As long as movies have existed, they have shown immigrants flocking to America for a better life. But in post-9/11 America, where security concerns have made illegal immigration one of the most divisive issues of our day, the era of uplift is over. In today's films, an immigrant coming to America without the proper papers is likely to be tossed into a detention center and kicked out of the country.
That's a central theme in "The Visitor," a new drama from Tom McCarthy that has its world premiere Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. McCarthy's follow-up to "The Station Agent," his critically praised 2003 film, "The Visitor" is perhaps the most anticipated film up for acquisition at the festival, which gave the movie its coveted Friday-night opening acquisition slot.
"If Toronto were a store, we're in the front window," says Michael London, whose Groundswell Productions co-financed the film with Participant Productions. "It's a small story, but we think it has a big reach, since it's about an issue that is becoming a very big part of the public consciousness."
After watching the movie, I can understand why the festival is so eager to offer it a showcase slot. In recent years, the Toronto festival has spotlighted a growing number of films about social concerns. ("Under the Same Moon," an upcoming Fox Searchlight film playing the festival, tackles similar immigration issues, seen through the eyes of a mother and son separated on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.) However, the festival also celebrates personal filmmaking. And "The Visitor" is, at its best, a potent combination of the two -- an affecting tale of friendship given extra depth by its depiction of America's growing crackdown on illegal immigrants.
As McCarthy, a third-generation member of an Irish Catholic family from New Jersey, puts it: "Our new Ellis Island is our detention centers."
The film's central character is an unlikely hero -- Walter Vale, a widowed college professor who is burned out after years of teaching economics in suburban Connecticut. Played by the veteran character actor Richard Jenkins, best known for his appearances in Farrelly brothers and Coen brothers films, Walter drives to New York City for a conference only to discover a young immigrant couple -- Tarek and Zainab -- occupying his vacant apartment.
A lover of music, Walter strikes up a friendship with Tarek, an exuberant young Syrian djembe drummer. But after a chance encounter with city police, Tarek, who has no papers, is put into a detention center in Queens. Since both Tarek's mother and girlfriend are illegal, Walter becomes Tarek's sole contact with the outside world. His visits strengthen his bond with both Tarek and the musician's mother, played by Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, who sees Walter as a kindred spirit.
It's hardly a surprise that McCarthy, 41, was a working actor for years before turning to directing, since "The Visitor" is, at its heart, an actor's film, full of quiet, emotional performances. The film also offers a striking example of how much inspiration filmmakers can draw from real-world experience. After "The Station Agent" received a sheaf of critical accolades, the State Department asked McCarthy to screen it in Beirut and Oman. McCarthy ended up returning to Beirut to work with young filmmakers there, which also led to him making a number of contacts in New York's Arab community.
Finding himself stymied by writer's block after 9/11, McCarthy joined Sojourners, a ministry operating out of New York's Riverside Church that encourages people to establish relationships with detained immigrants cut off from friends or relatives. McCarthy began visiting several detainees, including a Nigerian immigrant who'd been held in a detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., for more than three years.
A big part of the film's narrative came out of that relationship. "I got sucked into his story just the way Walter does in the movie," says McCarthy, who, wearing his actor's hat, has just finished shooting a central role for the final season of "The Wire." "The whole experience was pretty stunning. These people are our version of the disappeared. They've been stuck away and no one knows they're there. By the time I met this Nigerian guy, all he wanted was to be deported. He felt what had happened to him was just as scary and even more depressing than being in prison."
It's possible McCarthy will take heat from anti-immigration activists, because his characters are largely portrayed in a positive light. On one of Walter's trips to see Tarek, the frustrated detainee complains, "There are no terrorists in here!" McCarthy says the dialogue is "almost exactly what one of the guys I visited said. He kept going, 'We're just here to earn money. Isn't that why people come to this country? The real terrorists are the kind of people who walk into an airport with bad papers!' "