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Filmmaker takes on illegal immigration

As long as movies have existed, they have shown immigrants flocking to America for a better life. But in post-9/11 America, where security concerns have made illegal immigration one of the most divisive issues of our day, the era of uplift is over. In today’s films, an immigrant coming to America without the proper papers is likely to be tossed into a detention center and kicked out of the country.

That’s a central theme in “The Visitor,” a new drama from Tom McCarthy that has its world premiere Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival. McCarthy’s follow-up to “The Station Agent,” his critically praised 2003 film, “The Visitor” is perhaps the most anticipated film up for acquisition at the festival, which gave the movie its coveted Friday-night opening acquisition slot.

“If Toronto were a store, we’re in the front window,” says Michael London, whose Groundswell Productions co-financed the film with Participant Productions. “It’s a small story, but we think it has a big reach, since it’s about an issue that is becoming a very big part of the public consciousness.”

After watching the movie, I can understand why the festival is so eager to offer it a showcase slot. In recent years, the Toronto festival has spotlighted a growing number of films about social concerns. (“Under the Same Moon,” an upcoming Fox Searchlight film playing the festival, tackles similar immigration issues, seen through the eyes of a mother and son separated on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.) However, the festival also celebrates personal filmmaking. And “The Visitor” is, at its best, a potent combination of the two -- an affecting tale of friendship given extra depth by its depiction of America’s growing crackdown on illegal immigrants.

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As McCarthy, a third-generation member of an Irish Catholic family from New Jersey, puts it: “Our new Ellis Island is our detention centers.”

The film’s central character is an unlikely hero -- Walter Vale, a widowed college professor who is burned out after years of teaching economics in suburban Connecticut. Played by the veteran character actor Richard Jenkins, best known for his appearances in Farrelly brothers and Coen brothers films, Walter drives to New York City for a conference only to discover a young immigrant couple -- Tarek and Zainab -- occupying his vacant apartment.

A lover of music, Walter strikes up a friendship with Tarek, an exuberant young Syrian djembe drummer. But after a chance encounter with city police, Tarek, who has no papers, is put into a detention center in Queens. Since both Tarek’s mother and girlfriend are illegal, Walter becomes Tarek’s sole contact with the outside world. His visits strengthen his bond with both Tarek and the musician’s mother, played by Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, who sees Walter as a kindred spirit.

It’s hardly a surprise that McCarthy, 41, was a working actor for years before turning to directing, since “The Visitor” is, at its heart, an actor’s film, full of quiet, emotional performances. The film also offers a striking example of how much inspiration filmmakers can draw from real-world experience. After “The Station Agent” received a sheaf of critical accolades, the State Department asked McCarthy to screen it in Beirut and Oman. McCarthy ended up returning to Beirut to work with young filmmakers there, which also led to him making a number of contacts in New York’s Arab community.

Finding himself stymied by writer’s block after 9/11, McCarthy joined Sojourners, a ministry operating out of New York’s Riverside Church that encourages people to establish relationships with detained immigrants cut off from friends or relatives. McCarthy began visiting several detainees, including a Nigerian immigrant who’d been held in a detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., for more than three years.

A big part of the film’s narrative came out of that relationship. “I got sucked into his story just the way Walter does in the movie,” says McCarthy, who, wearing his actor’s hat, has just finished shooting a central role for the final season of “The Wire.” “The whole experience was pretty stunning. These people are our version of the disappeared. They’ve been stuck away and no one knows they’re there. By the time I met this Nigerian guy, all he wanted was to be deported. He felt what had happened to him was just as scary and even more depressing than being in prison.”

It’s possible McCarthy will take heat from anti-immigration activists, because his characters are largely portrayed in a positive light. On one of Walter’s trips to see Tarek, the frustrated detainee complains, “There are no terrorists in here!” McCarthy says the dialogue is “almost exactly what one of the guys I visited said. He kept going, ‘We’re just here to earn money. Isn’t that why people come to this country? The real terrorists are the kind of people who walk into an airport with bad papers!’ ”

Some of McCarthy’s actors had life stories not so dissimilar from their characters. When McCarthy cast Haaz Sleiman, a young Lebanese actor, as Tarek, Sleiman told him he wouldn’t have trouble with the role, saying “my story is pretty much like the one in the movie.” Sleiman was especially happy to play the part of a warmhearted musician since, as an Arab American actor, he had been largely typecast as playing a terrorist in TV dramas.

Richard Jenkins had been typecast, in his own way, as a slyly comic character actor (as in his role as the dead father on “Six Feet Under”). It took McCarthy to envision Jenkins as a man in need of a spiritual awakening. “He has a wonderful everyman quality,” says McCarthy. “He totally absorbed this character, this person who, like most of us, hasn’t achieved everything he wanted in life -- a guy whose flame has been extinguished.”

When McCarthy began meeting with investors, he made it clear that he had no interest in casting a big name in the lead -- it was Jenkins, all or nothing. “Tom knew what everyone would say,” recalls London, who first met McCarthy when the actor was in “The Guru,” a film London produced. “Tom said to everybody, ‘I’m gonna show you the script and you’re gonna tell me you want a movie star and I’m gonna say, “I want Richard Jenkins,” and then I’m gonna find out who really wants to make the movie.’ ”

Indeed, McCarthy found that no studio wanted to bankroll a movie starring a little-known actor. Like so many filmmakers these days, he turned to indie financiers who are more willing to take risks with difficult subject matter. Groundswell and Participant teamed up to finance the picture, which was made for less than $10 million.

McCarthy felt especially comfortable with Participant, which has backed issue-oriented films, notably “Good Night, and Good Luck” (in which McCarthy had an acting part) and Groundswell, which makes its debut with this film and draws on London’s experience as a producer of such films as “Sideways” and “The Illusionist.” The film also reunites McCarthy with producer Mary Jane Skalski, with whom he worked on “The Station Agent.”

Jenkins’ presence turns out to be a huge plus. He plays a character we instinctively identify as the kind of American we’ve seen in films going back to the days of Frank Capra and John Ford -- a decent man who empathizes with people in trouble, who sees wrong and tries to right it.

Before filming began, McCarthy brought his production design team on his detention center visits to ensure they captured the bland, Kafka-esque look of the centers. “They don’t look like prisons,” he says. “They’re very generic, like a factory, except they are factories filled with human cargo.”

The actors were also brought to visit before filming. “They were pretty shook up, which is the way most people get when they realize that this is going on in America,” McCarthy says. “I just want people to ask themselves -- is the best way for us to handle this? Are we really doing the right thing?”

McCarthy insists he that he’s not the sort of filmmaker who wants to hit anyone over the head with a message. “I certainly didn’t set out to make a film that’s ripped from the headlines. But our job as storytellers is to reflect what goes on in our world. If the movie feels timely, I guess it’s because our story and the headlines just found each other.”

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The Big Picture normally runs on Tuesday in Calendar. Ideas or criticism can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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