Group Hopes to Make Life, Campaigns Imitate Movies on Immigration

Image: Demian Bichir
FILE - In this Dec. 7, 2015 file photo, Demian Bichir arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of his film, "The Hateful Eight." The Oscar-nominated actor is a self-proclaimed Tarantino fan. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)Chris Pizzello / AP

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By Griselda Nevarez

With less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, an immigration advocate and filmmaker is hoping a film festival in the first primary state can change the way some campaigns’ talk about immigrants.

Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of Define American immigrant advocacy group, has organized the Define American Festival to "humanize" the discussion around immigration.

The festival, which runs from Thursday to Saturday in Des Moines, will show six feature-length films and six short films on the different immigrant experiences. Each screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring filmmakers, cast members, immigration experts and undocumented immigrants from Iowa.

“Our goal as an organization is to humanize and personalize a very political, partisan and toxic issue that is immigration, and I cannot think of a better place to launch this film festival than in Iowa given the very ugly and dangerous rhetoric that many presidential candidates, particularly on the Republican side, have been using,” Vargas said in a phone interview with NBC News Latino.

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Vargas formed Define American after he revealed he is not legally in the country.

Vargas said he chose Iowa, which holds its caucuses Feb. 1, for the three-day film festival because of the state’s changing demographics.

The number of Latinos living in Iowa has more than doubled over the last 15 years. Latinos make up nearly 6 percent of the state’s total population, and by 2050 their current population in the state is projected to almost triple. However, Latinos are only 2.9 percent of eligible voters in Iowa.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated Iowa is also home to about 40,000 undocumented immigrants, the majority of them from Mexico.

“A Better Life” will kick off the film festival. The 2011 film tells the story of an undocumented Mexican father who works as a gardener in Los Angeles and tries to give his son the opportunities he never had. Actor Demián Bichir, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the father in the film, is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion after the film Thursday.

Vargas said the film lineup also wil show that the immigration issue doesn’t just affect Latinos by screening films such as “The Joy Luck Club,” which focuses on the lives of four Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco and their American daughters, and “The Muslims Are Coming!” which challenges perceptions of Muslims.

“This film festival really shows the complexity and the diversity of the immigrant experience, both documented and undocumented,” Vargas said.

Among the short films being screened is one starring Oscar-winner Robert De Niro. It is set in an abandoned hospital on Ellis Island and tells the story of immigrants who helped build America. A new short film by Define American that focuses on undocumented immigrants from Iowa will also be shown.

A reception planned for Saturday night will mark the conclusion of the film festival.

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