What the appreciative, English-speaking families clapping in the church basement don’t know is that the part-time performer has a secret. Handsome in his tight, black mariachi suit, Miguel Cortes mentions it in Spanish after he takes his bows, but no one understands. So he just smiles.
Not long before, immigration authorities in Raleigh, N.C., gave Cortes 120 days to leave the country. If he doesn’t go back to Mexico voluntarily, he will face deportation and criminal charges, with little hope of returning legally. He can comply with the order — or he can disappear and take his chances. Or maybe a lawyer will win him a reprieve.
Above all, he has his family to consider: His wife and daughters entered the country with him illegally 12 years before, but they have not been ordered deported. Should he leave the them behind so the girls can finish their education?
Cortes makes his decision in the new documentary, “120 Days,” by director Ted Roach, one of 28 features, documentaries and shorts to be presented Thursday through Sunday during the Greater Washington Immigration FilmFest.
“Part of the trick was how do you tell an everyday story in a way that’s going to be watchable in a movie and watchable for English-speaking Americans,” says Roach, based in Chapel Hill, N.C. “That’s who I wanted to reach, because that’s whose minds I’m trying to change.”
Roach had already spent a number of years working in television and film when the Cortes family became the subject of his master’s thesis in the film program at American University.
“The reason that people don’t meet these families is because they have to hide,” says Roach, who will attend the screening.
“Even if you interact with them on a daily basis, you don’t even really know they’re here illegally.”
Only in its second year, the immigration film festival is showing signs of becoming an institution. The total of 28 films is up from 13 last year and includes international selections. Screenings will be in 16 locations, mainly churches and other nonprofit venues , up from 12 last year. A solid list of sponsors and partners have joined in.
Many of the organizers are neither film pros nor immigrants. They care about the issue and generally favor some kind of immigration reform.
“I think more than changing minds, we’re trying to get people to pay more attention to the role that immigrants play in our life in America today,” says Patti Absher, a retired owner of a travel business and co-chair of the festival.
●“Buen Día Ramón” is about a young Mexican who fails five times to cross into the United States, so he goes to Germany, where he struggles to survive until he befriends a lonely senior citizen.
●“On the Bride’s Side” tells the story of Syrian and Palestinian refugees who attempt to trek from Italy to Sweden disguised as a wedding party.
● In “Unlikely Heroes,” asylum seekers in the Swiss mountains put on a play to win the understanding and respect of local residents.
● “DREAM: An American Story,” by Alexandria-based filmmaker Aldo Bello, follows Juan Gomez, who came to the United States from Colombia when he was 2 and grew up speaking English. His parents were seeking to escape Colombia’s civil war, but their application to remain in the United States was denied. They stayed anyway.
Bello uses Gomez’s story to explore the activist movement of young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.
“These young people who were not fully citizens were participating in the political process,” says Bello. “They’ve been doing it despite all the odds. It’s been quite incredible to watch.”
Gomez’s parents were deported, but he graduated with honors from Georgetown University in 2011 and landed a good job with JPMorgan Chase. Still, he could not secure his immigration status here.. He moved to Brazil and took another job in finance.
Gomez is scheduled to fly from Brazil to join Bello at the screening of “DREAM” Saturday evening. It will be their first reunion since Bello’s camera watched Gomez board the airplane two years ago — and a chance for others to meet the bright young man America would not accept.