I wasn’t sure what to expect from Jose Antonio Vargas’ film “Documented” when I attended a screening here at Miami last Monday. I knew he would be using the film to generate discussion on the topic of immigration reform, probably drawing somewhat from his own personal experiences growing up as an undocumented American. From what I knew of him personally, I guessed much of his passion would probably seep onto the screen and I knew he wouldn’t dance around messy subjects. I anticipated something powerful and poignant, but “Documented” was more than that; it was intensely personal.
There are a dozen different ways Vargas could have gone about raising the issues facing undocumented Americans, but he chose to do so by turning the camera on himself and telling his own story. Some might argue a journalist couldn’t possibly tell his own story while maintaining any semblance of objectivity. And they would be right. But Vargas doesn’t pretend to be objective. He’s real and raw and unfiltered.
“Documented” follows Vargas’ story from the time his grandfather paid a smuggler to bring him to the U.S. from the Philippines at age 12 to the present, where he continues to live without any form of U.S. identification and no path to citizenship in the country he calls home. He tells of the years spent living in fear and hiding after he discovered at 16 that his green card and social security number were forgeries, all the while rising in fame and prominence as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
He brings the camera into his grandparents’ modest home in California to show us his grandmother in curlers cooking in the kitchen and to hear her speak of the devastation and fear she felt when she heard of his decision to “come out” as an “illegal.” And he documents the pregnant silence on the part of the Department of Homeland Security after he announced in a column in the New York Times that he had come to the U.S. illegally as a child.
But where the film truly shocks is when Vargas allows his audience to look in on his personal relationship with his mother whom he has not seen since she bid him goodbye at the airport two decades ago. He crosses a line, bringing the audience into moments so intimate they’re uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but squirm as I watched the tears stream down his mother’s cheeks the first time she saw his face over Skype. I felt as though I were intruding. And I was shocked by Vargas’ candor as he told the camera of the ways in which his separation from his mother all these years has wrecked him emotionally.
By the end of the film, Vargas has laid all bare, he has held nothing back from his story of what it is to be undocumented, and the viewer is left shaken by the rawness of it all. To see so deeply into a stranger’s heart and life is a jarring thing. It’s a powerful thing. It accomplishes what Vargas set out to do: force people to have uncomfortable conversations. It takes a political talking point and turns it into a personal narrative.
There are a dozen different ways Vargas could have chosen to spread the message of “Documented,” each with its own merit. This choice was unconventional, unexpected and at times, downright unpleasant. But all who watch it, either in theaters over the next few months or when it premiers on CNN this summer, will not leave the same.