Jose Antonio Vargas Opens Up About ‘Documented’

By Aura Bogado May 06, 2014

Jose Antonio Vargas’ "Documented" opened in theaters on Friday. It’s a documentary about immigration and policy, but it also weaves a personal story that includes his painfully complicated relationships with family members–including his mother, whom Vargas hasn’t seen since he was 12 years old. Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is already well known for revealing his status in the New York Times Magazine in 2011, but this film tells of a deeper experience. I spoke with Vargas about the film, including why he chose American nationalism as a central theme to tell such a personal immigration story.

After revealing your status, there were calls for your deportation–petitions to the White House, even. Did you expect that kind of vitriol?

I actually expected it to be much worse. I was expecting the Right to really go after me. I get a lot of hate mail, but when people don’t put their names on e-mails, I don’t take it seriously. I had an exchange with Michelle Malkin that I thought was really interesting, but she hasn’t taken me up on my offer to make her adobo. The film is going to be in several cities until late June, and it’s going to go to Denver. And I know Michelle lives in that Denver-Bolder area, so I’m hoping she sees the film. I’ll personally invite her.

It hasn’t only been the Right Wing. There have also been critiques putting pressure on your embrace of Americanism, and this sense of nationalism that drives the documentary. How do you respond to that?

It was really important for me to make a film that was going to be as honest as it was going to get, at least for me. On this whole question of deserving and not-deserving immigrants, I remember when I first launched this campaign, I got a lot of pushback like, "When you say Define American, doesn’t that sound so patriotic?" Look, I come from the Philippines–the Philippines that for so many years was colonized by the Spanish and then the Americans, the Philippines that in some way was the first Vietnam, the first Iraq, the first occupied territory. I read Howard Zinn. I know the history of colonialism and imperialism. I get all of that. But I think when you talk about America, you embrace all the beauty of it and all the ugliness of it.

But the film might still play into the deserving immigrant narrative, especially because you’re the prize-winning journalist who deserves to stay–that’s not true for everybody. Do you think that narrative is helpful at this time?

It doesn’t become a question of who’s deserving and who is not. It comes from the place of how to deal with this individual and collective pain. My experience as an undocumented person in this country is not the same as a migrant worker who has walked the desert and crossed the border from Mexico. It’s not the same experience as an undocumented kid from Nicaragua or from Guatemala. I get all of that. 

What do you think might be missing from this film?

The thing that I have to be at peace with is that I can only do one 90-minute film. I couldn’t address everything. I wish that I could have talked more in the film about imperialism and colonialism. The very first two lines in the film are, "Growing up in the Philippines, I always knew I was going to America. America was inevitable." What is that about? My message in writing that voiceover was about America and the Philippines having always been married. I wish I had more than the film, but I didn’t. This is just one film. It’s only one story.

I found the film much more intimate than I thought it would be. Part of that includes your relationship with your grandparents, your lolo and your lola. Your lolo has passed away. How do you think he’d respond to this film?

One of my lawyers asked me, "Would you do this if your grandfather were alive?" because he was the one who would have been liable. He was the one who got me the fake social security card, and got me the passport. I think he would have supported me. And I hope he knows how grateful I am. The privilege and also the challenge of making such a personal film is that once it’s out there, it isn’t yours anymore. It becomes something else and people project onto it what their own lives are. But I hope people don’t walk away thinking he’s to blame. I’m still unpacking a lot of this stuff.

This is also a film about you and your mom. And it’s painful to watch, sometimes. For example, you wouldn’t accept her Facebook friend request because of emotional distance you’ve had for years of not talking. Why did you choose to be so honest about your relationship?

Film is very literal, especially documentaries. If I made it a film about only about missing my mother, that wouldn’t be the simple truth. I had to embrace the complexity of that relationship. I could have made a much more intellectual film that made an economic argument. But as I traveled around the country, what I found is that you can convince some people with facts, but my experience has been that this issue is very visceral. It’s an issue that’s wrapped not only in, "You’re taking my job." but "You’re taking my country." To deal with that head on, I had to give people the most anxious and the most painful part of me.