By JENALIA MORENO, Houston Chronicle, June 8, 2009
Lugging little more than their clothing, four Hispanic children rushed toward a green 1978 Bonneville to continue their race across Texas. They were evading immigration and law enforcement authorities for fear of being separated from one another and their only caretaker, an adult brother who is also an illegal immigrant.
And then the director shouted, “Cut!”
It was another scene in Pasadena resident Baldemar Rodriguez’s first feature film, El Nacional. He is the director, a lead actor, co-producer and writer of this movie that follows siblings running from the law after their undocumented parents are arrested.
Rodriguez hopes the movie provides a glimpse at how immigration laws affect families trying to shield relatives from authorities, and that’s a secret many of his neighbors keep.
The passionate subject of immigration is not just fodder for blogs, columnists and activists any more. In the long tradition of art imitating life, immigration is now increasingly a story line playing out on the big screen.
From big studio flicks to smaller award-winning movies, the films are projecting sympathetic portrayals of illegal immigrants. Crossing Over recently starred Harrison Ford as an immigration officer in Los Angeles who sympathizes with immigrants he helps capture and award-winning La Misma Luna, or Under the Same Moon, which featured a Mexican mother and her son trying to reunite across international borders. Smaller budget films, like El Nacional, are also honing in on the topic.
That’s in part because there’s a demand.
“The audience for films in the U.S. is becoming increasingly diverse,” said Charles Dove, director of Rice Cinema at Rice University. “Hispanics are the ones that are overwhelmingly attending films,” Dove said.
Hispanics bought 11 tickets to movies per person in 2007, up from 9 tickets in 2006, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. By comparison, whites and blacks each bought nearly eight tickets per person.
Most of these new movies will be pro-immigrant because of their audience, Dove said. It could also reflect Hollywood’s more liberal tilt.
Immigration reform is already a hotly debated issue but what to do about the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants is even more controversial.
Between 1998 and 2007, more than 100,000 undocumented immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens were deported, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
That dilemma has attracted some local figures, such as former KTRK (Channel 13) news reporter Elma Barrera, Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia and Sheriff Adrian Garcia to act in the film. Adrian Garcia plays a police chief but did not return phone calls.
“No matter what reforms are done at the national level, we need to make sure that families are not torn apart,” said Sylvia Garcia, who plays a police officer in the film.
For his part, Rodriguez wasn’t planning on making an immigration movie until he attended the National Association of Latino Independent Producers academy. Instructors convinced him the subject could make a good story and make it to the big screen.
“You’re going to see a lot of these projects coming to light, and I’m glad I’m one of them,” said Rodriguez, who hopes the film premiers next year. “There’s a great chance that it will get to theatrical distribution because of the subject matter.”
It wasn’t the subject matter that attracted Connie Hill, who also worked on August Evening, another immigration movie shot in Texas. It was released to theaters last year and follows an elderly undocumented farm worker and his widowed daughter-in-law.
“It’s not necessarily immigration that I’m seeking out but good stories,” said Hill, who works as El Nacional’s script supervisor and a producer.
Those financially supporting the film do care about the issue.
“This is an important topic,” said Michelle Fraga, customer service manager of Tejas Office Products, the film’s first investor.
She said it was important to contribute to the film’s production because her ancestors hail from Mexico.