Humanizing Immigration Through Film


(system) #1

Immigration is as complicated an issue as it is emotional. Politicians use the topic to drive their election bids. Ideologues ply their philosophic trade, and it recently came out that private prison corporations are leveraging their clout to pass lucrative immigration legislation. And people are "mad as heck."

With all of the politicizing, the ideologizing, the emotionalizing and the mad-as-heck-ing that dominates the conversations about immigration, it is helpful for us to hear and remember the stories of real human lives and how the issue touches those lives...and our own.

Two films I watched through Netflix, The Visitor (2007) and The Garden (2008), bring the issue home powerfully.

The Visitor begins with a day in the life of Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a burnt out professor, a widower. On a trip to New York where the professor is to present a paper he coauthored, he finds a young couple squatting in his city apartment, from which he has been away for quite some time. After the initial embarrassment and confusion of their confrontation, Walter decides to let the couple (Tarek Khalil, a Syrian musician, and Zainab, a Senegalese street vendor) remain in his apartment.

Walter has musical aspirations but little proficiency. Tarek, who plays percussion, teaches Walter to play the drum. Walter tags along with Tarek to a jam session with other percussionists, and Walter catches the vibe. This is a marked turning point--he begins smiling.

The unlikely trio that circumstances threw together breaks up unexpectedly when Tarek is wrongfully arrested. Zainab's despondency and Walter's paternal grief are equal to Tarek's desperation to be freed from his detention center. It is at this point we discover that both Tarek and Zainab lack proper documentation.

Tarek's mother (Hiam Abbass) shows up from Michigan upon word of her son's arrest. She and Walter hit it off quickly, united by their affection for Tarek. And each other. And hope grows. Hope grows, but like a flower growing up through a sidewalk crack in summer...This film is realism, not romanticism.

The Garden documents an unprecedented community collaboration in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In a bombed out neighborhood, devastated by weeks of rioting, a 14-acre plot of land becomes a garden that allows inner-city dwellers, many of them (legal) immigrants, to grow their own food. The community garden is a source of pride...and division. Local politicos make the land and its use an issue of land misappropriation, arguing that the space could be put to better use.

The original owner of the fourteen acres decides he wants the land back, and amid unclear circumstances involving local officeholders, he announces that the garden will be razed to the ground. The film takes us inside meetings of the predominantly hispanic food growers as they rally to save their garden and with it, their livelihood. When the landowner announces that he wants $14 million for the land, the gardeners wage an impossible campaign to save the garden, drawing celebrity support along the way. But when the funds are actually collected, it becomes clear that the landowner wants more than the money when he refuses to sell back the overpriced property.

The volatile showdown between police and the despondent gardeners turns into a show of brute force when armed riot police evict the farmers. With them, we watch, horrified, as first the gate, then trees and rows of corn and vegetables crash down and are mashed into the soil beneath massive bulldozers. Their devastation is our devastation.

Both of these films wrap the difficult subject of immigration and the plight of immigrants in human flesh. The incarnation of the issue might help us peel back the ideological rhetoric to see immigrants as reflections of our own faces. We are, after all, talking about human beings with stories not very different from our own.

These stories need us, and we need these stories.

Jessica Sharpe lives and writes in Chattanooga, TN. She is a descendent of Welsh and Irish immigrants.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2744