The Visitor Understates Reality

By Julianne Hing Apr 17, 2008

On Monday night I caught a screening of "The Visitor" in San Francisco sponsored by the Active Voice Social Action campaign. It’s a new feature film that’s already in a couple theaters around the country, and will be rolling out in most states by the end of the month. Banafsheh Akhlaghi, the president of the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement and co-host of the screening, said that immigrants rights advocates, "hope that "The Visitor" will do for detainees what "An Inconvenient Truth" did for the environment." I agree the film has the potential to move people to consciousness, if not action, especially in the age of YouTube and social media-driven political campaigns. But it’s a lot to ask of one film to be both a primer on and empathetic portrait of detention and deportation for a country that’s worked itself into such a fearful and outrageous tizzy. It does what it can, and mostly succeeds. In it, Walter Vale, a middle aged Connecticut academic stops by his long vacant New York apartment, and finds a young couple have moved in. That young couple is Tarik, from Syria, and Zainab, from Senegal. Instead of kicking them out, Walter lets Tarik and Zainab stay, and slowly Tarik, a generous and open musician, invites Walter into a world of new relationships and discoveries that the widower has lived for years without. Walter and Tarik form a kinship over Afrobeats, falafel, and Fela Kuti. A dubious conceit, sure, but a convenient setup for Walter to step out of his self-absorbed life and begin to engage with the world. When Tarik is nabbed by local police and sent into detention, Walter is confronted with the realities of the immigration system. ICE, privatized detention centers, and the multiracial faces of detainees all make cameos in the film. I imagine most people are like Walter, uninformed but not uncaring, they only need real contact, a human connection, to grasp the devastation of detention and deportations. I’m working on a piece for an upcoming issue of ColorLines that sent me on my first prison visit to interview a detainee in Yuba County, California, just a few weeks ago. I drove three hours to see her on two separate days and got to know firsthand how taxing it is for family and friends to visit their loved ones in detention. I heard, albeit through a partition, what life in a county jail as a green card holder awaiting deportation is like. The woman I interviewed has been in detention since August 2007 fighting her deportation proceedings, but will likely be deported in a matter of weeks. Her young son is living in foster care right now with a couple whose name and whereabouts she knows nothing of. When I asked what life in detention was like, she mentioned a photo she’d received a few months ago of her baby. She described the photo in such tender detail, the jumper he was wearing, the merry-go-round he was on, the sun in the background, the arms of the adults holding him, it was clear she had memorized the photo and was trying to extend the scene past the frame. Who were the people taking care of her son? Were they fit and caring parents? How would her son be raised remembering her? I remember my last minutes in the visitation center, before we separated. Some distant voice was calling through the loudspeaker that visitation time was over. The lights blinked on and off and we kept speaking hurriedly as we were gathering our things to go. Soon there were two glass windows and ten feet between us, and we waved a final goodbye to each other, knowing she’d be gone soon. Later, as I sat in front of the computer organizing my thoughts, I thought of this woman alone in her cell, staring at the photo and imagining the rest of her life torn from her son. Tears stung my eyes. I felt angry, but helpless. After that experience, I think "The Visitor" in some ways understates how harsh and unjust the experience of detention is. It’s still worth seeing.