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Rob Edelman: Immigrants

These days, “immigrant” and “immigration” have become dirty words among certain segments of the American populace. If your surname is what some Americans judge to be a “funny” name, or an “UnAmerican” name, well, the person with the surname is not to be trusted. 

And indeed, one could pen a history of the manner in which immigrants, both legal and illegal, have been depicted onscreen across the decades. One current example is BEATRIZ AT DINNER, a good but not great film which does feature Salma Hayek in one of her best-ever performances.

However, it must be admitted that, once upon a time, so many films that told stories of the American immigrant experience usually were upbeat. They were odes to the promise of life in a new world. And occasionally, such films still are produced. For example, GOLDEN DOOR, released in 2006, is the heartfelt, dreamlike account of a dirt-poor Italian family that treks from rural Old World Sicily to Ellis Island and the United States, where they enter a new, modern world. Even though GOLDEN DOOR is set around the dawn of the 20th century, it is a poetic elegy to the aspirations of immigrants of all eras. But the difference between GOLDEN DOOR and other films about immigrants that are set in contemporary times is that the central characters are European. If the immigrants are Middle Eastern or Latino, they exist in an American culture that mostly is intimidating and menacing.

Take for example THE VISITOR, which also dates from 2006. The setting is New York City and THE VISITOR tells the story of a charismatic Syrian musician who also is an illegal immigrant and the positive impact he has on a lonely widower whom he chances to meet. While the film underlines the pleasures of life in the contemporary American melting pot, it also stresses that there are perils all around, particularly for those who are in the United States illegally. THE VISITOR is a touching film, which convincingly puts forth the point of view that all lives are worthwhile and that individuals of all cultures have much to contribute to the fabric of American culture.

Another film, this one from 2007, is titled UNDER THE SAME MOON. This is the often saccharine but still emotionally potent story of another illegal immigrant: a Mexican woman who is separated from her young son while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. She ends up in Los Angeles, where she works hard and dreams of one day bringing the boy to America. However, circumstances cause him to attempt the journey on his own.

Then there is MAN PUSH CART, a 2006 release that is not so much a film with a plot as a mood piece, a penetrating character study. Its main character, a Pakistani immigrant, is one of those indistinguishable souls who sells coffee and bagels to workers from pushcarts outside Manhattan office buildings. His name is Ahmad, and he is a textbook example of the types of characters who usually are invisible in mainstream movies. Ahmad’s life is one endless struggle. He is widowed, and his in-laws refuse to let him visit his son. In addition to manning his cart, he does odd jobs just to survive. He befriends a woman who clearly likes him, but he does not reciprocate because he sees no future, no hope for himself. Films like THE VISITOR, UNDER THE SAME MOON, and MAN PUSH CART are linked in that they are sobering reminders that the story of the present-day immigrant primarily is a story of fear and heartbreak. 

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