On Tuesday night I was able to catch part of Steve James’ (Hoop Dreams) new documetary, The New Americans on PBS. It was really well done and when it comes out, I’m gonna rent it on DVD. Here’s an excerpt from an NYTimes interview:
HALE Where did you get the idea for such a large project on the subject of immigration?
JAMES Oddly enough, it came to me back in 1994, during the final stages of “Hoop Dreams.” It was a time when Patrick Buchanan was talking very publicly about the need to close the borders with Mexico. And there was a lot of discussion in Congress about welfare reform and the impact of immigrants on our economy. I’m a pretty liberal guy, but I recognized that I was sort of unsettled by a lot of this and wasn’t sure how I felt about immigration and about issues of undocumented workers coming from Mexico. I think I shared a lot of the same questions that a lot of Americans had at that time.
And the other thing is, I was doing a lot more traveling because of “Hoop Dreams.” And I’m one of these guys that talks to cabbies. And invariably in big cities, cabbies are immigrants. And I would strike up these conversations with cabbies about where they’re from, why they came here, what they used to do back home. And invariably they had fascinating stories that I thought to be quite revealing of America today.
And so it struck me — if in “Hoop Dreams” we were trying to look at the American dream through the eyes of inner-city black families and these two boys aspiring to make it, it would be really interesting to do something akin to that with contemporary immigrants and look at the American dream and the American myth of the melting pot through their eyes. And in the process, inquire into something that I felt a need to understand better.
This is not in the series, but it was revealing to me: at one point, in the Nigerian story, Israel was talking about his dreams of earning an M.B.A. and being successful in business. And I said, “Oh, is that your American dream?” And he looked at me and said, “No, that’s my Nigerian dream.”
HALE The sense of being torn — between homeland and America, between family and America, between culture and America — is so central to the film. Did you know going in that that was your story?
JAMES No. You’d have to ask the other filmmakers directly, because some of them were much more sophisticated about this than I was. Indu Krishnan is from India; Carlos Aparicio and Susana Aikin were born in Spain and are immigrants themselves; Renee Tajima-Peña is first-generation Japanese-American. My immigrant roots are more deeply buried. Having said that, I was surprised. Part of the myth of the immigrant experience is that immigrants come to America and embrace this new country wholeheartedly, and make a break with their past. And I think there was a time in our history when that was more true than it is today. Many of our subjects felt that in leaving the familiar behind and the tightknit communities and families they came from, and coming to America, that America is not a place where you can find that very easily.
HALE There are scenes where the camera is inside the room as the Mexican family, or the Palestinian couple, are trying to get visas. Did you worry about the filming influencing events?
JAMES It would have been so easy for the consulate, particularly in the Mexico story, to make a show to the cameras and kind of slide them through and look like heroes. And they didn’t. I’m actually, frankly, more amazed at how little impact we do have. Israel, the Nigerian refugee, still struggled to get a decent job in America; Naima, the Palestinian, still struggled to get employed when she first got here. You can run down the list of all the things that happened to these people in this series, and you see some pretty amazing things, turns of events with the cameras rolling, that you would think, if someone was really trying to be shrewd about it, it wouldn’t have happened that way.
There’s no question that filming on some level influences events. I think the more profound influence, at least in the work we’ve done, is that by filming you’re giving your subjects an opportunity to reflect on their lives. You’re there, you’re asking them to think about what they’re doing and where they’ve come and where they’re headed. And that’s not something we normally do. To the extent that it makes people think, it may affect some decisions they make. But it’s more of a byproduct of the almost therapeutic process that goes on in these kinds of documentaries.
HALE I’m guessing that you basically thought you were done, at least with the filming, before Sept. 11 happened. It seems as if it must have had a profound impact on how you put the series together, on how you thought about the world you were putting it into.
JAMES Certainly it was winding down. It’s interesting. Once we got our bearings, we wondered whether this happening so late was going to present a real problem — whether we should keep filming for a lot longer, which we couldn’t afford, whether it would in some ways make what had come before seem less important. But we realized that the opposite would be true. In the wake of 9/11 a lot of people in the news media rushed out to get the temperature of the people, to take the pulse. And we had already been deeply into these people’s lives for years. And I think that it allowed us to not do the obvious thing. We talked about trying to ask all our subjects what they felt about 9/11 and including that at the end of the film. And we did it with some of our subjects, but we decided, no, we’re just going to keep telling the story.
HALE What’s it like embarking on something like this, which is an aesthetic commitment, a business commitment and a commitment of years of your life? Which you do over and over again.
JAMES I’ve done it now three times between “Hoop Dreams,” “Stevie” and this series. This is hard in a lot of ways and it requires an inordinate amount of patience and determination on the part of a lot of people because, often as not, at a certain point you’re not sure where the money’s going to come from to finish it. You just know that, one way or the other, we have to finish it.
But there’s nothing quite as thrilling and eye-opening and, frankly, moving as following people’s lives like this. You feel like you’re living inside their lives, and inside this kind of elaborate novel where the story is unfolding and you don’t know the end. I never believe writers when they say they don’t know where their story’s going and they let their characters lead them. But maybe it’s true because it certainly is true with us.
HALE The series is clearly made from a liberal, pro-immigration point of view — the melting pot is good — that may not sit well with all viewers.
JAMES But you know, I think there’s so much in the series that . . . well, it’ll be interesting to see what the critical response is. The series has already played in the Netherlands and in Australia. And the theme of those reviews was, America presents itself to the world as the melting pot, the nation of immigrants. And this series shows you that it’s not that way. Israel is a man who’s full of optimism coming out of the refugee camp. But he proceeds to be beaten down through the course of the series. Anjan comes, has a job, loses a job, is not successful and is forced to send his wife and child back to India. José ends up out of baseball. Hatem and Naima buy a house, but I don’t know. It’s kind of a bittersweet end to that story. And then in the Mexico story they end up going to work in the fields of California. As their neighbor says, they’re actually going the opposite direction of the way people in Mexico dream of going, which is starting in the fields and getting to the factories. So I don’t know. Frankly, we worried more that people would see the series as a downer.