A new focus for stories of immigration

Times Staff Writer

IN COURTNEY HUNT’S absorbing new feature film “Frozen River,” an Upstate New York blue-collar mom decides to take a job in one of America’s hottest growth industries: people smuggling.

Not that Ray (Melissa Leo) is very clued in about why so many illegal immigrants are risking their lives trying to slip into the United States or has much sympathy for their plight. Juggling a harried life that includes two kids, two jobs and an absentee gambler husband, Ray has enough problems of her own without worrying about the Chinese and Pakistani refugees she’s shuttling in the trunk of her car across the Canadian border.

“If they want to come here so bad they should take the time to learn English,” Ray blurts out at one point to her partner in malfeasance, Lila (Misty Upham), a wry Mohawk Indian laboring mightily herself to make ends meet.

What remains unsaid in this subtle, perceptive movie, is that Ray actually has more in common than she realizes with her desperate human cargo. Like them, she occupies one of American society’s lower socio-economic rungs. But history and cultural conditioning have taught her to think of immigrants as aliens, sub-humans, the Other. The movie’s power derives in large measure from Ray’s belated recognition of a deeper, common humanity she shares with these exiles.

The representation in American movies of immigrants (and of two close relations, ethnicity and “race”) is practically as old as the movies themselves, from “Birth of a Nation” and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” to “Crash” and “Under the Same Moon.” Today, as mass immigration has evolved into a global phenomenon, a growing number of filmmakers in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as the United States are probing immigration’s causes as well as its consequences for the lives of ordinary people.


Macro yet micro

Several more Hollywood movies slated to open this fall and winter will explore immigration themes, whether explicitly or covertly. They include “Towelhead,” a drama directed by Alan Ball (an Oscar winner for the “American Beauty” screenplay), set during the Gulf War, about a 13-year-old Arab American girl sent to Houston to live with her authoritarian Lebanese father; and Wayne Kramer’s “Crossing Over,” a multi-story ensemble drama about immigrants of several nationalities trying to gain legal status in Los Angeles. The marquee cast includes Harrison Ford, Sean Penn, Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd.

In a way that’s characteristic of many of these new films, “Frozen River” has a global perspective but an intimate focus. Its view of immigration is less anchored in large-scale political abstractions than in the nuanced emotional relations between its very specific characters and situations. It has nothing to say directly about, say, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Instead, it looks at immigration as a dual exchange in which the American characters are as impacted as the foreigners by their brushes with each other.

That reflects Hunt’s belief that, in the post-Sept. 11 era, Americans gradually are awakening to the complex, challenging world around them. “We live in a very narrow-minded place,” she said by phone, referring to the United States. “The world is getting smaller, and even in the interior of America we’re going to learn a lot about the other people coming in.”

“Frozen River” isn’t the only recent movie to suggest that global immigration and cross-cultural encounters are shaping American attitudes, both at home and abroad. In films such as Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” (2003), the middle-class Americans played by Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, thrown together by fate in Tokyo, are shown to be relatively as disoriented and challenged by a “foreign” culture as any Saharan emigre braving his first Midwestern winter.

In Tom McCarthy’s indie hit “The Visitor,” Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a stoic college professor whose passion for life after his wife’s death is rekindled through his unexpected encounter with a Syrian-Senegalese couple in New York. His dormant emotions are further aroused when the male half of the couple is taken into custody at an immigration center and his attractive mother arrives from Detroit to try to help her son.

‘A very tricky issue’

McCarthy’s research for the movie, which included hanging out in immigrant communities, attending academic conferences and visiting immigrants being held in U.S. detention centers -- mostly innocent young men with no criminal records, he said -- convinced him that “we can do better” as Americans in managing border control. The screenplay provides Walter with a brief, rousing speech about treating people humanely, which he shouts, in frustration, at some detention officials.

But while the movie’s sympathies clearly lie with Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), the young Syrian drummer who winds up in custody, “The Visitor” avoids preaching about the politics of immigration, which McCarthy describes as “a very tricky issue.” “We need laws, people have to abide by laws, we need to enforce those laws,” the director said. “It’s a huge, huge, complex question.”

Instead of polemics, “The Visitor” offers a gentle plea for opening ourselves up to the unfamiliar, the alien, in life. Rather than being a source of anxiety and confusion, in movies like “Lost in Translation” and “The Visitor” the experience of being an “outsider,” whether abroad or in one’s native land, is presented as an opportunity for reshaping one’s identity while discovering what makes other people tick.

“First and foremost,” McCarthy says of his movie, “it isn’t just about immigration, it’s really about people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different places, connecting . . . whether that’s in New York or Beirut or Damascus or Mexico.”

Another recent immigration-themed movie that favors the personal over the political is Patricia Riggen’s “Under the Same Moon” (La Misma Luna). A more conventional film than either “The Visitor” or “Frozen River,” it relates the saga of a Mexican boy’s attempt to reunite with his migrant mother working in Los Angeles. Riggen, who is Mexican, said she already had begun filming “Under the Same Moon” in her native country when massive pro-immigration demonstrations took place across the U.S. in May 2006.

“Suddenly it became very timely and very trendy, and Hollywood wanted a movie about immigration,” she said. “But you know, we weren’t doing it for that reason. I think the movie will allow a healthy debate” about immigration, “very different from what we usually read.”

A generation ago, immigration-themed movies such as “El Norte” tended to focus heavily on the often grueling physical journey from an old world to a new one. By contrast, the tendency with more recent films is to move beyond the actual journey and examine what the well-traveled writer V.S. Naipaul has termed “the enigma of arrival” and the thorny process of assimilating -- or not -- to a new culture.

Contemporary immigration-themed movies tend to treat mass immigration as a given, irreversible fact in major Western metropolises such as London, New York and Los Angeles. That doesn’t mean the social tensions have vanished, but they may be sublimated and at least partly resolved through the relations between individuals -- especially if those people happen to be in love.

British director Stephen Frears helped introduce this cinematic point of view with two 1980s comedy-dramas about immigrant-stoked upheaval in London, “My Beautiful Launderette” and “Sammy and Rosie . . .,” and more recently with “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), a drama about an African doctor-turned-taxi driver and a Turkish woman trying to survive and steer clear of deportation officials in the drizzly British capital.

Like Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” (1991), a romantic comedy-drama that was slightly ahead of its time, the British film “Brick Lane” (2007) depicts immigrants in a limbo of incomplete assimilation. Adapted from Monica Ali’s novel, it centers on a young Bangladeshi woman, Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee), struggling to weather a chilly marriage while living in a dreary council flat in East London. As her own marriage deteriorates, the heroine finds herself drawn to a young immigrant man who becomes radicalized by the anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping Western Europe in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Increasingly, movie makers (especially European ones) are depicting immigration not as a one-way journey but rather as a more or less permanent state of flux between worlds that may seem very different but are, in fact, steadily becoming more inter-connected. In “The Edge of Heaven” (2007) by the Turkish-German writer-director Fatih Akin, the action continually switches back and forth from Bremen to Istanbul and elsewhere as various borders -- physical, political, sexual -- are repeatedly crossed and re-crossed.

From its inception, Hollywood tended to treat immigration themes with caution. The studios were invented mainly by Eastern European Jewish immigrants who created, in author Neal Gabler’s phrase, “an empire of their own” that manufactured an idealized version of the United States, largely sanitized of the anti-Semitism and xenophobia that they themselves had experienced.

Americans’ attitudes toward expressing their ethnic and national identities -- and accepting those of others -- have changed a lot since the Russian-born vaudevillian Al Jolson (nee Asa Yoelson) donned blackface to play a Jewish cantor’s son turned entertainer in “The Jazz Singer” (1927).

Movies, like politics, often lag several steps behind social reality. But at present, they’re reflecting a fast-changing planetary order in which both privileged First World frequent fliers and struggling Third World refugees at times may feel like existential nomads, strangers in strange lands.