By Daniel Barnes
*Opening today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, and at Rialto Cinemas in Berkeley and Sebastopol.
It is difficult to discern whether Documented is a victim of advocacy documentary fatigue, or just another strain of this dreadfully well-intentioned virus. Directed by its star and subject, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, Documented is passionate and almost too personal about the issue of immigration reform. But at this point, it’s hard to shake the jaundiced suspicion that we’re being sold something – Documented is less of a film than a media blitz insincerely assembled into a narrative.
Vargas grew up in The Philippines, an oldest child nearly inseparable from his mother until the age of twelve, when he was illegally smuggled into the United States to live with his grandparents. Lacking a path to citizenship and fearing deportation, Vargas kept up the lie his entire life, even as he excelled in a high-profile profession.
In 2011, Vargas “outed” himself as an illegal alien in a The New York Times article, and a year later he wrote an essay for Time, which also put him on the cover. This show-and-tell film is the story of the largely eventless, decidedly un-cinematic speaking tour that took place in between.
WATCH – as Vargas views YouTube clips and looks concerned! MARVEL – as Vargas fails to get a rise out of the politest cop ever! THRILL – as Vargas, cranky from a lack of attention, calls INS to complain that they haven’t tried to deport him yet!
And so on. Vargas labels himself “a walking uncomfortable conversation,” but his film quickly becomes a layup line of easy points. That’s not to say he doesn’t give equal time: arguing for the opposition here are the Ku Klux Klan, Lou Dobbs, and some drunken loudmouth in an Alabama bar.
Early in Documented, Vargas does a lot of hand-wringing about “exposing a family secret,” but he seems less concerned as the film drags on. It becomes clear that Vargas will have to force an emotional reconciliation with his estranged mother at some point, if only to keep the project from collapsing. The problem is that she still lives in The Philippines with his two younger siblings, and their relationship is so frosty that he refused her friend request on Facebook.
Since Vargas is reluctant to travel outside of the United States for fear that he will never be allowed back, the film crew travels to Manila to set up a Skype reunion. Shameless though it may be, the borderline exploitative aspect of capturing a mother and child seeing each others faces for the first time in twenty years gives Documented enough juice to get to the finish. It also personifies the pain of capricious border laws in a way that actually is uncomfortable, and it has a lot more impact than any of Vargas’ self-indulgent media-baiting.