Five O’Clock Shadow, a short narrative by local filmmaker Sangeeta Agrawal, screens as part of this year's festival.
Five O’Clock Shadow, a short narrative by local filmmaker Sangeeta Agrawal, screens as part of this year's festival.

Of all the political issues that divide Americans these days—and there are many—immigration may be the most contentious. As a certain political party stokes xenophobia by exaggerating tales of immigrant violence and threats to the border, the other party finds itself incapable of combating these claims effectively. Meaningful policy reform was last attempted by Congress in 2013. It seems like a lifetime ago.

Changing hearts and minds on immigration reform should be the priority, and while that might be too much to ask of a local, two-day film festival, you have to start somewhere. The Immigration Film Festival is the longest continually running festival showing narrative and documentary films that highlight the immigrant experience. Founded by the Washington Ethical Society, a humanist religious congregation, in 2014, the festival features 21 films (narrative and documentary) screening on October 27 and 28.

The Washington Ethical Society, founded in 1944, sees the festival as a natural extension of its members’ values. “Connecting with immigrants is core for many religious communities,” says Amanda Poppei, Senior Leader of the Society. “Then you add in the fact that as a humanist community, our core values say that every single person has worth. Immigration is one of many issues in which we feels that current policies are not recognizing that worth.”

Film has a unique ability to put a human face on this issue that is more often than not used as a political weapon. According to Poppei, building relationships is the key to change in this area. “As people get into relationships with each other, the positions they think they hold begin to shift. Look at the movement for marriage equality and other rights for LGBTQ folks. People suddenly realized that their uncle, their niece, their sister, their brother was gay. You don’t suddenly discover that your uncle is an immigrant, so we have to show them these stories through film.”

Since its inception, the festival has shed light on a growing need for immigration-centric films. In 2015, only 50 films were submitted for selection. This year, there were 320 submissions, including many from local filmmakers. This could indicate the increasing urgency of the issue with a president who brazenly vilifies undocumented immigrants, or perhaps just the excitement that there is finally a place for the many immigrant-driven films being made to screen for the public.

One of the festival’s highlights is Five O’Clock Shadow, a short film from Bethesda-based filmmaker Sangeeta Agrawal. The seven-minute narrative highlights a tense argument between an Indian-American woman, who has just been the victim of racially-tinged verbal abuse, and her more moderate husband. Anchored by terrific acting, the film takes viewers inside the hearts of immigrant characters who have internalized their own persecution.

Other films to look for include DACAmented, by D.C. native St. Clair Detrick-Jules, which allows nine DACA recipients to tell their stories directly to camera. They Call Us Maids portrays the challenging lives of immigrant home workers, but it uses luscious watercolor animation to bring their emotions to the surface, while Mi Migración uses stop-motion animation to show a butterfly’s migration, poetically isolating the beauty of the immigrant experience. Then there is the opening selection, The Long Ride, a feature-length documentary about the historic Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in 2003. The 2017 film has recently been updated by director and activist Valerie Lapin Ganley with new footage.

Although the issue of immigrant rights has been urgent for years, this year’s festival has a message that seems designed for our present moment. The theme is Stories of Women, with every film featuring either made by a female filmmaker or featuring a female protagonist (and often both). In 2018, a focus on women’s issues requires little explanation, but the festival’s organizers see an important and underreported intersectionality. “Women are the most vulnerable in their country of origin and hold responsibility for the safety of the family,” says Poppei. “When we are able to improve the lives of women internationally, you will get a hugely positive effect on the lives of children and the lives of their husbands.”

The slate of films is full of strong craft and thoughtful artistry, although some may disappoint viewers expecting sophisticated entertainment. Inherently didactic and simplistic, many of the entries seem better suited for thoughtful children than critically-minded adults. Of course, attendees at this festival are more likely to be activists than cinephiles, so expectations will be properly gauged to hone in on the film’s message rather than their form. Anyone who wants to more deeply engage on this critical issue will find a home at this festival.

The Immigration Film Fest runs from Oct. 27-28 at the Washington Ethical Society. 7750 16th St. NW. Tickets are $6-$100 and available here.