‘Documented’ filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas talks about becoming the story

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Jose Antonio Vargas. Contributed photo. Jose Antonio Vargas. Contributed photo.

Jose Antonio Vargas first took a public swing at the wall between journalism and advocacy in June 2011.

The Philippine-born, award-winning reporter—he shared a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for the Washington Post’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings—wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” detailing his discovery at 16 that his family had forged his green card when he was sent to live with his grandparents in California four years earlier.

In his 2013 documentary film, Documented, Vargas goes further, using his own experience as an American-by-identity-only to explore the battle over immigration in the U.S. The film hit the festival circuit last year and will be broadcast on CNN later this spring, but locals can see it at Regal Stonefield Stadium 14 on Saturday, April 12 at 5:30pm—it’s the next year-round offering from UVA’s Virginia Film Festival.

Vargas, who will field questions at the screenings, talked to C-VILLE last week about turning the camera on himself and about what it means to be an American.

C-VILLE Weekly: Why a documentary? How was it different from other forms of reporting?

Jose Antonio Vargas: I became a journalist kind of by accident. My first love was always films. When you’re a newcomer to this country, television and films are your first translators, in a way, to what American culture is. And so before I learned how to write I learned about America by watching television and movies.

And I think we’re in living in this golden age of storytelling, because of new technology. It comes in video, it comes in audio, it comes in print, and I think the challenge now is to figure out what are the best ways to tell each specific story.

Tell us about the moment you decided to make yourself a subject.

It kind of was halfway through filming.

Some of my friends were asking me, ‘How can you possibly do a film on immigration and not include your mom?’ Which is really hard. The hardest stories you can ever tell are the stories about ourselves, right? Because you can get delusional. There isn’t one truth, there’s my truth, there’s my mom’s interpretation of the truth.

There’s a scene in the film where my mother and I Skype for the first time and you know, I could never have written that. What you see is what you see. And there is something about film that is very literal, that isn’t as malleable as language is.

Did you have any unexpected personal takeaways from the process of making the film?

All my life, ever since I found out I was quote-unquote illegal, I’ve always wanted to just exude confidence and strength. No piece of paper was going to stop my success. And I didn’t really realize how screwed up I was and how broken I was until I saw it on screen. So that was a gift. And for somebody who loves being in control, that was hard.

Was there a moment during the process when you were afraid—for your safety, of being deported?

I spent my teenage years and I spent my twenties being afraid. Once I kind of let that go, it’s kind of ceased to control me. Now don’t get me wrong, I think fear can be a very motivating factor. One of my friends recently asked me this crazy question: “Do you think you would have quote on quote achieved this much if you weren’t so afraid?”

And the question completely floored me. I don’t know. For me, America has been kind of a fight. It just fell in my lap. So, I don’t know if I would have been as quote-unquote “successful,” or if I would have achieved as much. But I’m also a person who hasn’t seen his mother for, like, 21 years, and hasn’t seen his country since he was 12.

You started an advocacy group called Define American to get people talking about immigration. How do you define an American?

I think I define American as someone who considers this country their home. I define American as somebody who wants to contribute to this country. And I define American, that bigger abstraction of American, as this unfinished, evolving thing.

We didn’t call the group Define Immigrant, we called it Define American, and that’s always been the question in this country, before waves of immigrants, from the Irish and the Italians and the Germans, started coming here, when we had forced migration of African slaves to help build this country. This question has always haunted us.

For me the film, and our media culture campaign, strikes at the heart of this demographically and culturally changing country.

Virginia is a very important state. It’s home to a lot of House members who could go either way when it comes to this issue. And I think all politics is local. So I hope that after people see the film, people see what’s really at stake.

That’s why I made a film. If I wanted to have a political conversation I could have just started writing essays for Politico. That’s not what I’m doing.—Matthew Fay

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