We Are Here – Immigration Matters at the Miami International Film Festival By Josefina Sartora

in 24th Miami International Film Festival

by Josefina Sartora

In a city where 50% of the population is of Latin American origin, and where one can hear more Spanish than English spoken in the streets, it’s no wonder that the Miami International Film Festival accentuates Latin-American cinema and boasts an outstanding Latin-American competition.

It is also no wonder that some of the films screened here deal with the issue of immigration — not only in the United States, but in Europe, also. These films portray the struggle to live with dignity in a hostile foreign country, examining subjects such as grief, loneliness, violence and desire.

Red Road, our winner in Miami, was a great movie, but my second choice in the Dramatic World Cinema Competition would have been Fräulein, the debut feature from director Andrea Staka and previously the winner of the FIPRESCI Award in Valladolid. Depicting the situation of a group of natives of the former Yugoslavia — Serbians, Croatians and Bosnians — who work in a Swiss restaurant owned by a Serbian woman, Fräulein eloquently dramatizes the different attitudes of the exiles: their feelings of repression, their longing for their homeland, and their quest for a new, safer and healthier world. By using an intelligent photographic technique, framing the individuals in close shots, and by its original editing, Fräulein realizes the idea of an inescapable existence. But the film also includes the possibility of salvation in the form of a radical young person who crosses the lives of the older characters like an angel, bringing about a complete transformation in their lives.

Also in competition, God Willing (Om Gud vill), directed by first-time directors Amir Chamdin and Erik Eger, is a dark comedy in black and white set in the ´70s and true to that time period’s aesthetics. Its main character is a Syrian who spends his time cleaning at a fast food restaurant by night and packing fruit in a food market in Stockholm during the day. His dull existence while waiting for his wife’s arrival finds consolation in love dreams, dreams that may be true. The film plays joyfully between reality and fantasy as it seeks a path to happiness.

It is worth mentioning that both Andrea Staka and Amir Chamdin (who also stars in his film) are the children of immigrants and work from their personal experiences.

From the United States, both Steve Barron’s Choking Man and Christopher Zalla’s Our Father (Padre Nuestro)involve a melancholic Latin American dishwasher in New York restaurants working in the company of other Mexican, Ecuadorian, Chinese or Greek immigrants. Both films show that the common fate for many immigrants is to feed, serve and clean the native residents.

The young Ecuadorian in Choking Man struggles between his desire for freedom and the impossibility of attaining it. His bad English, acute shyness and lack of confidence sabotage not only his ambitions for living well in the big city but also his hopes for winning the heart of a young girl. Like the Syrian menial worker in God Willing, he’s another immigrant who finds in his fantasies a way out for his lonely, sullen life. But instead of finding love, he comes face to face with his own harsh self-judgment and sickness.

Our Father, which is almost entirely in Spanish though from the United States, is a stolen identity thriller involving the chance meeting of two immigrants — one a conman fleeing a criminal past, the other a naïve Mexican peasant searching for the father he never knew. The latter loses his identity to the former, and the real son and the fake one, each with opposing personalities, manage in different ways to find their roots and at the same time survive in the hostile city and strive for a better future. As in Choking Man, danger always threatens, adding an undercurrent of suspense to a tragic, powerful story.

In the Documentary Competition, John Fiege’s Mississippi Chicken confronts troubling questions of race and discrimination, including the exploitation of Mexican illegal workers by African Americans in the rural Deep South. The chicken corpses seen at a poultry plant serve as a metaphor for the stressed working life of the many interviewed foreign workers, exploited by their bosses or beaten by the police just because of their origin.

All these sad, hopeless films show there are few opportunities for a better life through immigration, and no alternatives for immigrants to make their dreams come true. Which is not to say that life is much easier in the lower working class for United States citizens, either, all of which shows the fragility of the American Dream.