Every day, an estimated 1,100 immigrants are deported. The U.S. government has deported nearly 2 million immigrants in five years—a record.
But not me.
I am privileged to still be in America, my home, and privileged to put Documented on the screen.
To me, politics is culture. I became a journalist, and later, a filmmaker, to get to know my adoptive country and my volatile place in it as a gay, undocumented, Filipino American. As a newcomer to America who learned to "speak American" by watching movies, I firmly believe that to change the politics of immigration and citizenship, we must change culture—the way we portray undocumented people like me and our role in society. That's why I felt compelled to take charge of my own narrative and write, produce, and direct Documented. This film, to me, is as much an artistic statement as it is a political one: I am not the "illegal" you think I am, and immigration is not what you think it is.
After publicly outing myself as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine in June 2011, I had planned to make a film about undocumented youth who call themselves "DREAMers"—named after a long-stalled Congressional bill called the DREAM Act. I had written my story, I thought—I was done. In my mind, it was time to find and document other stories. But after nearly a year of shooting, wherein my story joined the fold, I was forced to ask harder questions of myself.
How could I possibly tell my story and not include my mother? And if I were to include my mother, who lives in the Philippines, how do I direct the shoot if I cannot leave the U.S.? (If I leave, there's no guarantee that I will be allowed back. My mother has been denied a tourist visa and awaits a family visa to come to the U.S.) And, the toughest question of all: Can I trust myself to tell my own story? Making this film became more painful, more confrontational, and wholly personal. Mama put me on a plane to America at age 12, and I have not seen her in person since. While editing the film, I saw more of her than I have in the past 20 years.
This is not the film I set out to make, but it is the film I needed to make. A broken immigration system means broken families and broken lives. I did not realize how broken I was until I saw how broken Mama was. In the process of documenting myself, I ended up documenting Mama—and the sacrifices of parents who make America what it is, then and now. And in telling my own specifically universal story, I hope it incites others to tell their stories too. At the very least, I want viewers to ask the question I posed as I filmed and traveled our country: How do you define American?