It was standing room only at the AFI Docs June 22 world premiere of “Documented” in Washington DC. This much anticipated documentary film tells the story of undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas, his journey from the Philippines to the U.S. at age 12, his prolific career as an award-winning journalist, and emergence as an influential immigration reform activist after coming out as undocumented.
“Documented” is an emotional journey through one of today’s most important social issues, and in many ways leaves viewers with as many questions as answers. As advocates, and the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., wait in the wings for the final version of the Senate immigration reform bill to come to a vote, the film is a timely exploration of one person’s experience trying to stay in the U.S.
Spanning Vargas’ life from childhood and focusing on the last two years since his coming out as undocumented, the film highlights common misconceptions about the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. As Vargas zigzags across the country, his conversations with average people, many of whom demand to know why Vargas doesn’t “just get legal,” reveal how many people are out of touch with the intricacies of immigration and naturalization.
The film also provocatively underscores some of the complex circumstances that drive immigrants to come to the U.S. without authorization. According to the film, Vargas came to the U.S. with false documents largely because his grandfather – who legally immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s – listed his mother Emily Salinas, as “single” when he petitioned to bring her to the U.S. Salinas, who was estranged from Jose’s father but still legally married to him, was afraid her married status would be discovered and derail her efforts to leave, and did not pursue the petition. She still hasn’t been able to get a visa to visit the U.S.
Other cast members in the film include a wide network of friends, family, and mentors – which Vargas often describes as an Underground Railroad for undocumented immigrants. These include people like his Mountain View High School Principal Pat Hyland, his personal mentor Rich Fischer, and Peter Perl, his Editor at the Washington Post – all of whom who helped him in his professional life and have supported his activism.
In the Q&A following the premiere, Vargas said he hoped people would come away from the film understanding the multiple and diverse contributions undocumented immigrants make in U.S. society.
“I think people treat this issue in the media like it’s over there, even though it’s integrated in American life,” he says.
“Documented” tells more than Vargas’s story of transition from journalist to activist—it’s also the story of a mother and son separated for two decades. Vargas reveals a great deal about his own complex emotions at being sent to the U.S., missing his family, resenting his mother so much he refused to speak to her for more than a decade, and building a successful career as a journalist and activist (and now filmmaker).
Vargas’s relationship with his mother steals the show. The sequences featuring Salinas sent sniffles across the audience as she wept onscreen, saying in Tagalog how much she misses him and regrets having let Vargas go. In one of the final scenes, Vargas and his mother talk over Skype for the first time in years, both sobbing openly as Salinas caresses his face on the screen.
“It was really tragic,” says Ann Lupo, the film’s Co-Director and Co-Producer. “She physically could not get closer to the screen. She was staring so longingly at the computer.”
Lupo, a 22-year-old recent graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, went to the Philippines with Co-Producer Clarissa de los Reyes to shoot the challenging interviews with Vargas’s mom. Vargas still cannot travel back to the Philippines because he would risk deportation, or be denied reentry.
Vargas closed the film premiere by sharing a quote from his idol, the late author James Baldwin.
“All art is a form of confession, and you have to vomit it up. That’s what this was for me,” he says.
There are no future screenings scheduled yet for this film, but showings will be announced on the “Documented” Facebook page.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.