Film Festival Highlights Challenges of Migrants and Cry of the Poor

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

NEW YORK – Gospel messages abounded in the more than 25 independent movies screened at the Migrant Center of New York’s sixth Indie and Foreign Film Festival. The three-day event, held last month at the Province’s San Damiano Hall on West 31st Street, provided attendees with the unique opportunity to view films with social justice themes while learning about important migrant issues.

The image used to publicize the 2019 film festival

“The film festival is one of the vehicles through which we educate the public on the issue of migration. Each year we delight in showcasing new films that reflect the current and ever-changing immigration situation in the United States,” said Julian Jagudilla, OFM, director of the Migrant Center.

Julian said the mission of this year’s festival – promoted by word-of-mouth, Facebook and email blasts – was to celebrate the lives of migrants and shine a light on the immigrant experience. The event was heavily attended, especially on opening night Oct. 17, according to Julian, which drew a diverse crowd of professionals, domestic workers, religious and laypeople, and including a group that came all the way from Boston College.

The festival was kicked off with short documentaries that set the stage for the theme of the series by providing an overview of U.S. immigration policies on the southern border and their impact on immigrant children and parents, according to Joseph Nangle, OFM, whose frank presentation on the immorality of family separation and detention of children was peppered with his personal experiences of working with the Hispanic community at a parish near Washington, D.C.

“I focused my remarks on some of the real-life experiences of sisters and brothers who I encountered in my pastoral work with the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Arlington, Virginia,” explained Joe, a professed Franciscan friar for more than 65 years. “It was important to put flesh and blood on the harm being done by political decisions – statistics which, in the end, involve real people with life histories, family members and, in this case, dreams of a better life in the so-called ‘land of the free’ – America.”

Poignant Stories Shared
Joe shared poignant stories of the agonizing experiences and what migrants are forced to endure.

“I spoke of a woman named Elizabeth, who came to me asking for a letter of recommendation to help her latest effort at documentation. She had attempted to slip across our border five times, only to be deported each time to her home country. She spoke of the moments she had been violated,” Joe said. “Despite fearing yet another deportation, she was determined to continue beating on the doors of the United States as long as it might take to get a green card and earn enough money for her daughter back home to receive open-heart surgery.”

The 6th Indie & Foreign Film Festival was held in San Damiano Hall on West 31st Street in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of Jim McIntosh)

Then there was 10-year-old Carlos, who appeared at Joe’s office with his mother, appealing for the friar’s help.

“His mother had managed to gain a foothold here, but when she sent for Carlos to join her, they unwisely chose the coyotes’ route across the Rio Grande. He told me that as a small kid, he had hidden in the bushes on the Texas side and managed to avoid arrest,” Joe recounted.

Although Carlos was eventually reunited with his mother, he is now 18 years of age and still undocumented. “He came to me recently and broke down in bitter tears saying that he would never be admitted to this country. He knew that the system was stacked against him,” Joe said.

Dorothea and Miguel were also examples of the immigrant spirit in Joe’s riveting presentation. Like so many others in the parish, the couple avoided marriage for fear of having to reveal their undocumented status. “They had not received Holy Communion for years because of their unmarried situation, until I assured them that they were indeed married in God’s eyes. Such sad stories continue to be told to anyone willing to listen,” Joe told the crowd.

In his concluding remarks, Joe said that the stories of these sisters and brothers represent the cry of the poor, which the Hebrew Scriptures tell us is heard by God.

“They also remind us of the strong warning by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel – which we sometimes shy away from proclaiming: ‘Depart from me you accursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… For I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome,’” Joe said.

Conveying Gospel Through Movies
David Convertino, OFM, president of the Migrant Center of New York Board, welcomed attendees to the opening might, emphasizing the value of films in delivering Franciscan themes and the message of other faith traditions.

“Buddhists, for example, of many traditions and in many countries, hold loving kindness, compassion, generosity and fearlessness to be among the highest values in life — values they share  with those of other religions”  he said.  “As Pope Francis has said: ‘Through migrants, the Lord is calling us to conversion, to be set free from exclusivity, indifference and a throw-away culture. Through them, the Lord invites us to embrace life more fully and to contribute, each according to his or her proper vocation  to the building up of a world that is more and more in accord with God’s plan.”

“Many have worked very hard to make this film festival a reality again this year, so that you and I may come to know the stories and feelings that are part of the lies of our  sisters and brothers who flee one life for another,” David added.

Andrew Reitz, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Manhattan, welcomes the viewers to one night of the film festival. (Photo courtesy of Jim McIntosh)

The film festival was established in 2014 and has brought a variety of movies to the 31st Street community ever since.

“We aim to find films that are powerful and clear in getting across their objectives,” said Julian, who works with a committee to assemble the line-up of movies screened at the event.

One of the most popular films at this year’s festival, according to Julian, was Unaccompanied, a dramatic reenactment of a disturbing subject – how detained children are tried in U.S. Immigration court.

The Migrant Center award for feature film went to Seadrift, a movie based on the name of a fishing village in southern Texas.

Other films that were screened included Better Together, Far From Home, Fireflies, In Colors, Locked Inside a Box, Nosotros, On the Margins of Art, Paper Boats, Raheel, and Unconditional.

Day two of the event featured movies by students in high school, undergrad, graduate and film programs. They included films by Light House Studio, Arturo Santos Barragán, Melanie Rosete, Szu-Wei Chen, Amelia Nanni, Bita Alahyan, Rumi Lee, Jama Rasulov, Fernanda Parrado.

The festival closed with an evening reception on Oct. 19.

Since its founding in 2013, the Migrant Center of New York – formerly called the Migrant Center of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi – has organized a variety of programs to educate the public and to assist migrants with challenges in their lives. Last spring, the organization launched the “Stand Up, Immigrants” campaign.

Additional details about all of the films screened at this year’s event can be found on the festival’s website.

— Jocelyn Thomas is the director of communications for Holy Name Province.