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Jose Antonio Vargas: Why I made 'Documented'

By Jose Antonio Vargas, Special to CNN
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jose Antonio Vargas produced and directed "Documented"
  • The film will air on CNN this year
  • Vargas announced his status as an undocumented immigrant in June 2011
  • "I am not the 'illegal' you think I am, and immigration is not what you think it is," Vargas writes

(CNN) -- 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 new 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 longĀ¬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 United States? (If I leave, there's no guarantee that I would be allowed back. My mother has been denied a tourist visa and awaits a family visa to come to the United States.)

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 specific story that underscores a universal truth, 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 from California, Iowa to Alabama: How do you define American?

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