[2 May 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Growing up in the Philippines, I always knew I was going to America. America seemed inevitable.” As Jose Antonio Vargas looks back, Documented illustrates: archival footage shows children crowded in a classroom, a city street dominated by a uniformed policeman, tin shacks on the water. But Vargas’ most vivid memory of Manila isn’t visible: “There was something about the air that was heavy,” he says.
The air in America had to be lighter. If America seemed inevitable to young Vargas, it was in part because his grandparents moved to California and also, because everything about this mythic land seemed better. This was the home of Oprah and Michael Jackson, the Fresh Prince and Baywatch, the place where Vargas would go on to become a brilliantly successful reporter for CNN and the Washington Post, where he would win a Pulitzer Prize, and where he would, at last, be faced with a terrible decision, whether or not to out himself as an undocumented immigrant.
The decision is terrible, Vargas explains, because its effects potentially extend beyond himself, exposing his family to scrutiny, and also because it can lead to dire consequences for him, from legal travails to deportation. And yet, at 31 years old, he determines to take this step, after seeing YouTube videos made and posted by Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants who are tired of hiding, of living their lives in fear of being found out. As they declare themselves Undocumented and Unafraid, the Dreamers inspire Vargas, who has, like them, lived his life being afraid of being discovered.
It’s a peculiar life to have lived, and yet, of course, too common (an estimated 11 million immigrants live with this sort of shadow in the United States). It’s a difficult life, a series of daily decisions about whom to tell and whom to trust, about where to live and how to travel. As Vargas reveals his own history, it’s at once his story and representative. That he tells it awkwardly, that his film includes text or images that over-explain his efforts to negotiate US immigration policies, from intertitles to animated maps to montages of Vargas on a stage or driving or riding a train, to generic shots of Washington DC monuments to set up his testimony before Congress.
But in between these conventional bits, Documented makes its case—that US immigration policy is, in truth, impossible to negotiate, and moreover, that it makes impossible any coherent sense of identity for those trying to negotiate it—in ways that are both moving and instructive. First, it draws attention to the illogic of documentation as a definition of identity. “What is an American?”, the film asks again and again. Children like the Dreamers, and people like Vargas, now too old to be counted as a Dreamer (the age cut off is 29 and he’s 31) grow up as Americans, go to school and work and fulfill obligations as Americans, even as they must do so in secret, pretending. That this pretense is framed by a lack of “papers,” once only literally and, increasingly, metaphorically, undermines every moment of their lived experience.
And so this undocumented immigrant undertakes to document his outing, his representation of others who lack his platform and also his embodiment of a dilemma that does have legal answers, if only political stakes were different. As Vargas speaks, as he poses for photos, as he stands with a sign around his neck at a Mitt Romney Town Hall in 2012, he makes visible the inconsistencies of policy. Told he should “get in line,” Vargas points out that there is no line for him, in the US since he was 12, which is not to say his experience is unique, but rather to point out the Kafka-esque lack of process for him and others like him.
Just so, when Vargas films himself calling the INS to ask what the office plans to do about him—will he be deported, will he face other consequences, will someone be coming to his door or find him during his publicized road trip—he’s given no answer. His reaction to this situation now recorded, he continues to live in a state of unknowing, a state that is not unlike the one his mother describes, his mother Emelie Salinas, still in the Philippines. Until her son was 12, she says, they were together always, and then, when she had to the chance to send him to live with his grandparents, she took it, because, she tells the camera that stands in for Jose in her home in Manila, “Nothing was going to happen for you here.” She remembers the many days she spent anticipating the moment when the smuggler would contact her and her son would go, tearful now as then, afraid and also, plainly, proud that her boy has made all kinds of things “happen” in America.
The documenting of Vargas’ story is also the documenting of Emelie’s. As each remains in a kind of limbo, unable to travel to see one another, they struggle with how to stay in touch. For years, they both reveal, Vargas refused to accept his mother’s Facebook friendship. “It’s just Facebook!” she cries, even as it’s not “just” anything, but a collection of desires and dreads, resentments and regrets. Even Facebook, you know, is not “just Facebook,” but another means of documenting, making visible experiences and also performing them, sharing and hiding at once, just one example of how being documented is a life’s process, ongoing.