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Following the dream

'New Americans' share their tales of hardship and triumph in an engaging segment of PBS' 'Independent Lens' series.

March 26, 2004|Lewis Beale | Special to The Times

Imprisoned and tortured in Nigeria for his environmental activism, Israel Nwidor was living in a West African refugee camp with his wife and two children when he was approached by some American filmmakers a few years ago. They told the Nwidors they were working on a project about immigration to the U.S. and wanted to document his experience.

Nwidor, who was about to receive a visa that would allow him to live in Chicago, found the concept intriguing. "The whole idea was coming from an unknown place, it was like an adventure to me," he says. "I also felt that most Americans think of Africans as naked savages living in the forest. I wanted to enlighten those Americans that immigrants are human and have lives of their own."

Nwidor's is one of the diverse group of stories told in "The New Americans," a seven-hour, three-part documentary that will be shown as part of PBS' "Independent Lens" series beginning Monday. Years in the making, the film "was intended from the very start to remind the American public of what America is, and how America came to be," says co-executive producer Gordon Quinn.

The idea for "The New Americans" dates back to 1994, when co-executive producer Steve James was editing his critically acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams." James had been reading a lot about illegal Mexican immigration to the U.S. and says, "I would be lying if I said I wasn't immune to some of the concerns about the economic price of immigration and what happens to an American culture if it truly becomes a land of immigrants."

His interest piqued, James began talking to immigrant cabdrivers in his hometown of Chicago and realized that "I never talked to an immigrant whose story I didn't find utterly compelling and revealing. To look at the American dream through the eyes of an immigrant, where race would be part of the equation, seemed like a timely thing to do."

So with the help of various social service organizations, James and his collaborators began searching for immigrants with compelling stories to tell. The filmmakers were determined to cover as many bases as possible -- racial, political, economic -- in each story. They wanted an eclectic group that included the highly educated and the barely literate.

They wanted a refugee story and an African story (the Nwidor family covered both bases).

And because of his interest in sports, James chose to film two young Dominican baseball players trying to break into the major leagues (one of them, Ricardo Rodriguez, now pitches for the Texas Rangers).

Computer programmer

Some choices were determined by the filmmakers the producers wound up working with. Indu Krishnan, herself an Indian immigrant, wanted to tell the story of Anjan Bacchu, a computer programmer from Bangalore, India, eager to find success in Silicon Valley. Renee Tajima was making a documentary about immigrants, many of them Latino, working in Kansas slaughterhouses. Her segment tells how one of these laborers, a Mexican named Pedro Flores, attempts to get papers that will allow his family to legally immigrate to the States.

If nothing else, "The New Americans" has the richness and density of a Dickens novel. Shot from 1999 to 2001, culled from 1,100 hours of footage, the series follows its protagonists as they endure everything from racism to the birth of children, economic downturns to marital problems.

Bacchu, who arrives in the States right before the dot-com bust, is soon laid off and finds that he's one of thousands of people with similar experience fighting for a shrinking number of jobs.

Nwidor holds down a number of crushing minimum-wage positions, loses his sense of optimism and is further burdened economically when he and his wife have another child. Naima Abudayyeh, a West Bank Palestinian, moves to the U.S. to marry but has a hard time adjusting to her husband Hatem's American ways (he's an Arab American who likes beer and Cubs games), and when he becomes more politicized than she by the second intifada, their marriage begins to show serious signs of strain.

But the most tragic story involves the Flores family, who obtain their visas and move to Garden City, Kan., where the six children thrive at school. Yet Pedro's wife feels cut off from her family and persuades her husband to move to a migrant labor camp in California, where they can live in a trailer with her sister. This decision is practically Shakespearean in its heart-rending implications.

"It was so tragic to see how the pull of familiarity, and the pull of family, totally blinds someone to the advantages of striking out," co-director Jerry Blumenthal says. "Here you have the immigrant experience closed off to what's most adventurous and enriching about the immigrant experience."

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