Immigrant stories are an integral part of the American narrative. Although we have countless monuments and museums that testify to our journeys as immigrants, there are only a few films.
Filmmaker James Gray says this surprised him since immigrant stories are inherently cinematic — weaving together international settings, powerful characters and a narrative arc built around survival and reinvention. But he says while mainstream Hollywood films focus on superheroes and commercial guarantees, contemporary world cinema is bursting with stories about borders, migrants and their journeys.
Gray’s own new film The Immigrant revisits the origins of the American immigrant experience. It opens with misty, sepia-toned scenes of 1921 New York City, as a young woman disembarks from Poland at Ellis Island. Ewa, played by Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard, is separated from her sister and saved from deportation by a shadowy businessman named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who draws her into an unforgiving world of gambling, prostitution and struggle on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
This is not a rags to riches American tale — by design.
“That to me is a fantasy and I just don’t see the value in that because in a way it makes the American dream seem less interesting, approachable, tangible,” says director James Gray. He says he was inspired by his grandparents story and by the desire to excavate the painful memories of their early years in America.
The Immigrant opened at the Cannes Film Festival last year and has earned raves from critics for its nuanced portrayal of what is often a mythologized chapter in American history. The film recreates 1920s New York City and was filmed on location at Ellis Island.
But if The Immigrant is about the arrivals at our shores, a new film from Pakistan is focused on the departures gate.
It’s called Zinda Bhaag – translation “Run for your Life.”
Pakistan is a staple of international news coverage as a hotbed of crisis and turmoil. But the country also made news when it submitted Zinda Bhaag last fall as its first film for Oscar consideration in five decades. It’s a film about the way Pakistan’s crises have fueled an entire emigration generation – young people trying to get out at any cost. As filmmaker Farjad Nabi says, “Across northern Pakistan, I would say you would find a belt where every second family has a person outside Pakistan working and you see all these billboards, study in Australia, U.K., go to Poland, go to Bahrain.” But with Pakistan deemed a security threat, the illegal immigration industry is also booming.
Young people with ambitions of improving their lives often risk imprisonment, deportation and even death.
Nabi and his co-director Meenu Gaur have turned the true stories of those young people into a vibrant, colorful film about three, twenty-something friends from Lahore ‘running for their life.’ Gaur says while the film is rooted in Pakistan, it shows the face of modern migration because “in a sense it could be about three boys anywhere in the world who want to change their lives.” Gaur added,”But it’s a doomed journey.”
The Immigrant and Zinda Bhaag are idea-driven films that explore the global arc of migration from different corners of the world.
They also join a global tradition of film-making about the hustle and triumph of migration. Here are a few of my other favorite films about immigration:
America, America (1963)
Elia Kazan received three Oscar nominations for this personal and passionate three hour opus about his uncle’s harrowing journey from Anatolia to New York concluding with an image of immigrants docking before the State of Liberty, and featuring the iconic line “My name is Elia Kazan. I’m a Greek by blood. A Turk by blood and an American because my uncle made a journey.”
El Norte (1983)
From the Criterion Collection: “Brother and sister Enrique and Rosa flee persecution at home in Guatemala and journey north, through Mexico and on to the United States, with the dream of starting a new life. It’s a story that happens every day, but until Gregory Nava’s groundbreaking El Norte (The North), the personal travails of immigrants crossing the border to America had never been shown in the movies with such urgent humanism. A work of social realism imbued with dreamlike imagery, El Norte is a lovingly rendered, heartbreaking story of hope and survival, which critic Roger Ebert called “a Grapes of Wrath for our time.”
In This World (2002)
A British documdrama directed by Michael Winterbottom that recreated the journey of two young Afghan boys leaving a Pakistan refugee camp for a better life in London. Shot on location in multiple countries, the film provided an almost journalistic look at illegal immigration across Asia and Europe. It also won the Golden Bear prize at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival.
The Namesake (2006)
Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel about an Indian-American family’s journey from Calcutta to New Jersey, with a heady mix of self-hate, relationship drama and generational clashes wrapped in a lush, emotional film.
Sin Nombre (2008)
Before he became the force behind HBO’s True Detective, filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut feature was this harrowing indie film about the illegal journey from Mexico to California atop trains and across militarized borders.
James Gray, who directed The Immigrant, says he isn’t pessimistic about the immigrant journey and has “faith in the human race” but he adds that “this doesn’t mean that the art that we produce has to be about success because no matter how well we do, there’s always a struggle. So anything that has value, one hopes has the bittersweet, has both the sweet and the sour to it because that’s like life.”
Which other films – recent, old, American and otherwise – that examine that bittersweet immigrant journey have stayed with you?
Post with a trailer and your reflections below:
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Immigrant Stories On Screen
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