It’s sometimes hard to picture a real face for the immigration issues that often only reach us through the filter of cable news. We’ve been bombarded with blurred video footage of silhouettes scrambling over fences or grim slideshows of children huddled in border shelters.
Against that bleak backdrop, community advocates in the Washington, D.C., area seek to project a deeper narrative with the Greater Washington Film Festival: a series of 13 film screenings from October 23-26, depicting immigrant experiences viewed from the other side of the Beltway. In contrast to the staid, pasty legislative chambers that hammer out draconian immigration legislation, the D.C.-area is colored with a cross-section of America’s new demographic profile, with a burgeoning Latino community and an array of enclaves of refugees, dignitaries, students, and workers representing every corner of the world. The film festival gives us a few snatches of those worlds and the diasporas that enmesh them.
The featured film is Who is Dayani Cristal?, a panoramic docu-drama that fuses a forensics mystery story, centering on an anonymous body found in the desert, and the quest to reunite a family divided by borders—made possible only through a father’s passing.
In an interview with CultureStrike, forensics anthropologist Robin Reineke discussed her work of identifying bodies—which was a central focus of Dayani Cristal—and film as a platform for complex dialogue in an often oversimplified immigration debate.
[T]his film does a good job of telling a very human story in a very relatable way, so that people aren’t scared away by the politics. I think that’s very powerful, and I do have a lot of hope for that kind of communication, because so often, when people are saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize that this was happening,” that’s an opportunity to open up a broader conversation about all of the injustices happening relevant to U.S. immigration policy … .
[If] we can hold onto that agreement that most people are going to have, that we don’t want a border that is this deadly, we don’t want a deadly border, then maybe we can work outward from that point of agreement, to start talking about immigrants again as human beings because the criminalization of immigrants has just been so successful.
Another featured film is Alex Rivera’s 2008 sci-fi cult classic The Sleep Dealer. In a riotous cinematic landscape that brings together futurististic visions and contemporary social ills, a young migrant Memo inadvertently finds himself on the frontlines of a ferocious drone war between the U.S. government and impoverished farming communities across the border, designed to facilitate the plunder of local water resources to fuel America’s capitalist hypertrophy. But Memo is also magnetically pulled to the border by economic imperative, joining a massive traffic of workers desperate to support what’s left of their home communities.
Yet this border economy isn’t peopled by field hands or assembly lines. The migrant is “telepresent” in a network that distills bodily energy without actually physically transporting the person, channeling it to a worksite on the other side of the wall. It’s a migration parable taken to its logical extreme—the total disembodiment of work and automization of human labor into an exchange of atomized vectors. It is only when the young protagonist reclaims his mind and flesh from the machine that he finds emancipation in both the virtual and material worlds.
As a Latino filmmaker, Rivera sees an organic synergy between race, identity, and the science-fiction imagination. “I think the Latino people are people who live deep in the heart of the mushroom. We are a people made up of other people,” he recently told OC Register. ”It’s a race made up of other races. There is something very science fiction in our core. We’re a genetic experiment, an amalgamation, a hybrid.”
Rivera spoke with The New Inquiry about the historical and political concepts underlying his dystopic vision of a future horizon built on old migratory routes:
[T]elepresent/transnational exchanges, including the military drone, accelerate and exaggerate already existing neocolonial exchanges. But the new systems don’t replace the pre-existing ones—they exist in parallel and intermingle. And so an enduring neocolonial exchange, like a worker wandering north, through the desert, seeking work, losing their political rights in the process, encounters the 21st century telepresent present when they find themselves under the gaze of a Global Hawk drone, patrolling the skies over the U.S.-Mexico border, inevitably wandering through both American and Mexican airspace. The body on the ground called “illegal,” tracked by a satellite-guided disembodied being, which itself is given legal authority to cross all borders … .
I don’t think we even have the vocabulary to talk about what we lose as contemporary virtualized capitalism produces these new disembodied labor relations. We don’t have a way to conceive of what those relationships are, what they could be, what we want them to be. The broad, hegemonic clarity is the knowledge that a capitalist enterprise has the right to seek out the cheapest wage and the right to configure itself globally to find it. I believe that there has been for the past maybe 40 years a continual march in which capital, confronting a labor movement that, with all its flaws, was somewhat successful in lifting wages and creating space for a middle class in this country, has been relocating the nodes of production outside of the legal space—the nation—in which the labor movement has been operating, organizing, and imagining itself.
Sleep Dealer and Who is Dayani Cristal? represent two different perspectives on migritude—one focuses on the imagined world of the “cyberbracero” and the far edge of late capitalism, the other examines in granular detail the all-too-real violence inflicted by colonial legal regimes on those who dare break the boundaries of nation-states. Still, both stories look beyond the horizon of human possibility, and through film, transgress mental bounds in art and life. The audience also peaks over the precipice, gazing upon the other side from within.
To see the full schedule of film screenings, go to the Greater Washington Immigration Film Festival website.