Jose Antonio Vargas’s “Documented” is about young people who grew up American but are legally citizens of another country. The Philippines-born Vargas is one of those people, so it’s logical that his documentary begins in the first person. The tone gradually moves, however, from merely personal to intensely intimate.
The documentary’s world premiere, Friday evening at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the AFI Docs Film Festival, was also an emotional affair. Vargas is a former Washington Post reporter, and the theater held many local friends and colleagues. Also present were relatives and high school buddies from California, where Vargas went to live with his grandparents when he was 12, as well as fellow immigrant rights activists.
The writer-director received the first of several standing ovations before the movie even began, and throughout the event the applause seemed to be as much for the filmmaker as for the film (which was co-directed by Ann Lupo). But separating the two is impossible. “Documented” is as much a confessional as a polemic, and it ultimately turns on Vargas’s childhood sense of being abandoned by the mother who could not follow him to the United States.
Vargas seems to have a genius for acquiring mentors. He made it through high school with the help of teachers, administrators and half a dozen surrogate moms. A private scholarship sent him to college, and gigs at mainstream media outlets followed. Two years ago, when Vargas decided to reveal himself as undocumented, the venue was the New York Times Magazine. (He had already come out as gay, a disclosure he found easier.)
“Documented” opens with shaky footage of the Philippines, one of many YouTube-ish passages in this visually inelegant movie. The film’s climax also involves the reporter’s homeland, through a visit with Vargas’s mother. But he couldn’t make the trip, since to leave the States is to risk not being allowed to return. The reunion proceeds via Skype, filmed by Lupo’s team in the Philippines and a separate crew at a weepy Vargas’s New York apartment.
In between, the movie follows its narrator on a speaking tour, shows his attempt to provoke a dialogue with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and includes too many clips from appearances on TV political chat shows. Vargas’s enthusiasm for such cable-TV Kabuki demonstrates the legal outsider’s insider sensibility. When the narrative shifts toward family upsets, the documentary improves. Its appeal to outside-the-
Beltway audiences probably does, too.
Vargas introduced “Documented” as “a film that’s in the process of completing itself,” a reference to pending legislation that may change the status of some 11 million young illegal immigrants. The movie’s core, however, is its account of Vargas’s relationship with his mother. That story is more eloquent than all the politicking, and its family-ties appeal could hardly be more American.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
90 minutes. In English, Tagalog and Spanish with subtitles.