Oscar-Nominated Filmmakers Join Festival Centering on Immigrants to Debut in Iowa Before Caucuses (Exclusive)

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Jose Antonio Vargas

Journalist/filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas teams up with 'A Better Life' director Chris Weitz and actor Demian Bichir to helm nonprofit Define American's three-day Des Moines event to counter GOP rhetoric. Says Weitz, "They're stirring up hate."

With Iowa’s presidential caucuses less than a month away, a coalition of activists and Hollywood filmmakers are hoping to redirect the conversation on at least one crucial issue — immigration — with a film festival in the Hawkeye State that will showcase a lineup of movies about immigrants in America.

The Define American Film Festival, organized by Define American, a nonprofit media and culture organization founded by journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas, will open Jan. 21 with the Oscar-nominated film A Better Life. The pic’s director Chris Weitz will be in attendance, along with Demian Bichir, who earned a best actor nomination for playing an undocumented worker in the film. (Weitz recently wrote the script for Cinderella, and Bichir stars in Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight.) 

The three-day event also will feature screenings of Mother of George, Meet the Patels, The Joy Luck Club, Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie) and Vargas’ film Documented. The short selection will include Ellis, directed by artist JR and starring Robert De Niro. Each movie will be followed by a panel discussion featuring filmmakers, immigration experts, castmembers and local journalists.

“We think of the Define American Film Festival as an essential way to humanize a very political and partisan issue of immigration and an opportunity to celebrate immigrants in Iowa, documented and undocumented,” Vargas told The Hollywood Reporter. “All eyes will be on Iowa because of the caucuses, and there's no better place to host our inaugural film festival than in Des Moines.” 

Vargas, who “came out” as an undocumented Filipino immigrant after winning a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Washington Post, told THR that he became disturbed by the anti-immigrant caricatures that have become a staple of the Republican presidential candidate race.

“When I listen to the candidates, it’s hard to believe they are talking about actual human beings,” said Vargas. “It’s like they’re talking about insects. It’s very inhumane.”

Like Vargas, Weitz told THR that he hopes the festival will provide a humanizing counterpoint to the GOP’s campaign rhetoric, which has veered sharply to the right since Donald Trump entered the race describing undocumented Mexican newcomers as “rapists” and “thieves” and vowing to construct a wall along the U.S.’ southern border. Since then, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — currently leading in Iowa — and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, once a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, have taken similarly hardline positions.

“I don’t think they believe everything they say,” Weitz said of the Republican candidates. “I believe they are pandering to the base — to the basest of base. But what they say does damage. Besides getting votes and the support they are hoping for, they are stirring up hate.”

While Iowa is now home to a substantial number of Latino immigrants attracted by jobs in the food processing industry, Define American hopes its fest will acquaint the films’ audiences with the very large number of immigrants from other regions.  

“I cannot think of a more important place to have an immigrant-themed film festival than Iowa,” said Vargas. “It would be much easier to have in L.A. or New York or Chicago, but if we really want to go to the heart of conversation, it made sense to go to Iowa.”  

Vargas noted that the foreign-born share of Iowa’s population rose from 1.6 percent in 1990 to 4.8 percent in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Unauthorized immigrants comprised roughly 1.4 percent of the state’s population (or 40,000 people) in 2012, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center. The Latino share of Iowa’s population grew from 1.2 percent in 1990 to 2.8 percent in 2000 and to 5.4 percent (or 166,925 people) in 2013. Meanwhile, the Asian share of the population grew from 0.9 percent in 1990 to 2.1 percent (or 63,431 people) in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“There is room for all kinds of opinions on immigration,” said Weitz. “The solution will be achieved on both sides of the aisle, but the first step has to be in viewing immigrants as human beings. When you watch a film, it’s very hard to view that person on the screen as ‘the other.’ A film is an empathy machine.”

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