For actor-director-writer Tom McCarthy, a film's politics begins with a good story. It's his answer to one of activist Hollywood's oldest questions: How do you make a movie that appeals to both emotions and conscience without leaving audiences feeling as if they have been hit between the eyes with a stack of propaganda?
It's all about art with a purpose, and done with subtlety, McCarthy says. You never want to impose an issue on a film, rather you want to concentrate on the narrative and the characters, and the effect will follow.
"It's a matter of using humor and drama to put a human face on an issue," McCarthy said in a recent interview.
This week, the 39-year-old McCarthy puts his theory to the test with "The Visitor."
The movie, his second as a writer and director, which opens today in Los Angeles and New York, is about a widowed professor who finds two immigrants living illegally in his New York City apartment. As the professor, played by Richard Jenkins, becomes friends with his tenants, he follows them into the labyrinth of America's immigration system and further into its obscure web of holding facilities and prisons.
The movie shows the audience a legal no man's land where procedures are flexible and rights are virtually nonexistent.
McCarthy learned about the U.S. immigration lockups while screening his acclaimed 2003 movie, "The Station Agent," in the Middle East. He wanted to know more and, when he got back home, started asking questions and visiting the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's jails.
What he discovered surprised him: There are more than 27,000 people detained on any given day at more than 330 immigrant lockups. The number of illegal immigrants spending time in detention increased from 95,214 in 2001 to 283,115 in 2006. And about 85% of the detainees are without legal representation.
"Look, I'm no expert on immigration law," said McCarthy, who went to visit several of the facilities, including one outside New York City, where he met a Nigerian man who had been held for three years. "But you have to wonder, could it be handled differently? We need to figure out a way so illegal immigrants don't become the disappeared of our generation. Are these detention centers the new Ellis Island? There are no easy answers, but we have to do better than this."
McCarthy, who has also acted in "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Syriana," (both released by Participant Productions, which is a co-producer of "The Visitor") had been nurturing an idea of doing a movie about an aging professor who had lost his wife and his passion for his job. He was also interested in capturing on film some of the music and culture of the Middle East.
Coupled with the underlying immigration question, McCarthy figured he had the ingredients for a movie. The executives at the politically engaged Participant backed his formula: Let the story be the power, not an ad for a certain political thought.
As with many of the company's films, Participant is preparing to launch a campaign to make audiences aware of the issues the film tackles. The company, which helped finance former Vice President Al Gore's global warming movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," has a multipronged effort timed to coincide with the release of "The Visitor."
"The social action campaign offers the public an opportunity to become more educated and involved in a proactive way through workshops, continuing legal education, visitation programs and, hopefully, inspire a more informed debate," said Bonnie Abaunza, Participant's vice president of social action, who is organizing the effort. The production house is also launching a Web page on the issue (www.take part.com/thevisitor).
Recently, representatives from more than 70 social action groups and foundations, including the U.S. Human Rights Fund and Amnesty International, attended a screening at the Bryant Park Hotel in New York City.
Among those watching was billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who legally immigrated to the U.S. and made a fortune in the financial markets. Soros said he was impressed with the beauty and subtle power of "The Visitor."
"It's time to start recognizing how intolerable the conditions are," Soros said. "The issue was understated in the movie; it was the background of it. I presume it will generate some discussion. If it catches on, a lot of people will get a dose of reality."