Immigrant Song: 'The New Americans' Weaves Together Five Stories of US Newcomers

Members of the family of Israel and Ngozi Nwidor. From <em>The New Amerians</em>, airing on PBS in late March. Courtesy of Kartemquin Educational Films/ITVS.

The New Americans, a Kartemquin Films documentary about immigration that airs on PBS from March 29-31, couldn't be more timely.

From fear about terrorists—especially within the community of Arab and Muslim immigrants—to concern about undocumented Mexican laborers flooding the job market, immigration is directly linked these days to the topics of homeland security and the economy. And, thus, to politics in a presidential election year: witness the controversy over President Bush's new proposal to give temporary guest-worker status to those considered "illegal aliens."

But when Steve James, co-executive producer of the three-part, seven-hour The New Americans, as well as director of Hoop Dreams (1994) and Stevie (2003), first thought of the idea, he was spurred more by curiosity than a desire to be politically relevant.

"I remember very distinctly when the idea came to me," he recalls. "I was doing a final editing pass on Hoop Dreams after it had been bought for theatrical release in 1994. At that time, I was traveling more, and I'm one of these people who inevitably talk to cabbies to and from the airport. Invariably, they're immigrants with interesting stories to tell.

"Here we were finishing up a film about the American dream looking through the eyes of African-Americans in the city,' he continues. "I thought it would be really interesting to look at America through the eyes of immigrants."

As the idea percolated, James remembers, immigration was becoming an increasingly important political issue. He himself had worries about what the impact of too many non-European newcomers would be on America. "I didn't know how I felt about undocumented workers crossing the border and getting jobs in America," he admits. "I thought taking on a job like this would be an interesting way to figure that out."

The result is far more than that. It's a miniseries featuring five stories, by separate directors, interwoven through laborious editing so that all unfold relatively concurrently. The ultimate budget was $2.8 million, and the filmmakers shot some 1,000 hours of digital video footage. One reason for such effort is that each of the stories begins before the subjects have reached the US.

Two of these five stories were directed by filmmakers long affiliated with Kartemquin, the Chicago-based company that works with independent filmmakers to produce social-issue documentaries such as Hoop Dreams, 5 Girls (2001), Stevie and Refrigerator Mothers (2002). One of those two is by James, who concentrates on political refugees of the Ogoni tribal minority of Nigeria as they travel from a camp in Benin to resettle in Chicago. This story is the only one in the New Americans project about political refugees assigned to the US by a relief agency.

The second, co-directed by Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal, follows a young Palestinian woman who marries a Palestinian-American man and moves to Chicago to be with him. Quinn is Kartemquin's president and the series' co-executive producer; Blumenthal is one of Kartemquin's founders. James has a longstanding close relationship with Kartemquin, but is not an employee. Kartemquin hired Gita Saedi as series producer of The New Americans.

The other three stories in the project were made by Spanish-born, New York-based directors Susana Aikin and Carlos Aparicio, who concentrated on two Dominican Republic ball players trying to make it in Major League Baseball; Asian-American director Renée Tajima-Peña (My America...Or Honk If You Love Buddha), who chronicled a large but separated Mexican family's attempt to legally reunite and work in the US; and Indian-born Indu Krishnan's study of a computer programmer from Bangalore who comes with his new wife to Silicon Valley.

Since this is real life, none of the story arcs follows a predictable course. But there are moments when the subjects' personal lives intersect with world events. Most dramatically, Quinn and Blumenthal capture the shock of Hatem Abudayyeh, who runs an Arab-American political action center in Chicago, and his wife, Naima, on September 11, 2001. Abudayyeh, fearing the impact on American opinion, rushes to release a statement of condemnation of the terrorist attack. Later, his center is gutted by fire.

Krishnan's subjects, who come to Silicon Valley to a waiting job amid the "dotcom boom," found themselves part of a larger economic story when they become desperately adrift once the bust hits. Anjan, the husband, has arrived on a special H1-B visa, which is for such professional work, but requires the recipient to be employed and restricts his wife from working.

Krishnan empathized with her subjects' plight. "As a filmmaker, it's horrible, but you know you now have a major drama going on," she maintains. "In a sense, you feel you've been given the opportunity to show how the US deals with immigration when times are good and when times aren't so good."

In 1997, Kartemquin received initial funding for the project from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Subsequently, crucial pre-production financing came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and PBS. The Independent Television Service (ITVS), itself funded by CPB, provided money once production was underway and is presenting The New Americans as part of the Independent Lens series. ITVS also developed an extensive community outreach campaign in conjunction with the broadcast.

Even before initial funding, James and Quinn had decided on interweaving multiple stories and following subjects before they reach US shores. "When you hear people tell their stories, they often tell you the preconceptions they had before they came," James says. "It seemed like it would be far more revealing and dramatic to see the formation of how they come to think about America."

With that approach in mind, Kartemquin producers began trying to find subjects. Through contacts in Chicago's Arab-American community, they learned of Naima—who was living with her mother and attending college in the West Bank—and her desires to marry and move to the US.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees helped James locate Ogoni people—Israel and Ngozi Nwidor and Barine Wiwa-Lawani—who were to be sent to Chicago. Kartemquin learned about two Dominican ball players, Ricardo Rodriguez and José Garcia, from the Los Angeles Dodgers after James read a New York Times series on Latin-American baseball camps. Krishnan found her subjects on her own, since she travels between the San Francisco Bay Area and Bangalore, her hometown, frequently.

The Los Angeles-based Tajima-Peña had already been planning her film for several years before Kartemquin contacted her in 2000. She had wanted to make a documentary about immigrant workers for Asian Women United. "We were going to make one documentary integrating two stories—both of them meatpacking families from southwest Kansas who had members still in Vietnam or Mexico struggling to reunite," she recalls.

With her Spanish-speaking producer Evangeline Griego, Tajima-Peña located meatpacker Pedro Flores attending an evening English class in Garden City, Kansas. For 13 years, he had been working in the US while his wife, Ventura, and children lived on a Mexican ranch some 1,500 miles away. He finally felt he had the money and security to bring them to the US.

Just a few months after Tajima-Peña shifted her project to Kartemquin, she learned the Flores family would soon have an immigration interview in Juarez, Mexico. Racing to put together her four-person crew, she filmed the complex logistical arrangements by which Flores traveled from his Kansas home, prepared his family for the bus trip to Juarez, and then submitted to interviews and paperwork. At first, Flores had neither enough income nor sponsorship to bring his wife and all six children to the US, prompting fearful discussions of a family split.

At that moment, Tajima-Peña gave some thought to intervening. "My crew said, 'You're in the position to sponsor them,'" she reflects. "We got on the phone with other filmmakers and asked what they thought. We [finally] figured it would be overstepping the bounds to sponsor them or find a sponsor. And in the end, the family was resourceful and found another."

She is also finishing a film on a Vietnamese immigrant family, under Kartemquin's aegis. It originally was to be part of The New Americans, but PBS requested that the series be trimmed.

Despite deciding on the structure early, James did not have an easy time editing The New Americans into a miniseries. Each director assembled a first cut of his or her story and turned it in. Then James, series editor David Simpson and story editor Leslie Simmer started their work.

"And of course, we went back to their dailies and raw footage a lot," James recalls. "There might be interesting dramatic developments in three stories that were similar, so we had to decide which story got to dramatize that.

"And we decided it would be impossible for viewers if we tried to start all five stories in the beginning of the series," James continues. "It would be hard for viewers to keep people straight and bond with the subjects. So we decided to target three of the stories to start the series and let them get well underway before we introduced the fourth and fifth."

The editing process took about a year and a half. As finally resolved, Tajima-Peña's story doesn't begin until the second night, while Krishnan's story debuts on the final night.

When first looking for funding, Kartemquin saw the community outreach possibilities of this project. An early grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation provided for both production and outreach money. When ITVS became involved, its national outreach manager Jim Sommers coordinated a Community Connections Project—a veritable political campaign—with three other organizations around issues raised by the broadcast, such as health care and police/protective services. Those partners are Active Voice, National Issues Forums Institute and Outreach Extensions.

"It just had winner all over it," says Claire Aguilar, ITVS' director of programming, about The New Americans. "It was very well thought-out and stories were engaging, new and innovative. And to put them together and make this kind of landscape was pretty eye-opening. So we saw outreach potential when we signed on to it. These are the new 21st century immigrant populations that are our audience for television, too."

The website, www.itvs.org/outreach/newamericans, is a guide to everything being done to help the series prompt community response. One element includes $50,000 in grants made by ITVS to 13 local public television stations partnering with colleges and service organizations.

Meanwhile, PBS has its own website, wwwpbs.org/newamericans, with information related to the series and subjects.

In the end, after all the years of hard work, James did discover something new—yet also old—about immigration in the US: It isn't easy being a newcomer. "In many ways, it's as hard as it's ever been to come to America and succeed," he maintains. "We frankly expected our immigrants to be more successful than they were as group. We were surprised how hard and lonely and isolating coming to America is for immigrants as a group."

 

Steven Rosen is a Los Angeles-based freelance arts and entertainment writer, whose stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post and on IndieWire.com. He can be reached at srosenone@aol.com.

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