Although not—arguably—geographically accurate or politically correct, the title of the PBS documentary mini-series, The New Americans, lends immediate dignity to the immigrant subjects it follows.
“We really grappled with the title,” says series producer and Missoula resident Gita Saedi. “Originally, we called it The New Immigrants, but that didn’t seem encompassing enough. The phrase ‘new Americans’ is honest even if it’s not politically correct, because the story of today’s immigrant is the new American story.”
As part of the critically acclaimed Independent Lens series, The New Americans will have its nationwide television premiere (Big Sky Documentary Film Fest-goers got an earlier view) on Monday, March 29, at 8 PM local time. Giving an intimacy, a human face, to the phenomenon of globalization, the series accompanies newcomers from five areas of the world through their first dramatic years in the United States.
“We felt it imperative to find subjects who we could film in their countries of origin,” says Saedi, noting that this allowed a look into the normalcy of subjects’ lives prior to their life-changing journeys. Viewers are able to find inevitable parallels to their own lives while watching the Palestinian Naima banter with her mother in the West Bank, or Ngozi and Israel mourn environmental catastrophes in their beloved Nigeria.
Although Kartemquin Films set out early to find stories that reflected the “racial, geographic, and economic diversity of the present immigrant population,” series Executive Producer Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) insists that, “We could have told 12 different stories and still not captured the rich and varied immigrant experience.” And that, Saedi says, is because the story is “not just about immigrants, but about humans.”
And the story could not be more timely. In the span of three decades, the number of foreign-born residents and children of immigrants in the U.S. has increased by more than 20 million. Yet the contemporary immigrant’s life remains challenging at best.
“We tend to think that the past barriers of racism, insensitivity, and xenophobia have been struck down,” says James. “[The New Americans] shows that this is not the case.”
Watching Naima’s American-born husband, Hatem, pace through the remains of his post-9/11, arson-claimed Arab-American Action Network office in Chicago is a humbling and mortifying experience to anyone who thinks America has transcended its small-minded, bigoted past. Hopefully, however, the moving series will prove capable of effecting change. The Independent Television Service (one of the project’s funders, along with the MacArthur and Annie E. Casey Foundations), has sponsored an impressive outreach program on its website (www.itvs.org), with highlights including a chat room for immigrants to share their stories and comment on the series; a “cultural riches” section detailing the myriad ways new cultures enrich the arts, cuisine and language of America; and a section for educators that outlines a unit for seventh–12th graders to supplement the mini-series. Already, it seems, Saedi’s hope that the series becomes “more than just a film, but a movement” is being realized.
At her best, Saedi, the National Book Critics Circle Award winner and former UM visiting professor, is a genre-advancing force, giving voice to characters, often immigrants—“new Americans”—who would otherwise not be heard in this country. The same can be said for Kartemquin Films, whose hands-off cinéma vérité style allows the subjects’ lives to speak for themselves.
Starting with over 1,000 hours of raw footage filmed over a four-year time span, The New Americans team spent three years producing the three-episode mini-series. A “rough-ratio” for documentary filmmakers, says Saedi, is about 100 hours of film to one hour of program. Such an extensive editing task makes directorial voice and subjectivity unavoidable, she concedes, “but we’re proud of the objectivity we strive for and think we’ve attained.”
Another inescapable conflict for Saedi was the friend-or-filmmaker conundrum: “It’s emotionally very difficult when something bad happens to a subject who might also be a friend, not to intervene, but to film. But that’s what our filmmaking style requires. It can be quite schizophrenic at times—friend, filmmaker, friend, filmmaker,” says Saedi, who still speaks with Israel, the subject with whom she worked most closely, about once a month.
Viewers of The New Americans will doubtless be likewise endeared to the film’s subjects. Throats will swell as former L.A. Dodgers’ Manager Tommy Lasorda admires Dominican prospect Ricardo Rodriguez’s fastball. Or as the son of meatpacker Pedro Flores, waiting with his family in a Mexican immigration building, begs his father not to leave him behind. Perfectly paced, with resonant, effortless transitions, the film gazes on moments of desperation and moments of joy with equal, unflinching attention.
The crux of the series is that immigration is paradoxical. As subjects gain understanding and knowledge of America, as they advance in their careers, have children, buy homes, they also lose some of the culture they were born into. Their isolation and homesickness is at once glaring and, ultimately, human.