“Illegal alien.” It’s a horribly dehumanizing term. It makes the people to whom it refers sound sinister, literally otherworldly, even invasive. In the poster and title sequence for Documented, the subtitle “a film by an illegal immigrant” appears, and then the words “illegal immigrant” are crossed out and “undocumented American” is then scrawled under them. Many will see this and scoff at the political correctness, but you can’t say that word choice doesn’t matter. If your very language turns human beings into others, then any debate over those people is starting out in a dire place.
Documented is the documentary as autobiography. It’s directed by its own subject, Jose Antonio Vargas (with co-director Ann Raffaela Lupo). It’s a shameless piece of advocacy, produced as part of the larger Define American movement, a nonprofit founded by Vargas himself. It’s also dotted with unfortunate stylistic tics, such as when Vargas speaks to the viewer about his thoughts and aspirations, and the words he is speaking drift across the screen. It’s awkwardly portentous, even pretentious. Watching Vargas shift between narrator and main character is also discombobulating. This is a sloppy piece of work. Since Vargas is an esteemed journalist, that’s another nail in the coffin of the idea that documentary filmmaking is the same as journalism.
And yet for all its faults, when it’s on point, Documented is an effective look at the problems that face millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, especially the so-called DREAMers, young people who stand to benefit from the DREAM Act. Like many of them, Vargas came to America as a preteen. He didn’t even know there was anything amiss about his status until his late teens. How anyone could look at such people and call them “illegal” is baffling. What else were they supposed to do? What are they supposed to do now that this is their home, far more than whatever country they or their parents come from?
The movie is structured as a triptych. In the first third, Vargas explains in brief his life story, how he came to the U.S. from the Philippines as a boy, how he spent his life concealing his status, achieving success and even a Pulitzer Prize as a journalist, and how he decided to “come out” in 2011 in order to advance the cause of people looking to gain citizenship. The middle third follows Vargas on that path of advocacy, as he attends town hall meetings, gives interviews, and makes speeches on behalf of undocumented immigrants, using himself as an example of the positive contributions they can make. The last third, though, is where the movie shines, as Vargas mulls over how he hasn’t seen his mother, still back in the Philippines, in nearly 20 years. They maintain communication, but a tremendous gulf exists between them that isn’t just geographical but emotional. It’s a gut punch emerging from what started out as a fairly conventional doc.
It’s that last act that makes Documented something worthwhile. There’s a tremendous sacrifice made in fracturing a family for the hope that some of them can improve their lot. That’s a pain felt by a good deal of undocumented immigrants. And what faces them now that so many scream for their deportation (and given that Obama has deported more than any president before him)? They’re told that they can “get back in line” to immigrate legally once they go back to their “home” countries, but no such line exists. It’s a mess, and this documentary is a sharp reminder of how real people exist at the heart of the debate over how to fix it.