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Filming Against Odds: Undocumented Youth “Come Out” With Their Dreams

A director discusses her first film.

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The despair in trying to answer that question and the great love we felt for these young people gave us the idea for the film. Film is an extraordinary way to come to care about people you may otherwise never meet. What if we facilitated these youth telling their stories to a national audience? What if that could generate more allies?

Jose Luis, who was 17 at the time, invited some of his friends and several of their parents to talk about the idea of making a film about undocumented young people. We gathered in his living room on a cold January day. It became an opportunity for the parents to tell their stories of coming to the United States.

I felt like I could have been anywhere in the world at any time in history, hearing the creation story of a community. Some of the young people saw their fathers cry for the first time. There were stories of sacrifice and suffering, of parting from the past for the promise of future rewards, of leaving the familiar to provide new opportunities for the young. The young people, mostly boys, set aside their usual wise-cracking and posturing, somberly answering their parents’ immigration stories by telling of all that they wanted to do to make their parents proud, to make their parents’ sacrifices worth it.

The question of “should we make this film?” wasn’t really discussed. After four hours of talking between the generations, the answer from the young people and their parents was obvious. Of course, we were going to do it. We’d already started.

That film, especially documentary film, can be a useful tool for social change is not a new idea. We had seen many documentary films produced in isolation and their potential for inspired action lost. Other documentaries fall into a category I once heard described as “misery porn,” the stories of exoticized and disempowered poor people and people of color. This was a pitfall we tried to avoid by having the film made and the stories told by the subjects themselves. Many documentaries tell stories of individual salvation, with an individual breaking out of poverty or abuse on his or her own, without any particular political or historical perspective. Our desire was to place the struggle of undocumented youth today in the historical context of other waves of anti-immigrant sentiment in U.S. history. And we wanted to show their power, not just their “plight.”

As we began production in 2008 we did not know if we would find youth who would be willing or able to be public about their undocumented status. To do so came with the risk of arrest, detention and deportation. We knew that we wanted the characters in “Papers” to represent the wide variety of undocumented youth in the United States, whose parents immigrated from all over the world and who had a range of personal stories. When we put the word out through our networks, dozens sent in their written personal stories and eventually there were many more people who wanted to be public than could fit in the film.

Moving Off the Reel

The film was completed in September of 2009. In finding distribution, we again turned to old-fashioned grassroots organizing and the tools of social media. This resulted in more than 1,000 community screenings at high schools, colleges, congregations and organizations in all 50 states and the U.S. Capitol during the first year of release. Organizers ran with it. We wanted live audiences to see the film in groups because we knew it increased the likelihood of human connection and collective action.