led him to become the voice of the DREAMers and other undocumented immigrants. Vargas is aligned with his purpose in life – how many people can say that? He is especially magnetic and charismatic in person, and thus a great spokesperson for the cause. His work is humanitarian and about civil rights as well. He illustrates that the truth is empowering (in the movie, he says he “could not live in two closets”). So I respect him a great deal. A great scene in the film takes place in Alabama, a state where I honestly, as a woman of color, would feel slightly nervous visiting. He encounters a drunk bigot and gets him to see where he (Vargas), and other undocumented immigrants are coming from. But we also get to empathize with the drunk man. It all comes down to the fear of this mass of people who will come take away his construction job. It’s that whole, “Are you coming from a place of fear or love?” way of living that John Lennon and others talk(ed) about. It’s a humanizing scene, when the man removes his mask and shows that he is just scared, as we all are. We see both sides of the story.
The other aspect of the storyline that I found interesting is about his mother and family of origin, and Planet Philippines. I say that with love and humor and an from an admittedly American perspective. I am Filipino American (my mother is from the Philippines, father from Venezuela), and have learned to differentiate that I am really American. The mindsets and cultures of the two countries are, of course, very different, no matter how “Westernized” the Philippines is. Understanding this has helped me to recognize culture clash when I see it, and helps me cope or psychologize people accordingly. Vargas and his mother are miles apart literally and figuratively. What is the lesson in that? I guess that it is to be cognizant of it and to try to be empathetic when dealing with people. There is not only a cultural divide, but an intellectual and socio-economic one. However, it ironically underscores the wisdom of his family of origin. I may not like that he was separated from his mother at a young age and find it somewhat cruel. But, you know what? His life probably is better than if he had stayed in his socio-economic level in the Philippines (although I have a feeling he would have busted out of it there, too). A simple example is when he tells the story of how he told his mother in grade school that he had won a spelling bee, and she didn’t know what a spelling bee was. That is an example of the divide. It doesn’t mean that she is stupid, just that a spelling bee is not in her consciousness. And then, knowing that, learning how to communicate with someone who has that different world view. It can be really complicated.
On a lighter note, though, the culture clash provides a lot of humor in the film. Documented is actually very funny at times. Also important to mention is that I think it will also be eye-opening for a lot of people when they discover that Vargas, although undocumented, is legally able to employ people. And employ a lot of people he does. I believe he said that he employs 40 people with his filmmaking company and possibly other ventures. I only employ one person! That’s the thing about immigrants, they are complementary. They create jobs, or take the jobs that no one wants. Vargas is a great example of that.
Obviously, I highly recommend the film. You can’t beat thought-provoking, touching, funny, and empowering, and Documented is all of those things.