There’s a lot of talk of plans in “Documented,” Jose Antonio Vargas’s excellent new film relating the process of his “coming out” as an undocumented American, as he puts it. Vargas, a journalist who worked at The Washington Post from 2004 to 2009, revealed in a widely read New York Times magazine article how he came to this country illegally from the Philippines at age 12. Since then, he has advocated for immigration reform that would enable people like him, who feel wholly American despite the absence of legal paperwork, to have a path to citizenship.
As Vargas tells it, when his mother packed him off in 1993 to live with his grandparents, who had legally emigrated a decade earlier to the San Francisco Bay area, the plan was that he would ultimately work at a menial job, just like his “Lolo” and “Lola” did — not get his name on a Pulitzer-Prize-winning entry, as happened while working at The Post. The plan was also that he would eventually gain citizenship by marrying an American woman. Coming out as gay in high school threw a monkey wrench in those designs.
“Documented” begins in 2011, on the eve of publication of the Times article, with Vargas strategizing about how to spin his story. For the most part, the filmmaker comes across as open, unguarded and honest. But let’s be real. He’s being recorded by a camera crew, day and night. That entails a certain self-consciousness that puts him, both as filmmaker and the film’s subject, in the odd position of watching and being watched. He’s both the fly on the wall and the sugar bowl.
Still, “Documented” never feels false or forced, just hyper-aware. This comfort with living in public may be as much a function of Vargas’s age (he’s 33) as his temperament. As a reporter, Vargas covered technology and social media, among other beats.
Of course, the film, like the Times article, is a calculation. By publicly acknowledging his immigration status, Vargas risks deportation. But his gamble is that the attention he draws to himself will only decrease the odds of being sent back to the Philippines, not increase them. As he is trying to remain in the United States by remaining in the spotlight, Vargas also is, it seems, utterly sincere about wanting to raise awareness about the issue of immigration reform.
“I’m in this to have some sort of impact,” he says with conviction.
And what impact might that be? As agenda-driven as “Documented” is, it also is a deeply engrossing self-portrait. If 11 million undocumented Americans are a statistic, one, if shown in the right light, is a tragedy.
One of the most moving scenes shows Vargas having a Skype conversation with his mother, who still lives in the Philippines and whom he has not seen since he was 12. The scene makes an effective argument that there’s something wrong with a system that separates a son from his mother (whom Vargas can’t visit without fear of being unable to return to the United States).
The scene is well planned. There’s a camera crew in America, filming Vargas in the middle of the night, and one in the Philippines, filming his mother. Even though we know that it’s designed to wrench at our heartsrings, eavesdropping on this conversation has surprising — even overwhelming — power to move.
Whether it also changes minds is another matter.
★ ★ ★ ½
Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains brief obscenity. 89 minutes.