Like Sundance, except with lots of undocumented Iowans

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On the same day that Sundance gets underway in Utah this week, a journalist and filmmaker is launching a film festival in Iowa to focus on a different set of American stories—the lives of immigrants.

Jose Antonio Vargas is calling it the Define American Film Festival, named after the organization he started five years ago to change the conversation about immigration.

The festival starts Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, which is ground zero for American politics with less than two weeks to go before the first-in-the-nation caucuses. It’s free, and aimed at Iowans who have been hearing about immigration nonstop but haven’t heard from immigrants themselves.


“For the most part, immigration is viewed through the lens of politics and politicians, but what about people who are directly impacted?” Vargas, who announced he was undocumented in a 2011 essay in The New York Times, told Fusion in a telephone interview.

Each film will be followed by a discussion that will include directors, experts, and undocumented immigrants. Vargas will also showcase the film he directed about his own experience growing up in California after leaving the Philippines at age 12.

The opening film will be A Better Life, which follows a Mexican father trying to keep his family afloat by working as a gardener in Los Angeles. The English-language film, which presented undocumented immigrants in a positive light, was welcomed by Latinos when it was released in 2011, when politicians were debating immigration reform. The following year, when actor Demián Bichir, who played the father, was nominated for an Academy Award, actress Natalie Portman described his role as an “undocumented immigrant,” not the pejorative “illegal immigrant.”

Bichir is scheduled to attend the discussion after the film screens on Thursday.

Another reason Vargas took the film festival to Iowa is the state’s demographic shift in the last decade. Over the past 15 years, the Latino population in Iowa more than doubled. And today’s population is expected to almost triple by 2050. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 40,000 undocumented immigrants live in Iowa.


But Vargas is quick to point out that immigration “is not just a Latino story.”

“I find myself rather surprised at the lack of complexity and nuance in which immigration is written about and reported on,” Vargas said. “At a time when America is more and more immigrant, the dwindling number of immigration reporters is embarrassing.”


Vargas said political reporters stationed in Des Moines for the caucuses are also invited to the festival.

It will also screen The Joy Luck Club, which focuses on the Chinese-American experience, as well as The Muslims Are Coming!, a documentary that follows a group of Muslim comedians as they travel the country challenging stereotypes with humor.

Also in the lineup is a new short film about Ellis Island starring Robert De Niro. The film was directed by JR, the artist known for his large-scale, politically charged portraits on the sides of buildings, and for leading protests across the country.

Vargas said every Democratic and Republican presidential candidate has been invited to the closing night reception, where they will be able to meet the very people who would be affected by the immigration proposals they’ve been touting.


"If they want to talk about immigrants so much,” Vargas said, “then they are more than welcome to come and ask any question they want to undocumented Iowans.”

Fusion is a media partner for the Define American Film Festival, taking place in Des Moines, Iowa, from Jan. 21 to 23.