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Cinema's shifting perspective on immigration

'The Girl' and other films reflect changing public attitudes and a growing awareness that it's a global phenomenon. Filmmakers are also focusing on untold individual dramas.

March 23, 2013|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Abbie Cornish, left, and Maritza Santiago Hernandez in "The Girl."
Abbie Cornish, left, and Maritza Santiago Hernandez in "The Girl." (Brainstorm Media )

When David Riker set out to make his film "The Girl," he didn't want to shoot another heart-rending saga about poor, desperate Mexicans hellbent on crossing the border. Instead, he says, he aimed to create a character who could "turn the border upside-down."

So the indie screenwriter-director invented Ashley, a struggling south Texas single mom who decides to boost her meager big-box store clerk's pay by smuggling migrants across the Rio Grande. But when a tragic twist occurs, and a Mexican girl is left motherless, it is Ashley herself who winds up retracing the steps of the immigrant journey, but in reverse, all the way to a cloud-swept Oaxacan mountain village.

That plotline, Riker knew, upends traditional narratives, both in Hollywood and on Capitol Hill, that immigration is invariably a one-way tale of forlorn exiles trudging north to an imagined promised land. The reality, Riker says, is that immigration is a complex exchange that touches lives on both sides of the metal fences and razor wire, and in which hope and opportunity aren't the sovereign terrain of any one nation.

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"I wanted her to make a journey directly against the migrant stream," Riker says of the character played by Australian actor Abbie Cornish in "The Girl," which opened in theaters March 15. "I wanted to change how we talk about what it means to be an American."

If "The Girl" is only one small step in that direction, it's part of a big leap in changing representations of immigration in U.S. independent and world cinema in recent years. To a degree, Riker and other filmmakers suggest, these changes in perspective mirror shifting public attitudes toward migrants in the United States. Foremost is the gathering awareness that migration is a global phenomenon, as old as humanity, in which people from countries both rich and poor, north and south, play their parts.

"We are all migrants. We all come from migrant families, and we will be migrant families," says Gael García Bernal, the Mexican star of "Y Tu Mamá También" and "No," who serves as a sort of forensic detective in the forthcoming documentary "Who Is Dayani Cristal?"

In that movie, a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the discovery in the Arizona desert of an anonymous migrant's body sparks a cross-continental sleuthing expedition by foot and by hitching harrowing rides on train tops. While searching out the real-life dead man's identity, the film pauses to contemplate the forces that motivate people to risk their lives in hopes of improving them, and what happens to those who get left behind.

Producer Lucas Ochoa says the filmmakers wanted to "move away from the rhetoric" surrounding the immigration debate and focus instead on the mostly untold individual dramas. "All of these people that are, sadly, recovered from the desert, all of them had a story, had a reason that they were coming," he says, "and more broadly, that's something that's true the world over."

In Hollywood's early days, many movies depicted immigrant stories and struggles, from Charlie Chaplin's "The Immigrant" (1917) to the original version of "The Jazz Singer" (1927). Today, the major Hollywood studios rarely touch immigrant-related themes, or when they do, they tend to wrap them in romantic gauze ("Maid in Manhattan") or innocuous comedy ("Beverly Hills Chihuahua").

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But over the last decade, a number of foreign and independent directors working outside the studio system have produced thoughtful, well-crafted dramas about migration across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, including Cherien Dabis' "Amreeka," Thomas McCarthy's "The Visitor," Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things" and Philippe Falardeau's "Monsieur Lazhar."

Among U.S.-based filmmakers, for obvious geo-historical reasons, Latin American immigration commands the most attention. As the U.S. Congress takes up the issue of comprehensive immigration reform this spring, it faces a reality of human movement that in some ways is very different from the one presented in "El Norte," Gregory Nava's landmark 1983 drama about two indigenous youths fleeing Guatemala's savage civil war for a fresh start in Los Angeles.

Although there are an estimated 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States, the vast majority from Mexico and Central America, unlawful immigration rates have dropped to their lowest point in years due to the slowed U.S. economy and stepped-up border security.

Meanwhile, Latinos have grown into the country's largest ethnic minority and soon will constitute a majority of Californians. Politicians who once spoke only of securing the border and "no amnesty" now acknowledge the need to integrate undocumented migrants into society. That emerging reality, some filmmakers suggest, requires new stories that examine not only the journey northward but also what happens afterward.

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