Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist with film-making ambitions, had an idea in 2011: he would reveal publicly that he was an undocumented immigrant in a splashy way, then create a documentary focused on several people in similar situations as he is.
“I wanted to do a ‘Waiting for Superman’ for the Dream Act,” Vargas said in a phone interview Friday, referencing the critically acclaimed 2010 film about charter schools and legislation that would give undocumented immigrants who came here as children a path to citizenship.
But Vargas realized his own story was so compelling, he made the somewhat awkward decision to focus “Documented” on himself. CNN is airing the documentary on Sunday at 9 p.m.
“People like me are being detained and deported every day,” Vargas said. “I’m the most privileged undocumented immigrant in America. It’s my own artistic act of civil disobedience. The film is a declaration of independence. People like us are not supposed to speak up. We are not even supposed to tell the world we’re here. We’re supposed to shut the hell up and work.” [He refuses to describe himself as "illegal," because he feels it's dehumanizing.]
Brought to the United States from the Philippines at age 12 to live with his grandmother, he didn’t realize he was undocumented until he was age 16 and tried to get a driver’s license with fake papers. Later, he used a false Social Security card (and what was a legal Washington State driver’s license) to become a reporter and landed jobs over the years at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Huffington Post and the Washington Post. Vargas even won a Pulitzer Prize as part of the Post team that covered the Virginia Tech shooter in 2007.
In 2011, he wrote a 4,500-word article for the New York Times Magazine revealing his undocumented status to the world.
The film chronicles the subsequent 18 months of his life as he struggles with the transition from covering the story to being the story. He faces the fact he hasn’t seen his mother in more than 18 years head on. In 1993, she had sent him to America for greater opportunities, hoping she could join him later. But given immigration laws in the U.S. and the fact she didn’t work made it impossible for her to even get a tourist visa.
And given his status, he couldn’t leave the country.
There was almost good news for Vargas when Pres. Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in June, 2012, but Vargas was too old to be eligible – by three months. The camera captures his painful reaction.
“Personal documentaries are hard to pull off,” Vargas said. “I just wasn’t sure if I was willing to be that open. I wasn’t sure if I could pass my own bull**** test. On film, you can really spot inauthenticity – when things are fake, when it’s staged. We live in this reality television culture.”
He had a difficult time putting his own family on screen – especially his mother. But he ultimately had a camera crew fly to the Philippines and talk to her. She comes across sympathetically, arguably more so than even Vargas himself.
Vargas, short of a few curt phone calls and sending money home, mostly avoided his mother from the time he found out he was undocumented in 1997 until the film captured him in 2012 talking to her via Skype. Cue the waterworks.
“I could barely deal with my mom,” Vargas admitted. “But once it went down this direction, I knew it was the right thing to do artistically and personally because my life doesn’t make sense without her. The film doesn’t make sense without her.”
Ultimately, Vargas learned a lot about himself: “This is a story of a very isolated, very lonely, very broken man. That footage was me. It’s kind of weird. That’s my life unfolding before my eyes. I had to edit it and make sense of it.”
The film ends in early 2013 when federal immigration reform was still a possibility. But recently, it’s been considered dead at least until 2016, especially after House majority leader Eric Cantor surprisingly lost a primary after indicating (ever so slightly) that he was open to changes in immigration law that many hardcore conservatives saw as soft.
“Articles say immigration reform is dead,” Vargas said. “But for 11 million of us, immigration reform is not dead. It’s the daily struggles we live with every day. That’s why I think art and film and culture is so important. Before I knew about politics, I understood America by watching TV and movies.” (Pop culture references that had power over him as a child included the film “Anne of Green Gables” and Will Smith. “That was my America when I was young,” he said, “even though ‘Anne of Green Gables’ was Canadian!”)
He said he is deeply inspired by Atlanta civil rights legend and Rep. John Lewis. They have shared the stage a couple of times receiving awards and Vargas has gotten to spent time talking to Lewis.
“John Lewis attended an immigration rally last year and in front of 20,000 immigrants and advocates said, ‘You may have come on different ships but we’re all in the same boat,’ ” Vargas recalled. “What a powerful statement!” In college, he had studied politics and African-American studies. “I don’t know what I would have done in high school and college if I hadn’t discovered John Lewis and James Baldwin and that part of history, about fighting for an America that is more equal and more just.”
To him, “John Lewis is the epitome of inclusivity. He embodies the idea that our equalities are tied to each other. He is helping me get closer to what I really need to be. In a way, I’m owning my own power, power I didn’t even know I had. I feel like my life started three years ago [when he came out.] I spent my teens and 20s running away from something I’m now running towards. I’m trying to figure out what it all means. I don’t consider myself a leader. I do think I”m a writer and filmmaker trying to be as creative and positively disruptive as possible.”
He said he signed a deal for Atlanta-based CNN to air his film because he considers the audience the broadest and most mainstream of the news networks. And he deemed it a bit ironic since CNN used to be home to Lou Dobbs, a rather ardent opponent of “illegal immigrants.”
Vargas said he gave CNN an early cut of the film last year and they liked it. One factor that helped: Amy Entelis, senior vice president of talent and content development for CNN, already knew Vargas. She almost hired him in 2009 when she worked at ABC News.
As an undocumented immigrant, Vargas said he can’t be an employee for anyone right now. But he can start his own business. So he’s now running his own production company and employed 30 people to put this film together. “I’m a job creator,” he said, with a trace of irony in his voice. He is now working on another film but isn’t ready to disclose what it is yet.
“Documented,” 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., Sunday, June 29, CNN (repeat on July 5 at 9 p.m.)