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A ‘Crash’ course on immigration

Times Staff Writer

“Crossing Over,” a film that focuses on the gut-wrenching drama of people caught up in the nation’s immigration morass, begins filming Wednesday in Los Angeles, and judging by the script, it paints a searing portrait of immigration issues in L.A. in much the way “Crash” did with the city’s race relations.

With an ensemble cast headlined by Harrison Ford, Sean Penn and Ray Liotta, the Weinstein Co. project is nearly devoid of politics and doesn’t only look at the hot-button border crossing issues. Instead, it weaves intersecting story lines, from immigrants gaming the system to obtain their green cards to immigration agents just trying to do their jobs while maintaining their humanity.

The stories include a U.S. Border Patrol agent, played by Penn, who has a fateful encounter with a Mexican woman crossing illegally into the United States; a young Australian actress who will do whatever it takes to obtain a green card -- even if it means enduring sexual exploitation by an immigration official; a South African musician who schemes to get permanent resident status; and a devout Muslim girl born in Bangladesh but raised in L.A., who faces deportation after delivering an essay at school that draws the attention of the FBI.

Toss in a murder mystery, a love story and an ending that delivers goose bumps, and “Crossing Over,” written and directed by Wayne Kramer (“The Cooler,” “Running Scared”), could be one of the year’s most-talked-about films. It is tentatively set for fall release.

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Kramer said he found it surprising that “so few films deal with immigration in any material form given ... that it’s the cornerstone of this country.”

Kramer, a South African-born, naturalized U.S. citizen who has lived in this country 21 years, said the script is an especially personal one. “I’ve lived every step of the way in the screenplay. The average American citizen does not understand how hard it is to get status in America.” He said the immigration issue is much bigger than people crossing the Mexican border illegally.

For that reason, his script also examines “how the system works and who are the people caught up in it and forced to do fraudulent things.”

The original script came in at nearly 160 pages, but it has been trimmed to the 130-page range.

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“It’s obviously a timely subject,” said Frank Marshall, who is producing the film with Harvey Weinstein. “It’s telling personal stories. I think people’s knowledge of the immigration problem is very narrow. This tries to broaden it and show the different aspects of it.”

Kramer said the 50-day shoot promises to be a tough one because there are close to 90 speaking parts and multiple locations ranging from the streets of Tijuana to Los Angeles, which plays a prominent role. “We’re using the city as a character,” he said.

Kramer noted that the sets will employ a color palette to dramatize situations. Government offices and buildings will incorporate lots of gray and brown tones, he said, while scenes of immigrants and their families will use bright colors. Gold hues will be accented to represent how immigrants view America as a land of opportunity.

“When the gold starts to fade,” Kramer said, “it’s not good for them.”

Although the production includes a large cast and competing story lines, much of the action revolves around Ford’s character. He plays Max Brogan, a seasoned Immigration Customs Enforcement agent who conducts surveillance and raids in L.A.

One day, after he and other agents storm a downtown dress factory looking for illegals, Brogan comes upon a Mexican woman who pleads with him in Spanish that her 4-year-old son is upstairs with a neighbor lady and there is no one to take care of him if she is arrested.

Although he empathizes with the woman, he ignores her pleas -- but not without an aching conscience.

“They’re human beings too,” Marshall said of the immigration agents. “They have families; they’re not just bad guys. We are trying to give a realistic, honest view of this world and the conflicts in it.”

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One of the more harrowing stories involves the 15-year-old Muslim girl, Taslima, who one day stands before her classmates and reads an essay in which she wonders whether people should try to understand the architects behind the Sept. 11 attacks as human beings instead of simply labeling them terrorists, monsters and murderers.

Soon thereafter, the FBI raids her parents’ residence and she is taken into custody. Her mother and father then face a heart-rending dilemma: Because their two younger siblings were born in the U.S., they can remain here, but the foreign-born Taslima faces the prospect of being deported back to a country she never really knew and, perhaps, never being able to return to America.

robert.welkos@latimes.com


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