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A new focus for stories of immigration

Films are shifting away from the journey itself to the issues that arise after arrival, exploring how the changes affect everyone.

September 14, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

IN COURTNEY HUNT'S absorbing new feature film "Frozen River," an Upstate New York blue-collar mom decides to take a job in one of America's hottest growth industries: people smuggling.

Not that Ray (Melissa Leo) is very clued in about why so many illegal immigrants are risking their lives trying to slip into the United States or has much sympathy for their plight. Juggling a harried life that includes two kids, two jobs and an absentee gambler husband, Ray has enough problems of her own without worrying about the Chinese and Pakistani refugees she's shuttling in the trunk of her car across the Canadian border.

"If they want to come here so bad they should take the time to learn English," Ray blurts out at one point to her partner in malfeasance, Lila (Misty Upham), a wry Mohawk Indian laboring mightily herself to make ends meet.

What remains unsaid in this subtle, perceptive movie, is that Ray actually has more in common than she realizes with her desperate human cargo. Like them, she occupies one of American society's lower socio-economic rungs. But history and cultural conditioning have taught her to think of immigrants as aliens, sub-humans, the Other. The movie's power derives in large measure from Ray's belated recognition of a deeper, common humanity she shares with these exiles.

The representation in American movies of immigrants (and of two close relations, ethnicity and "race") is practically as old as the movies themselves, from "Birth of a Nation" and Charlie Chaplin's "The Immigrant" to "Crash" and "Under the Same Moon." Today, as mass immigration has evolved into a global phenomenon, a growing number of filmmakers in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as the United States are probing immigration's causes as well as its consequences for the lives of ordinary people.

Macro yet micro

Several more Hollywood movies slated to open this fall and winter will explore immigration themes, whether explicitly or covertly. They include "Towelhead," a drama directed by Alan Ball (an Oscar winner for the "American Beauty" screenplay), set during the Gulf War, about a 13-year-old Arab American girl sent to Houston to live with her authoritarian Lebanese father; and Wayne Kramer's "Crossing Over," a multi-story ensemble drama about immigrants of several nationalities trying to gain legal status in Los Angeles. The marquee cast includes Harrison Ford, Sean Penn, Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd.

In a way that's characteristic of many of these new films, "Frozen River" has a global perspective but an intimate focus. Its view of immigration is less anchored in large-scale political abstractions than in the nuanced emotional relations between its very specific characters and situations. It has nothing to say directly about, say, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Instead, it looks at immigration as a dual exchange in which the American characters are as impacted as the foreigners by their brushes with each other.

That reflects Hunt's belief that, in the post-Sept. 11 era, Americans gradually are awakening to the complex, challenging world around them. "We live in a very narrow-minded place," she said by phone, referring to the United States. "The world is getting smaller, and even in the interior of America we're going to learn a lot about the other people coming in."

"Frozen River" isn't the only recent movie to suggest that global immigration and cross-cultural encounters are shaping American attitudes, both at home and abroad. In films such as Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" (2003), the middle-class Americans played by Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, thrown together by fate in Tokyo, are shown to be relatively as disoriented and challenged by a "foreign" culture as any Saharan emigre braving his first Midwestern winter.

In Tom McCarthy's indie hit "The Visitor," Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a stoic college professor whose passion for life after his wife's death is rekindled through his unexpected encounter with a Syrian-Senegalese couple in New York. His dormant emotions are further aroused when the male half of the couple is taken into custody at an immigration center and his attractive mother arrives from Detroit to try to help her son.

'A very tricky issue'

McCarthy's research for the movie, which included hanging out in immigrant communities, attending academic conferences and visiting immigrants being held in U.S. detention centers -- mostly innocent young men with no criminal records, he said -- convinced him that "we can do better" as Americans in managing border control. The screenplay provides Walter with a brief, rousing speech about treating people humanely, which he shouts, in frustration, at some detention officials.

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