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“We serve you food at Chipotle, we mow your lawn, we work at your houses,” Jose Antonio Vargas told a journalism class while speaking at his high school alma mater in May 2011. They also win our Pulitzer Prizes. Documented tells the story of Vargas, a journalist and activist who won a Pulitzer in 2008 as part of the Washington Post team that reported on the Virginia Tech massacre. “They” are this country’s estimated 11 million undocumented Americans, and the film, written and directed by Vargas, is his attempt to further the hot-button dialogue on immigration policy.
Vargas, who calls the film “an act of civil disobedience,” gave the nation a powerful shake when he “came out” as undocumented in a New York Times Magazine article in June 2011. (He first disclosed his secret to the class; they applauded.) In the essay, he revealed that his mother sent him very suddenly to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 12; at the airport, he was handed off to a man he’d never met and flown to California to live with his grandparents.
Vargas thrived here. But when he applied for a driver’s license unbeknownst to his family, he discovered that his green card was fake. From then on, he lived in fear of being discovered. Yet, he says, “My silence was no longer bearable.” After watching an abundance of YouTube videos posted by people cheerleading the DREAM Act (a bill, first proposed in 2001, that would grant residency to those of “good moral character” who arrived in the U.S. as minors) Vargas launched a careful plan to tell the world the truth about his status, which culminated in his Times revelation.
Early in the documentary (co-directed by first-timer Ann Raffaela Lupo), there’s a dizzying montage of Vargas on various news shows and mentions of his professional accomplishments; it feels overdone to the point of egoism. He and Lupo may not have intended Documented to tell his story alone, but more often than not, he’s front and center, and the film delves into the deeply personal. Vargas does speak and fight for others—his public profile attracts him more media attention than, say, a Chipotle employee. But the situations of other undocumented folks remain unexamined, perhaps for their protection. Ultimately, Vargas’ own life is the film’s example.
After the Times article, as expected, not everyone was pleased. The website Mofopolitics.com ran a brief article with the headline “Sign the petition to deport super obnoxious illegal alien Jose Antonio Vargas” that also called Vargas a “terrible journalist.” The Internet teemed with slurs and hatred. (Then again, that’s pretty much the Internet’s M.O.) The Philippines gave him a passport for identification purposes, but it lacked a visa. Vargas says that if, when he flies, the TSA notices its absence, he could be detained. “So we’ll just see if that happens,” he says, a little too calmly.
One of Documented’s best scenes takes place at a Mitt Romney campaign stop in Iowa. Vargas holds a large sign that says, “I am an American w/o papers.” He futilely but politely tries to explain to some of Romney’s supporters—one of whom assumes he’s Mexican—that he’d be happy to become legal, but there’s no official process in place for someone in his situation to do so. (At another lecture, Vargas projects a frustrating government immigration form that proves it.) And then a cop escorts him out.
As for Romney himself, he says to cheers that the undocumented should “go back home and get in line with everybody else.” Earlier in the film, Vargas is conducting a man-on-the-street interview in Alabama when a jerk-on-the-street chimes in, echoing Romney’s sentiment. The citizens Vargas interacts with almost always quiet their bark when he tells them of his accomplishments and frustration with the legalization process. (One couple essentially tells him to use his Pulitzer as leverage.) This is a point the doc could drive home more clearly: For viewers not intimately familiar with immigration law (or the news), the roadblocks Vargas and others in his situation face may not be known. In plain English, there is no “line” to get into. If an immigrant can’t neatly check off the boxes shown on that form, there’s no going past step 2. So then what happens? That’s the problem.
Vargas’ plight naturally puts pressure on his career and his ability to stay in the country, but the film shows how it can affect something so seemingly trivial as Facebook—his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since that fateful morning, sends him a friend request that he denies out of fear of revealing who she is. It makes her weep. Documented will inarguably enlighten and increase the sympathy of audience members who already lean left, but I imagine that nonsupporters will be of the bigoted “But some of my best friends are black/gay/undocumented!” variety. This detailed exposé demonstrates that Vargas is the kind of taxpaying, hardworking, harmless immigrant who’s OK in their books. But the others better get in line.