Filmmaker/Activist Jose Antonio Vargas talks about hesitation to bare his soul for ‘Documented’ documentary

June 6, 2014

documented posterAbout a week ago, filmmaker/activist Jose Antonio Vargas was buzzing about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel introducing his film Documented, which focuses on his life living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. “It was great,” he says speaking over the phone from the venue after the film he co-directed with Ann Raffaela Lupo had begun. It’s a temporary high, though. He understands there is much progress to be made for those living in, working in and contributing to the United States but have no legal rights.

For Vargas, who was smuggled into the U.S. by his grandparents when he was 12 years old from the Philippines, it’s no easy task to just apply for citizenship or even register for legal resident status. As a child, he had little to do with the decision to spend the rest of his life in the country, though he succeeded at school and a career, even winning a Pulitzer for journalism. For those who marriage or birth right is not an option, there is little for them to do. So he decided to announce his non-documented status, quit using his fake resident card and social security card to work and spend his waking hours striving for change.

He created the Define America movement, and took to filmmaking to share his personal story in hopes of bringing some consciousness about those who do not understand the many exceptions to the  prejudiced perception of undocumented immigrants who just want to make an honest living and have rights as citizens in the U.S. “I don’t think people understand that to be undocumented means to obsess with documents,” notes Vargas. “We are arguing about pieces of papers. I think people forget this. What this is about is pieces of papers, and when the Irish and the Italians and the Jewish people and the Germans crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Ellis Island, they didn’t have papers either, and here we are arguing about papers.”

Jose attends a Mitt Romney presidential campaign rally in Cedar Rapids

On an intimate level, Vargas chose to focus on himself in the film. It’s something he did not necessarily wish to do, as often times, he notes, it can come across as “self-aggrandizing.” He says he constantly fought his collaborators along the way until he came to a revelation. “When we were editing the film, I was like, oh, man, I can’t do this. I can’t do the personal film, and it wasn’t until I started seeing the footage that I started seeing this could work. It’s a privilege getting to know yourself on film. I don’t think I realized how broken I was until I saw this person on the street that happens to be me.”

He does seem proud about the outcome, and as suspicious as this writer often feels about films where directors turn the camera on themselves (see this review and this one, too), well… this one works. “I think many people seem to think that journalists can make their own films, so I wanted to also send a statement that way,” adds Vargas. “Some people question, can you direct a film about your own life, and for me that was really important. I don’t think another filmmaker could have made a film as honest as this.”

We spoke much more, and most of the resulting work appeared recently in the Miami New Times. This blog post, which I provided to the Miami New Times art and culture blog Cultist, covers the more personal side of baring his life for the cause and makes a case why this film actually works as a moving work as personal testament. Jump through the Cultist logo to read it:

cultist banner

This article is a collaboration with a Village Voice article up-dated for the Miami angle, as the director will visit the city today and tomorrow for a presentation of his film. Jump through the Miami New Times logo to read it (it’s also in this week’s printed issue):

Miami New Times logo

Hans Morgenstern

Jose Antonio Vargas will present his film Documented with a Q&A following the film at two screenings, Friday, June 6, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, June 7, at 6 and 8 p.m. at MTC’s O Cinema in Miami Shores. For other screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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