Questions on identity, belonging in ‘Documented’

Daniel Mabanta
Despite the real-life drama of Vargas' story captured in 'Documented,' the film also tells the story of the plight of so many other undocumented immigrants

STANDING TOGETHER. Jose Antonio Vargas with other undocumented people for a 2012 TIME Magazine cover shoot. Screengrab from YouTube

In 2011, a journalist named Jose Antonio Vargas wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine, publicly exposing his status as an undocumented immigrant. His film Documented chronicles his journey from a child from a working class family in the Philippines to becoming one of the very few Filipino Americans to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize. (READ: #Documented: Rappler Hangout with Jose Antonio Vargas

Most notably though, the movie centers around his current advocacy: fighting for immigration reform in America, particularly for the 11 million people in comparable predicaments – ‘smuggled’ unknowingly and now living in the US without the proper paperwork. 

DIALOGUE. Jose Antonio Vargas talks about his undocumented status to students at Mountain View High School in California. Screengrab from YouTube

The film is intensely political, centering around Vargas’ high-profile New York Times essay, the struggles and triumphs that occurred as a result, and a bit of cross country interaction with inebriated southern white Americans and Mitt Romney supporters to spice things up.

The other half of the movie focuses on Vargas’ personal life. Vargas was slipped into California by his legally residing grandparents at the age of twelve. In America, he shines, first academically and then as a journalist, a far contrast from his grandparents’ initial hopes of finding him menial work to financially support his mother in the Philippines.

At 16, he discovers his true status as ‘undocumented’ and until his 2011 announcement, spends most of his life uncomfortably hiding this part of his life.

Vargas’ mother gets quite a bit of coverage. Though they were once extremely close, Vargas does not fully disclose reasons for the pair’s gradual distance following his move. Whatever the reasons, his mother’s emotional accounts of raising her son and their eventual falling out are touching to say the least. Her admission that he never added her back on Facebook, for instance, may on the surface seem trivial, but witnessing it unfold onscreen is heartwrenching.

All this wistfulness is perhaps a necessary prelude as mother and son are tearfully reunited via Skype. During this scene, even the most stoic are likely to become somewhat misty-eyed.

Despite the real-life drama of Vargas’ story captured in Documented, the film effectively tells the story of the plight of so many other undocumented immigrants in the United States.

After revealing his status in 2011, Vargas remains in a state of citizenship limbo. Strangely enough, he does not seem to be at risk of deportation yet cannot visit to the Philippines for fear of not being allowed back to America. Because he is neither married to an American nor are his parents citizens, he has no clear path to citizenship. 

With a passport from the Philippine embassy, he travels the country speaking in conventions and classrooms, graces the cover of TIME, and spearheads ‘Define American,’ a media campaign designed to raise awareness about immmigration and identity in the United States.

In one scene, Vargas attempts dialogue with a drunk contractor in Alabama – and is initially met with whiskey-fueled bigotry. “Get those mother f*ckers out of here,” he slurs, crudely echoing the sentiment of immigrant-averse America.

Vargas then reveals himself as undocumented, but also a tax-payer and renowned journalist, and surprisingly, the man responds with a good-natured fist bump.

Viewers may harbor mixed feelings about America. The immigrant Vargas is fulfilling the classic American Dream. And yes, Vargas is undoubtedly American, albeit without the proper legal framework. The fact that Vargas – who isn’t merely a productive member of American society, but one of its outstanding citizens – cannot gain citizenship, borders on ridiculous (not to mention revealing an emphatic double standard in light of America’s long history as a nation built on immigration).

Towards the end of the movie, as Vargas prepares to testify before the Senate judiciary committee in his hotel room, an accompanying uncle sums up his nephew’s plight eloquently: “Real Americans? The people who came here to contribute and do good for this country, not just because they were born in this place. It’s a country of democracy, after all, history-wise, everybody here is an immigrant.”

It is a shame then that the most powerful nation in the world, a country that owes its greatness to an open arms policy and the consequent waves of hopeful overseas arrivals, still does not acknowledge this.


Documented will open the 10th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival and Competition on August 110 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines

Daniel Mabanta is a former magazine editor turned restaurant owner. Having finished a degree in professional writing in London, he still tries to find time to write recreationally. Eating, travel, and film are amongst his foremost passions.  

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