August 29, 2011

Taking It Home: A Better Life

The grass is always greener, except when it's not.

I had the opportunity recently to observe removal hearings at a federal immigration court. The calendar moved in quick succession (5-10 minutes per case) and included the first appearances by respondents accused of being in the United States illegally. These were not detainees or, depending on your definition, even criminals, but they were nonetheless up against the law on this day.

Some had been in the country for less than a year, others had been here for decades. Maybe they hopped the border themselves, or through the help of a mule, or maybe they just overstayed their originally legal visas. They didn't explain how or why they came, only that they wanted to stay, for the welfare of themselves (in the case of asylum-seekers) or the welfare of others, such as children or spouses. Each story was different, and yet they were all identical, in that they portrayed lives lived in two places at once - here and abroad, above ground and underground, in comfortable peace and in extreme danger.

There were no tears or emotional speeches or really any kind of the desperation I might have expected in such an environment. Names were replaced by case numbers, legal jargon was interspersed with yes or no questions interpreted in different languages, and future dates and years were planned ahead matter-of-factly (cases are so backlogged that follow-up hearings were being scheduled on this day for mid-2014). It was, in other words, devastating in its banality.

The same can be said for A Better Life, although it unfortunately dips its toes into schmaltz every 15-20 minutes. So many recent movies have been made about immigration, and so many of those movies have told the same story (except Sean Baker's singular Take Out), that it was a little disappointing to watch A Better Life drive down that heavily-trafficked road and pass up possible detours to new cinematic territory. It's predictable and occasionally pedantic, and to be perfectly honest it's hard to defend as a "good movie".

But my measure of quality here has always considered social importance above cinematic artistry, and to that end A Better Life is as good if not better than most films I've seen this year. And it's not as if it's "bad" even on traditional cinematic terms; it transcends most of its flaws thanks to lived-in performances and a steady grounding in reality. Its characters are familiar not only from other movies, but from your daily bus commute or restaurant meal or hotel stay. (Perhaps the most conspicuous characteristic of undocumented immigrants, on screen and on the street, is their stoic work ethic.)

So if immigration-themed films are a dime a dozen, why do they keep being produced? First and most obviously, because immigration - both legal and illegal - is an issue facing not only every state and community in the United States, but nearly every country on earth. And it will continue to be a relevant social issue until, perhaps generations from now, the world will be so globalized that borders will be virtual and national identities will be nominal.

Until that time, if and when it does come (certainly not in our lifetimes), immigration movies will continue to portray undocumented immigrants in a sympathetic light, simply by virtue of their often narrow focus on the hard luck and difficult struggles these characters face every day. We don't see them as job takers or drug smugglers or fraudulent voters, but as honest workers, family members, and people of high moral character. Which the majority of them are, as I saw in court and as I see everyday when I look in the mirror (as a U.S.-born child of naturalized immigrants from two countries).

Secondly, the movies often strive to portray one of the unappreciated realities of this issue: it's not about the immigrants at all, but about their families, both now and for generations to come. Any emotion tied into these stories is related to these family bonds; I can't think of a moving illegal immigration film about a loner character whose family ties are not central to the story (though Sugar and Lorna's Silence come pretty close). So, as filmmakers continue to try to emotionally engage us about immigration, it will be an exercise in who can tell the most compelling story in the most unique way (Ramin Bahrani is among the new pioneers I admire).

And lastly, what of cinematic musings on immigration policies and politics? Put simply, I'd suggest that films about immigration are films about failed immigration policies (and documentaries like 9500 Liberty approach them head-on). The vast majority of these movies posit that current policies are either unfair or irrelevant, and that no matter what the politicians decide, illegal entry across borders will continue, and the stories we see on screen will continue to play out in real time all around us. There will be consequences for everyone involved, and there are no easy answers.

But as I've said before I think the purpose of these films, and all thoughtful films for that matter, is not to set forth policy but to initiate a conversation about it, or, in the case of A Better Life, serve as a conventional yet compassionate reminder of the importance of an issue.

What did you take home?

August 13, 2011

300 Words About: Stevie

As Steve James' excellent The Interrupters made its way around theaters this summer, I caught up recently with Stevie, his deeply personal documentary from 2002 (and only his second documentary at the time, the first being of course Hoop Dreams). Stevie is the worst possible testimonial for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America youth mentoring program that you might ever see. It's also a perfect example of why programs like it are so important.

Steve James was a Big Brother to Stevie Fielding in the mid-1980's. At the time, little Stevie was an awkward preteen living with his grandparents in rural Southern Illinois - he was a little odd and had a troubled family history, but was generally harmless. James had a relatively normal mentor-mentee relationship with Stevie for a few years, and then returned in the mid-90's (perhaps encouraged by the recent success of Hoop Dreams) to see what Stevie was up to as an adult. What he found was troubling: Stevie was well on his way down a self-destructive path, with an extensive criminal record and no clear direction in his life. Devastated by Stevie's situation and perhaps feeling guilty for not keeping closer tabs on his "little brother", James recommitted himself to helping Stevie at least stay out of legal trouble, if not actually become a contributing member of society.

And this is where Stevie lays bare the profound challenge facing mentors in a program like Big Brother Big Sisters, or for that matter parents, teachers, or any adult nobly attempting to better a young person's life. I felt pangs of guilt for past students that I had "let go" during my teaching years, or for that matter anyone in my life with whom I've had a mentoring-type relationship. Were there too many other opposing factors and influences to outweigh my efforts? Did I do as much as I could to make a difference? Did it even matter?

Stevie is not meant to be an examination of guilt or regret, and, refreshingly, James does not frame it as a naive "agenda" documentary or bookend it with tidy steps that can be followed to make the world a better place. He instead asks raw, honest, heartbreaking questions - and doesn't provide any easy answers - about what happens when the best intentions are left unrealized. And the horror doesn't end on the screen, either, as Stevie's current situation is as disturbing as anything from the film's footage, which is now more than a decade old.

They say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", and critics of mentoring programs for troubled youth could use Stevie as Exhibit A in their case against program efficacy. But to watch Stevie is to understand a different reason why these programs exist: not to "save lives", but to connect lives that wouldn't otherwise be connected. To strip away the social barriers that keep us apart and put us (the privileged) face-to-face with the experience of the marginalized majority around us. The reason I appreciate James so much as a filmmaker is because he doesn't wield his camera as a weapon of scrutiny and all-knowing judgment. Instead he uses it as a mirror, reflecting back on us images of ourselves that we can't or don't want to see. What happens after that is for us to figure out.
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