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“I don’t really respond to movies that are about topics — ‘Oh, this is the immigration movie, or the drug-trafficking movie, or the abortion movie, or what have you,'” the director Tom McCarthy said recently. His new film, “The Visitor,” centers on the friendship forged between a Connecticut college professor and an illegal immigrant couple living, without his knowledge, in his unused Manhattan apartment. “But I do respond when you have characters, like in this movie, who are dealing with issues like this in their lives. Through research and spending time with these characters, figuring out story lines, I saw that this is sort of an unavoidable part of the immigrant experience right now. To not deal with it would almost be irresponsible on some level.”
“The Visitor” is one of several films to come out in this election year that deal directly with the subject of illegal immigration. The movies are considerably less dogmatic than a recent slew of Iraq war documentaries that have essentially preached to the choir. For the most part, as the makers of the recent immigration dramas frequently insist, that’s because their stories are about characters rather than issues. But for mainstream audiences, these characters seem unfamiliar.
The hero in “Sangre de Mi Sangre,” which opens in the city next Friday and was a grand-prize winner at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, is a young Mexican boy who enters America illegally in search of his father. The film’s director, Christopher Zalla, said he felt his responsibility was to not reduce illegal immigrants to stereotypes. A frequent pitfall when telling stories about a group of people, he added, is not allowing them the same complexity that is bestowed on our more traditional protagonists.
“The undocumented Mexicans who have seen this movie have remarked about how … there are really two types of people who come here,” Mr. Zalla said. “There’s the guy who comes and hits the ground running; he’s a player and he knows how to work the system. Then there’s the guy who comes and it’s all about one thing — starry-eyed, confused, doesn’t make the effort to speak the language or assimilate in the culture much at all. For me, these are equal sides of this sphere of the American dream, of making it big or making a better life. But at the end of the day, if I am going to make a movie about the American dream, I don’t personally feel that creating some kind of happy ending is doing it justice.”
In addition to developing fully realized characters, filmmakers are also exploring new terrain on the subject of illegal immigration. Courtney Hunt’s “Frozen River,” which won the grand prize at Sundance in January and will open wide in August, tells the story of Ray, a working-class American woman who reluctantly teams with Lila, a Native American, to smuggle immigrants across the Canadian border into America after her husband leaves her penniless. The film is one of the first to examine the shifting perceptions of illegal immigration, as well as the social results of the Mohawk reservation being divided in two by the border.
“I think it’s an ironic situation that Ray looks at people coming in as intruders and somehow not belonging here, and that Lila, the native girl in the new world, thinks this is free trade,” Ms. Hunt, who was born in Tennessee, said. “She looks at her reservation as a sovereign nation. I think the twists and turns of history are very ironic. It wasn’t my intention to say anything about them. I just saw that situation and let it play.”
Some critics, however, have questioned the filmmakers’ sincerity in dramatizing the plights of illegal immigrants, throwing out terms such as “liberal guilt” — something that is typically reserved for sympathetic stories of race relations in America.
“I heard these terms,” Mr. McCarthy said. “I feel they’re a bit passé now. I feel the people who use them aren’t really in touch with what it means. This is a story told from me as a white man living today. It’s sort of my personal experience.”
In part to combat foreseeable criticism, the filmmakers said, they went out of their way to ensure accuracy in their depictions. Mr. McCarthy volunteered at a detention center for illegal immigrants. Mr. Zalla said he went to considerable lengths to create a collaborative environment, allowing his Mexican cast to rework dialogue so it would ring true. He described how, when the film played at the Havana Film Festival, an audience of 3,000 hooted and hollered at the regional colloquialisms added by the cast, allaying his own fears of manipulation.
“If the immigrants are not feeling exploited, I think it would be wrong of us to project exploitation onto them,” Mr. Zalla said.
When “Sangre de Mi Sangre” made its Sundance premiere last year, another notable immigration-themed film, “Under the Same Moon,” was also screening in the program. The film, directed by Patricia Riggen, tells a very similar story to “Sangre de Mi Sangre”: A Mexican child crosses the border to find his mother and meets a surrogate father along the way.
“She said she wanted to put a happy face on the issue of immigration,” Mr. Zalla said of Ms. Riggen. “And I said right afterwards, ‘I don’t know how you can do that.'”
Ms. Riggen concedes the fairy-tale quality of her film, which has becomes something of a sleeper hit with more than $12 million at the domestic box office.
“I have been criticized a little bit in the sense that I am not telling the struggle of the immigrants in all its cruelty,” she said. “My feeling is we all know about it. We read it in the newspaper every day. We see it on TV every day. We all know what their struggle is.”
The director said she set out to make a mainstream film that would appeal to the Latino audience, which was one reason she cast the popular Mexican comedians and actors.
“When the film premiered at Sundance, a very Anglo festival audience went crazy over it,” Ms. Riggen said. “That was a wonderful surprise, and actually the studio wanted to buy it as an art-house movie. What I did then was to explain to them that we also had the Latino audience that would respond to this movie, because it’s their story and it has the artists they love.”
“Under the Same Moon” is currently playing at the Jackson Triplex Theatre, in the ethnic enclave of Jackson Heights, Queens, at the bustling corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 82nd Street. “Sangre de Mi Sangre” is one of the coming attractions there. But posters for the two films stick out for their mutual lack of the bright orange “Con subtitulos en español” signs that are tacked over posters for “The Forbidden Kingdom,” “21,” “Redbelt,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”
Inside the Jackson Triplex, where a tuxedoed usher still holds the door for people when they enter the auditorium, the Sunday afternoon showing of “Under the Same Moon” was playing to a half-full house of Hispanic moviegoers who collectively sniffled and dropped their jaws as if on cue. When the lights came up after the tale of longing and alienation had finished, most parents tightly gripped the hands of their children as they made their way to the exit — happy ending or no.