Documented: Film Review

Advocacy filmmaking at its most personal.

Jose Antonio Vargas' documentary chronicles his life as an undocumented immigrant.

The issue of illegal immigrants or, as this film would pointedly have it, undocumented Americans, is given a very human face in Jose Antonio Vargas’ documentary about his own undocumented status despite living in this country for twenty years and forging a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism career. Co-directed by Ann Lupo, Documented is advocacy filmmaking that also manages to succeed in pulling heartstrings.

Sent by his mother to live with his U.S. citizen grandparents in California when he was twelve years old, the Philippines-born Vargas grew up without any knowledge that he was in fact here illegally, only finding out when he applied for a driver’s license with false identification papers. He nonetheless attended San Francisco State University and went on to become a journalist writing for such publications as the Washington Post, winning a Pulitzer for his contributions to the team that reported on the 2007 Virginia Tech University massacre.

Vargas kept his undocumented status secret as he pursued his career. That is, until he decided to force the issue by writing a 2011 article for the New York Times Magazine called My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant in which he outed himself and advocated for the passage of the DREAM Act which would forge a path to citizenship for undocumented people who had arrived in the country as minors. At the time, his lawyer advised him that publishing the piece would be tantamount to “legal suicide.”

It naturally created a media firestorm, with Vargas soon sparring on national television with the likes of Lou Dobbs and Stephen Colbert. He traveled around the country giving speeches and participating in public forums, all the while fearful that his very public admission would result in his deportation.

Vargas’ story is indeed a compelling one. His tradition-minded grandparents assumed that he would find a menial job and marry his way into citizenship. Instead, Vargas, who came out as gay when he was 17 after seeing the film The Times of Harvey Milk, thought that he could “write my way into America.”

He also suffered a strong personal cost, fearfully refusing to have any contact with his mother in the Philippines and even denying her friend request on Facebook. The film’s final section is its most emotional, featuring an interview with the bereft woman and a scene of his finally talking to her via Skype, for the first time in twenty years.

The film, concluding with footage of its subject emotionally testifying before Congress, reveals the directors’ inexperience with its occasional rambling digressiveness and self-indulgence. But it very much succeeds in its goal of putting its vitally important issue front and center, with Vargas emerging as a articulate and sympathetic spokesman for the cause for which he continues to advocate with his “Define American” organization.

Opens May 2 (CNN Films)

Production: Apo Productions

Director: Jose Antonio Vargas

Co-director: Ann Lupo

Executive producers: Sean Parker, Matthew Hiltzik, Liz Simons, Janet Yang, Scott Budnick, Kevin Iwashina

Director of photography: Clarissa de los Reyes

Editor: Sabrina Schmidt Gordon

Composer: Brendan Anderegg

Not rated, 89 min.