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

A director discusses her first film.
 
 
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 My first feature-length documentary film, “Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth,” was produced by a scrappy crew, undocumented and documented, old and young, straight and queer, people of many races, ethnicities and religions who came together to make a film and ward off our own despair. There was an urgency to our endeavor. If only others knew these young people as we did, we were certain they would support their movement for self-determination and liberation.

“Papers” is the story of undocumented youth and the challenges they face as they turn 18 without legal status. More than two million undocumented children live in the U.S. today, most with no path to obtain citizenship. These are youth who were born outside the U.S. and yet know only the U.S. as home. The film highlights five undocumented youth who are “American” in every sense but their legal paperwork. Their parents brought them as babies and young children from Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico and South Korea for all the same reasons families have immigrated to the U.S. throughout American history. We hoped the film would educate, inspire and mobilize viewers to support undocumented youth and efforts to change immigration law, such as the DREAM Act and Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

We had more experience in community organizing than experience in filmmaking when we started. We made the film against a current of “you can’t.” Many cautioned us against high expectations and warned us that the film might take five to seven years to complete. We didn’t have that time. The young people who made the film with us were in some ways barely keeping their heads above water as the weight of the future pressed down upon them.

The challenge of “you can’t raise the money, especially in this economy” was met with a grassroots campaign in which 1,400 people from 22 states made modest donations because they wanted to see these stories told. Our crew organized house parties and fundraising events, and used the “old” as well as the “new” tools of social activism from phone calls and mailings to Twitter and Facebook. These donors felt like they owned a piece of the film even before it came out.

My partner, Rebecca Shine (who eventually took on the role as producer of “Papers”) and I had been mentoring some young people in North Portland, Oregon, many of them undocumented, some of whom lived at the periphery of gang-life. We trained them with job skills, helped them catch up on school credits, made sure they got glasses when they needed them, listened to their big and small problems.

Fighting Against Despair

We asked of them what most adults would ask: stay in school, stay away from drugs and gangs, work hard. When obstacles arose, those who were undocumented would ask, “Why should I bother? Why does it matter if I finish school? I can’t get a job. I can’t afford to go to college. I don’t have a future.” But with the remarkable resilience of so many who keep going in the face of daunting odds, they kept trying. They graduated. They stayed out of trouble.

At one point, one of the boys’ mothers was arrested in an immigration raid at her workplace, a raid that shook up the entire community. Soon after, driver’s licenses and state IDs were no longer accessible to undocumented people in our state. The tide was changing, locally and nationally. The economy was failing. The ideal circumstances for scapegoating were arising. In 2008, in the midst of the continued and increased hysteria, racism and xenophobia, one young man, Cesar, asked Rebecca, “Why do they hate us so much?”

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.

One of the most important outcomes personally and politically was that undocumented young people saw themselves and their lives reflected on the screen. They found themselves surrounded by unforeseen allies who asked, “what can we do?” During discussions, young people in the audience often “came out” as undocumented, sometimes for the first time.

Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of youth who have gone public. The undocumented youth movement, sometimes referred to as the DREAM Act movement, though passage of this bill is not their sole goal, has gained enormous momentum over the last ten years since the DREAM Act was first introduced in Congress.

These activists know that they are standing on the shoulders of generations of activists who have come before them and consciously use language and tactics from the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement and the LGBTQ rights movement. Starting in March of 2010, undocumented youth began a series of “Coming Out of the Shadows” events in front of federal buildings and in the press. Marches, protests, hunger strikes and civil disobedience followed.

So much has changed in the movement since we wrapped filming for “Papers” in June 2009 and I feel compelled to continue to document this history as it unfolds. In June 2011 in Atlanta, I went to film six young people “come out” as “undocumented and unafraid” inside the Georgia State Capitol. A capitol security guard said to me, “I have seen a lot of things. I have never seen anything like this.”

More than a hundred people marched around several downtown blocks to the Capitol to protest Georgia HB 87, an anti-immigrant law that criminalizes giving an undocumented immigrant a ride in a car, among other things, and that many fear will contribute to racial profiling. As the students stood at the corner in the sweltering heat before their civil disobedience action, one of the young women, a recent high school graduate, who was about to sit down in the middle of an intersection and risk injury, arrest and deportation, winked at me.

My response was a sudden exhalation of breath, somewhere between a chuckle and a sob. My job is to be an active witness, to put my camera and sometimes my body in the way of the madness going on right now. I believe that our job, as thinking, caring U.S. citizens is to step up as allies and follow the lead of these young leaders, to say enough is enough and to stop this absurd scapegoating of our young people and their hard-working parents.

We produced “Papers” as a tool to help make this untenable situation for undocumented youth real for thousands of viewers who have put their concern and outrage into action and have brought the issue into the forefront of political debate. Our scrappy crew could not ask for more.