When Jose Antonio Vargas’ New York Times article confessing his illegal immigrant status surfaced, it was just the beginning of the journey told in "Documented," which starts its theatrical release May 2.
Vargas intended to launch a campaign on immigrant rights with his own story. He didn’t count on going through his own crisis of identity at the same time. The film that finally emerged—a very different work from the first cut shown at AFI Docs last year—is a highly personal story with big implications.
Vargas left the Philippines when he was 12; his legally resident grandparents sent him faked papers after waiting for years and then abandoning hope that the visa process would work for them and him. He charmed, talked and wrote his way to success as a journalist at the Washington Post, until he got fed up with secrecy. He joined a movement for the DREAM Act, to regularize the status of people who arrived in the U.S. as children.
The film follows Vargas’ struggle to learn political realities and strategies, to deal with hostility and ignorance, and most of all to come to terms with the mother who he thought abandoned him, who he refused to talk to for more than a decade, and who can’t visit him any more than he can leave the U.S. to visit her.
As written and directed by Vargas, codirected by Ann Lupo, and edited by Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, the film is a highly personal journey that also has big echoes.
“I started filming myself even before I outed myself,” recalled Vargas. “I thought I was going to make "Inside Job" for immigration. But I realized that I didn’t really want to make an overtly political film. I thought, what about "Waiting for Superman" meets The Dream Act?
“And then my own life kept interrupting. My mother became more and more a part of the story. But it was hard, because I was going through the journey while making the film. At first I didn’t want to face the challenge of that relationship. When my crew came back from the Philippines, that was the first time I ever saw my mother move since I was 12!”
Vargas hopes his story leverages a shift in public opinion around immigration. The film’s accompanying website has action options ranging from the political to the personal, including telling your own immigration story.
“I believe that culture leads the way to policy change. A cultural shift has to happen first for a policy shift to happen. Look at gay marriage. Well, now it’s immigrant rights. I made this film to say culture matters. I’m showing this film in Kentucky, in Ohio to conservative, Republican audiences, because it disarms them. What wouldn’t a mother do for her kid?” he said. “Immigration is always about families and what they do for each other.”
Vargas’ next film project? It’ll be on whiteness in post-Obama America.