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Last week, I had lunch in New York with Jose Antonio Vargas, the undocumented immigrant who is a leader in the fight for immigration reform in America and whose recent documentary feature, Documented, which debuted on iTunes and other digital platforms Tuesday, could factor into this year’s Oscar race. Even if you haven’t yet seen the film, which received a brief Oscar-qualifying theatrical run and aired several times over the summer on CNN, you’ve probably heard of Vargas, a prominent journalist who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in The New York Times Magazine in 2011 and appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in June 2012. Documented, Vargas’ debut as a film director, shows what led him to make that decision and how it has impacted his life ever since. He and I spoke about the film and his ongoing efforts.
Vargas, who is 33, was born in the Philippines and sent from there by his mother to live in America with his naturalized grandparents when he was just 12. He was a precocious kid who developed a love for reading — especially James Baldwin — and the movies: “My America was shaped by Robert Altman, by Frederick Wiseman, by Mike Nichols, by films — that’s how I got to know this country,” he says. “I decided in 8th grade that I wanted to be a filmmaker.” However, when the youngster tried to obtain a driver’s license and was turned away, he confronted his grandparents, who finally informed him that he was undocumented. It was the turning point of his life. “I spent all of my teenage years and my twenties hiding from this government,” he told me.
Then he began hiding in plain sight. His writing abilities led to opportunities to work as a professional journalist and, though still fearing discovery, he couldn’t pass them up. (There was something about seeing his name in a byline that made him feel legitimate, something that much of the society around him suggested an undocumented person could never be.) His career quickly skyrocketed. “I covered the presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008 as an undocumented person,” he recounted, “on Hillary Clinton‘s campaign plane, following Sarah Palin in Ohio, following Mitt Romney in Iowa. I was scared as shit, man.” He added, “I covered a White House state dinner in 2005 for the Japanese prime minister, and when I gave them my Social Security number — because you have to give your Social Security number when you go to the White House — I was sure somebody was gonna check.”
In 2008, he was part of the team from The Washington Post that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. It put him more in the spotlight than he had ever been before, which was scary — but he also felt optimistic that America, under President Barack Obama, would become a more welcoming place to him and others living in America without documentation. However, in the years that followed, he concluded that he had been mistaken. “If you had told me that Barack Obama, the first minority president, would be responsible for deporting more immigrants [than any other U.S. president before him], I would have told you you were nuts. I still can’t believe it, especially as somebody who covered his campaign in ’08,” he said with a sigh. “He sold and told his story so well to the American public. And how that amazing storyteller could miss one of the biggest stories of America — the story of a demographically changing America — that, to me, is what I can’t connect.”
As the immigration debate exploded across America, Vargas was no longer willing to remain in the shadows. “Every day people like me are being detained and deported,” he remembers thinking to himself. “What do I do?” He decided to “out” himself and become an activist. In the last three years he has traveled to 44 states, visited 110 college campuses and been a part of nearly 300 events, all with the objective of communicating to Americans that the vast majority of their 11 million neighbors whom many refer to as “illegal aliens” — a term he abhors — are actually upstanding and tax-paying members of American society. To spread that message to even more people than he could ever meet in person, he decided to make a documentary as well.
“I thought I was gonna make Waiting for Superman meets the Dream Act,” Vargas explained. “I’d direct it and stay out of it.” But eventually he realized that the most effective way he could illustrate the undocumented immigrant experience to people who have not lived it would be by showing what it has been like for himself. This forced him to consider: “How do you marry the personal and political and not get dogmatic and not get self-indulgent? That’s what I wanted to avoid. I learned that the hardest stories we tell are the ones about ourselves.” He told me that Sarah Polley‘s 2013 doc Stories We Tell, which is about her own family history, was a major inspiration for how he approached Documented.
Vargas describes the film — which he made through Apo Anak Productions, a production company that he founded in honor of his mother and grandparents, and which is a project of Define American, the nonpartisan media and culture campaign he founded — as “an artistic act of civil disobedience.” The film reached a wider audience than most documentary features thanks to its CNN airings, and it has had an interesting effect on its filmmaker’s daily life: It made many more people aware of the fact that he exists and is undocumented, but it also grew his profile as an immigration reform leader, which appears to have made the American government less inclined to go after him. (He was recently detained for eight hours near the Texas-Mexico border, where he was visiting children from Central America who were being held after crossing into the U.S., but was then released back into the U.S. because, The New York Times was told, he was deemed nonthreatening — even as hundreds of children, who were no more threatening than him, remained in the incarceration facility.)
However, Vargas realizes that his life in America could come to an end any day, so he hopes for the best but prepares for the worst, while continuing to lead a cause that has made some headway (prior to the 2012 presidential election Pres. Obama took executive action that allowed hundreds of thousands of peo,ple who were brought to this country illegally to remain here without fear of deportation), even if it hasn’t directly benefiting himself (the action applied to people who were no older than 30 at the time, while Vargas was 31). “Once I decided to go public, all bets were off,” he told me. “I had to be prepared for whatever repercussions or consequences could happen. I was prepared to get arrested, to get deported, for someone to knock on my door. What I was not prepared for silence, which is basically what’s happened.”
Will the Academy embrace or turn away from a film about such controversial subject matter? Only time will tell. In December, its documentary branch will announce its shortlist of 15 films, from which five will ultimately be chosen as nominees. One encouraging fact for Vargas — and for CNN films, which was snubbed last year for Blackfish — is that Documented wouldn’t be the first film about immigrants or immigration to earn a nom in the category. In fact, there have been several: Against Wind and Tide: A Cuban Odyssey (1981), The Long Way Home (1997), Balseros (2002), Daughter from Danang (2002), The Betrayal (2008), and most recently, Which Way Home (2009).
As for Vargas, he’s already on to his next project. “My next film,” he volunteered, “is going to tackle quote-unquote ‘whiteness’ in America — what it means to be young and white in post-Obama America. We’re gonna start filming this fall. I’m doing it for a network — I can’t say which one yet. I always get asked where I’m from, so I’m gonna turn the tables around and ask, ‘Where are you from?’ White is not a country.” In the meantime, despite the daunting obstacles that suggest that immigration reform will not happen in the foreseeable future, Vargas is doing his very best to remain positive. “I think I’m getting closer to who I always wanted to be.”
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