Runs Fri., May 30–Thurs., June 5 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 95 minutes.
Good journalists don’t necessarily become good filmmakers, even if they’ve got a great story to report. Jose Antonio Vargas wrote that story for The New York Times Magazine in 2011, about how he—brought to the U.S. from the Philippines at age 12—was both a successful, taxpaying journalist and an undocumented immigrant. (That’s “illegal alien” for you FOX News fans.) As we see here, Vargas planned this movie and a lobbying campaign (DefineAmerican.com) before he wrote the story. We watch as he first discloses his secret to student journalists at the California high school he once attended. Are you scared of being deported? one girl asks. Yes, says Vargas, “This is definitely the riskiest thing I’ve ever done.” That he should share his feelings so forthrightly is one more reason to like him.
As this commendable doc wears on, however, through speeches, Senate hearings, and a polite protest at a Romney campaign rally in Iowa, you get the sense that Vargas—now apparently a freelancer—doesn’t really know what to do next, professionally and personally. Having shared in a Pulitzer at The Washington Post, he’s now tipped over into activism-land. Almost 30 when the film begins, he hasn’t seen his mother in 18 years because he can’t travel back the Philippines, lacking a passport for re-entry. He’s in limbo, too, being gay despite a conservative Catholic family. And perhaps because his emphasis here is on immigration reform and the Dream Act (still stalled in Congress), he’s a little coy about his home life in New York. (Does he have a boyfriend? Could he gay-marry for citizenship? Those are pertinent questions, as Vargas the journalist surely knows.)
Vargas certainly personalizes an important issue, but never punches it home as an experienced advocacy filmmaker might. (One wishes Michael Moore had called back in 2011.) There’s a tendency here toward self-validation and sympathetic audiences that works against Documented. When not turning the camera on himself and his family, Vargas gets better results out on the road. In Alabama, a drunk white contractor complains (I’m paraphrasing), I got no problem with you, Mr. Fancy-Pants Writer. It’s the Mexicans who’ll do my job for less than 10 bucks an hour. And he does have a point: He could never do Vargas’ job, just as Vargas would never have to stoop to his. There is justice to consider here, but also race-to-the-bottom economics. The exchange is more meaningful than Vargas’ heartfelt Senate testimony. For his next project, I hope he goes back into the field for more such reporting.