[30 January 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I like to keep my signs, I like to keep a stack of ‘em, because I never know when I’m gonna stop and picket.” Kathryn Kobor shows her signs, which she keeps in the back of her SUV, as she speaks. They assert, among other things, “No illegal aliens”, “We support Sheriff Joe”, and “Don’t believe the liberal media”. Kobor has white hair and she’s fond of wearing pink and orange, her red lipstick vivid as this Phoenix Tea Party Patriots member explains her concerns: “My neighbor could be a cartel,” she says. “How would I know?”
During her several appearances in The State of Arizona, Kobor embodies and acts out a fearfulness that might explain at least some of the popularity of SB1070, also known as the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, signed by Governor Jan Brewer in 2010. Perhaps best known as the act that made it legal for an officer feeling “reasonable suspicion” to ask anyone for identification papers, this state law was challenged by the federal government, in a process that culminated in a Supreme Court ruling in 2012. That this ruling was called a victory by both sides of the debate (or, the two loudest sides, anyway) is testament to the emotional and political complexities of the so-called “immigration” question.
The State of Arizona presents the question from a number of perspectives as well as contexts. These contexts are presented in multiple ways. For one, Kobor first declares her support of Sheriff Joe Arpaio just after a montage of scary TV news reports, featuring shots of armed guards on the Mexican border, crimes scenes, and alarming graphics, version of the media environment that might convince a nice white lady to worry that her neighbor is “a cartel”.
For another, the undocumented business owner Jorge Martinez is introduced while he’s looking for his dogs who have escaped when he opened the front door. When at last he collects them, he’s visibly relieved. The scene is comprised of brief shots of Jorge and his son Joey scampering after their tiny charges, a Chihuahua and a Yorkie. Both comic and resonant, it suggests the dogs’ will to freedom and their return to domestic safety, not to mention a morning ritual that situates Jorge’s family squarely in his suburban neighborhood, in other words, pretty much the opposite of any nightmare Kobor or the local news might conjure.
Jorge’s story becomes increasingly complicated over the course of the documentary. At first, he and his partner Amparo appear at meetings with Puente Arizona and director Carlos Garcia, alternately community-building (a birthday party for Joey) and taking to the street to protest SB1070. When he is, eventually, picked up by officers and jailed, Joey reports the incident to his mother in their kitchen, his anxiety reflected in the handheld camera and also in Amparo’s efforts to hold back tears, while they wonder what might happen next.
Jorge and Amparo’s frightening lack of control is contrasted with the calm-seeming certainty expressed by Russell Pearce, former Arizona state senator and author of SB1070. Though he has since lost his job in a 2011 recall election, during filming he articulates reasons for the bill, from the “invasion” of foreigners to the loss of the two-lane cement road that used to define the good-old-days Phoenix to the icon of American identity he extols to the young granddaughter he carries in his arms, John Wayne in a cowboy hat.
Carefully and compellingly, the film builds a case, not so much that only one side is right—though it plainly sympathizes with the beleaguered immigrants—but that all speakers base their assessments on what they understand, however limited and however mediated. For all the certainty he shows, Pearce’s premise is fear, even if it’s unclear whether he feels this fear himself or uses it (cynically or in ignorance) for political gain. At the same time, the effects of his and other campaigns are hardly reassuring, only insisting that the criminals who terrorize Texas or Mexico are on their way to or already inside Arizona, taking aim at the real Americans, the Americans who look like them, the Americans who are reflected on their TV screens.
When the Supreme Court assesses that most of SB1070 is unconstitutional, but allows the “show your papers” section to proceed, Kobor and a friend sit on the sofa and nod at Jan Brewer on TV. “The main part of it, the heart and soul, the meat,” they agree, remains intact. “If the governor likes it,” Kobor adds, “then we do, I guess.”