Four Reasons 2014 Will Be the Year of the Immigrant on Film (VIDEO)

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by Matt Brennan
January 27, 2014 1:24 PM
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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."

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