Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Visitor, and DREAMers Coming Out of the Shadows

In honor of Coming Out of the Shadows Week - a time when young undocumented students have been speaking out about their immigration status - loud, unafraid, and unapologetic - I thought I would write about the film "The Visitor" - which I happened to watch last night. (*spoilers ahead*)

I had been hesitating to watch it since it came out, afraid it would reinvent certain tropes about immigrants being 'exotic' or 'colorful' - 'teaching' white Americans how to get in touch with their 'spiritual' sides with their adorable ethnic ways.

And in some ways, the film did fulfill this expectation. The main character, Walter, is a verkempt white man - a college professor who has taught the same dull class for decades, a man who has lost any joy or spontaneity or music from his life after the death of his wife.

His journey of late in life self discovery is prompted by two young immigrants (eternal optimist Tarek and his cautious girlfriend Zainab) whom he finds living in his never used NYC apartment (because he lives most of the year in Connecticut, land of the beige, of course). And, they teach him to smile, and play the djembe, and essentially suck the marrow out of life.

Despite some spectacular performances by all three aforementioned actors, had the film ended here, I would have been disappointed. It would have fit my expectations - the quirky ethnic person charged with teaching the dull white person to find joy in living. Even the clever parallel between Tarek and Zainab's undocumented immigration status in the US and their status as 'undocumented' squatters in Walter's apartment wouldn't have been enough to rescue me from my cynicism.

But then, the film takes a turn for the real. Tarek, through no fault other than walking around while brown and accented, gets arrested in the NYC subway. And although he's exonerated for his supposed turnstile jumping, he is turned over to the INS and put in an immigration detention center.

I have never seen a fictional representation of the US immigration detention system - although I have had friends who were in fact detained. I have witnessed families struggling to make sense of a system that doesn't make sense. I have taught my narrative, health and social justice class using Breakthrough: Bring Human Rights Home's Restore Fairness video series - a powerful group of interviews highlighting experiences of immigrants in the detention system, including horrible abuses.

The Visitor takes these broader understandings about a broken immigration system and gives it a face. In the way that fiction in fact makes things 'more' real - the film makes particular ideas which otherwise seem overwhelming. Someone who is in this country simply living their lives - even if they are documented, btw - can be suddenly detained, without due process, imprisoned, and perhaps deported forever? It seems like science fiction, or something that happens in other places, not the U.S.

The film also breaks any trope about passive people of color getting rescued by white main characters when it introduces the powerful figure of Tarek's mother - a woman who is undocumented herself, knows no one in NYC, and yet refuses to leave. She knows she cannot enter the detention center and see her son - lest she be detained herself - but she waits outside the building, echoing the resilience of all those other mothers around the world who have stood witness to their children being abused, arrested and killed by governments. The mothers of the disappeared in South America, The mothers who protest against community violence, the list goes on. (The film even passed The Bechdel test when Tarek's mother and Zainab have tea together - appearing in a frame alone where they talk about missing, and not missing, their home countries)

The Visitor resonates with the following sentiment, voiced by a young undocumented woman on the Colorlines site:

"I’m undocumented. I’m unafraid. And I’m unapologetic. On March 10, 2011, we are going to have undocumented youth proclaim their undocumented status. They will tell everyone that they should not be sorry for being in the United States. That they should not apologize for getting an education, that they should not be sorry for their parents trying to make a living in the U.S.

By coming out we share our stories. We put our face to this issue. We are human."

The DREAM Act, which might have made undocumented youth eligible for citizenship (had they passed certain hurdles and committed to two years of military or college) passed the House last year, but couldn't get by a filibuster in the Senate. At the same time 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was getting repealed, this DREAM of so many young people around this country was literally dying.

By telling stories about immigration and the horrifying detention system - real stories, fictional stories - we keep the dream alive in some way. We keep the struggle on the forefront of the cultural vocabulary, we convince people that immigration is not about 'us' and 'them' but it is about what 'we' citizens of this smaller globe can learn from each other.

I know that I usually write about YA writing on this blog - vampires, zombies, myths and folktales. But the story of this country's immigrant families is a story that needs hearing. So today, in my own words, I bear witness. I stand in solidarity.


  1. I resisted watching this movie for many of the same reasons and, like you, I found the first half a bit of a disappointment but then, and at the same point you say the movie takes off, I caught myself really paying attention. And in the end, I genuinely enjoyed the movie, almost in spite of the direction it nearly took as much for the gear shift change it actually did take.

  2. I too was really moved by the movie - even those parts in the beginning that I was intellectually eye-rolling the character of Tarek was really just infectious - how could you NOT like that guy? I really appreciated how his character changed in the detention center. I also appreciated how strong the mother was! Found her moving and fabulous.

  3. thank you! Important movie, important post. Stories *are* good medicine...in this case bringing light to a US shadow that more need to know about! Thanks to you, I will pass on the baton!

  4. Thank you for visiting Brynne! And yes, it's all about passing the baton! ;)