'The Infiltrators': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Formally exciting, but the story's even better.

Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra enlist undocumented Americans to join actors in recounting their daring act of protest.

A doc mixing interviews, real-time action and reenactment in exciting ways, Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra's The Infiltrators tells a true story so inspiring it's a wonder it isn't better known: In 2012, undocumented teenage immigrants intentionally let themselves be caught and put into one of America's for-profit detention centers, with a bold plan to get other detainees (and themselves) out. Six years later, with debates over immigration even more clouded by racism and specious logic, this is a necessary film; but rather than feeling like homework, watching it is a thrill. Theatrical distribs and streamers alike should take notice and get this picture off the festival circuit as soon as possible.

In introductory voiceover, one of the subjects says he has no interest in energy-draining debates over the semantics of immigration policy: "'Undocumented,' 'illegal,' I really don't care what you call it...they're just different words for 'afraid.'" Living in fear of out-of-nowhere ICE raids that could tear their families apart, some kids hatched a plan.

The 700-bed Broward Transitional Center in South Florida was touted as a humane, comfortable place for those detained by ICE to await resolution of their cases. (Like a hotel, except you can't leave.) In reality, it was a place where people were stashed indefinitely — every extra day they spent there meaning more taxpayer money for George Zoley's GEO Group, whose huge political donations may help them get away with capricious treatment of inmates. The doc says people spent months and years there with no due process, their families unable to get them legal help.

Before we understand what's going on, we watch one of the film's heroes willingly enter BTC: Marco Saavedra, with a phone in his back pocket transmitting audio to nearby partners (including Iranian native Mohammad Abdollahi, an especially eloquent activist), goes to a checkpoint pretending to be looking for someone and gets himself detained.

Marco is working with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a group of "young illegals" (his words) fighting the system. NIYA had been contacted by the son of a detainee, Claudio Rojas, and hoped to help get him out. Marco's first order of business upon entering the BTC population is to find Claudio, then identify others he might be able to help.

The Infiltrators now becomes a prison flick, with a frightened and naive Marco being taught the ropes by the older Claudio. Through him we learn how things work, and piece together the system's vulnerabilities. Marco's confederates have sneaky ways of getting sensitive legal documents in and out of the center, and when those fail, Marco finds other avenues; the directors (and composers tomandandy) play these scenes with all the tense pleasure of a heist film.

The doc introduces its characters first as themselves (with interviews and news footage of earlier protests), then switches smoothly to actors in scenes where individuals come into contact with the detention system. (In one or two charming moments, we meet the real people only after seeing their stories reenacted.) Aside from the obvious reasons to use actors for scenes shot in feature-film style, there's a bonus subtext: Once we are being questioned by authorities or living in jail, we cease to be our autonomous selves.

Questions of personhood run deeper when it comes to immigration, of course. Here, setbacks that would play as comedy in a caper film have sobering real-world ramifications. When Marco's colleague Viridiana Martinez tries to get thrown into the facility's women's wing, customs agents initially don't arrest her, seemingly because she's too smart and well dressed. She goes back to the group's HQ, changes clothes and practices speaking in broken English. Once she has made herself vulnerable enough for the system to feel entitled to abuse her, she gets thrown into the clink.

As this scheme plays out in gripping fashion, Ibarra and Rivera maintain an effortless balance between genre-rooted entertainment and concern for real human suffering caused by governmental policies. They get viewers wrapped up enough in the narrative that it takes a while to appreciate the courage required to set it in motion. America has marveled, rightly, at the high school students who responded to a school shooting with loud gun-control activism. But here are kids who voluntarily surrendered their freedom, hoping to fix injustices done to others. If these kids don't deserve American citizenship, who does?

Production company: Pueblo Sight & Sound
Cast: Maynor Alvarado, Chelsea Rendon, Manuel Uriza, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Vik Sahay
Directors: Alex Rivera, Cristina Ibarra
Screenwriters: Alex Rivera, Aldo Velasco
Producers: Cristina Ibarra, Darren Dean, Daniel J. Chalfen
Executive producers: Steve Cohen, Paula Froehle, Lagralane Group, Katy Drake Bettner
Director of photography: Lisa Rinzler
Production designer: Tatiana Kazakova
Editors: Randy Redroad, Alex Rivera, Aldo Velasco
Composer: tomandandy
Casting director: Carla Hool
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Sales: Paradigm

In English and Spanish
93 minutes