With his debut documentary feature, Documented, director Jose Antonio Vargas craftily reveals the plight of the undocumented immigrant as ubiquitous by placing himself at the center of the story. It's not a filmmaking strategy that always bears fruits of sympathy. Sometimes it comes across as eye-rollingly egotistical. Vargas, whose mother smuggled him out of the Philippines to live with his grandparents in L.A. when he was 12 years old so he might have a better life as an adult, is hyper-aware of this trap.
Speaking over the phone from Chicago, while on tour with his film, the Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist speaks with the humble charm that makes the film so successful and even moving. "The thing is, as you know, personal films are hard to make because they can easily get self-important or self-aggrandizing," he says. "You can have so many cringe-worthy moments where you're like, 'I cannot believe this person put that in the film.'"
Vargas only learned he was in the country illegally when he tried to get his driver's license as a 16-year-old, and the DMV worker told him he had a fake green card. The realization he was illegally in the country he grew so enamored of as a successful high school student weighed heavy on him. He stopped writing his mother letters. The key, humanizing aspect of Documented arrives when Vargas fires up his Skype account to reopen communication with his mother, who was shown in tears earlier in the film, crying over the fact he has refused to add her as his mother on his Facebook account.
He admits it was not an easy decision to include his mom in the film. "'Til the very last minute I fought sending a film crew to the Philippines to film my mom because I could barely deal with her myself, much less on film, and once you put something on film, it's not yours anymore."
To this day, Vargas has difficulty explaining why he stopped writing his mother, but he notes it has value in illustrating the plight of the undocumented person. "It's a very complex issue," he says. "I mean, of course I miss my mother. I haven't seen her for like 21 years, this coming August, but it's a very complex thing, and I wanted to show this is what happens when we separate people. And who doesn't have a mother? So that's why it's kind of important to put that. I just wish that it wasn't my mom."
That he gets away with making himself such a central part in the documentary while keeping it from feeling self-glorifying is quite an accomplishment, but he refuses to take much credit. "I really lucked out because I had a fantastic editor," he states. "When we were editing it, I was asking Sabrina [Schmidt Gordo], can we limit the number of times you see me being applauded? It made me really uncomfortable having scenes where people applaud because, I mean, what are they applauding? It was a little weird."
In 2011 he announced he was undocumented and quit his job as a journalist to become an advocate for others in his position. In the film he joins activists trying to call attention to the obstacles of becoming a legal citizen of the United States. He seems cognizant that if he puts himself in the story, he cannot betray the responsibility to explore every detail of how he, as an undocumented person living in the States, is affected by this, even if it means deportation. For Vargas, the fear of deportation is mixed with a sense of guilt. "I'm still undocumented," he shares, "and I carry a sense of survivor guilt for having done what I've done. I lied for so long. I lied for pretty much all of my teen years and all of my 20s I spent lying not only to my employers, not only to my parents but like to myself. I feel like my life started three years ago, and I feel like this film is kind of a chronicle of that. As you know, people get deported every day. What do I do? I make a film. I mean, I'm in an incredibly privileged position to be doing what I'm doing."
He ultimately hopes placing himself in the film reveals a universal aspect that plagues the lives of undocumented residents of the United States. "If there's one thing to prove is that immigration is not a Mexican, Latino, U.S. Border issue," he notes. "Immigration is not about Republican or Democrat. Immigration has always been and always will be about families. As far as I'm concerned, I didn't make a film about immigration, I made a film that's a love story between a mother and a son, on what a mother did for her son."
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Jose Antonio Vargas will present his film Documented with a Q&A following the film at two screenings, Friday, June 6 and Saturday, June 7 at O Cinema at MTC. 9806 NE 2nd Ave., Miami Shores. (786) 565-FILM. Tickets: $11; Student/Senior: $9.50; Members: $7.50. Visit website for details.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.