Film Forum

Crossing Over: 3 Films About the Immigrant Experience

Young Khadji and his father Markov slowly re-connect in Paris, while Markov, a Chechen immigrant, struggles to provide for his son. (Via Distrib Films.

Young Khadji and his father Markov slowly re-connect in Paris, while Markov, a Chechen immigrant, struggles to provide for his son. (Via Distrib Films.


The plight of an immigrant’s journey has always been a cornerstone of American cinema, and as of late, contemporary international cinema seems to be catching on to this universal narrative. More recent works have unapologetically shed light on the hardships immigrants face in a new country. Filmmakers from across the globe are exploring narrative arcs built on migrants’ resilience, success and heartbreak.

The next Filmworks presentation at the Tower Theatre on Oct. 9 is “The Great Man,” a layered French drama depicting the effects of war and immigration. Its thoughtful take on the immigration travails that engross France today ultimately joins a host of other independent and studio productions tackling the timely issue today.

“Hands Up” (Les mains en l’air)

In a similar vein to “The Great Man,” “Hands Up” follows a young, undocumented Chechen girl who is fully immersed in the French system, complete with mischievous and good-natured friends as well as a supporting teacher. But when one of their classmates gets deported, Milania’s friends fear she might be next and vow to protect her no matter what.

Although told in a fictionalized flashback from 2067, the 2010 film’s plot line is inspired by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s tough immigration measures that forced deportation quotas of up to 25,000 people and even occasionally approached children registered in public schools. Even though its namesake — “Hands Up” — showcases the complexities of immigration, the film highlights the innocence of children who can be treated as criminals themselves under strict laws.

“The Visitor”

This second film by Tom McCarthy, whose debut was “The Station Agent,” gave veteran actor Richard Jenkins a rare lead role that also garnered him an Oscar nomination back in 2008.

Aside from the piano lessons he takes to honor his late wife, economics professor Walter Vale leads a painstakingly boring life — until he finds his New York City apartment to be occupied by a young immigrant couple.

Syrian drummer Tarek immediately strikes a friendship with Walter, while his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab remains wary of his hospitality. Over the course of several days, however, the three bond amidst the concrete jungle, until post-9/11 immigration policies bring them back down to reality and rips Tarek away to a detention center.

The title itself leaves the viewer a subtle question to ponder, who is the real “visitor” here? Is it Tarek, the friendly Syrian immigrant who seems at home, wherever that may be, or is it Walter, the sheltered widow who seems to be barely reconciling with the truth of his country’s complexities?

“A Better Life”

Mexican actor Demián Bichir commands the screen as single-dad Carlos Balindo striving to provide — you guessed it — “a better life” for his indifferent, teenage son Luis. Things go (even more) south for Carlos, when the work truck he bought on a loan gets stolen and leads him on a desperate search for the last chance he and son may have for a successful future.

Oscar-nominated in 2011 for his portrayal as a day-laborer in Los Angeles, Bichir gives a sobering view into the otherwise hidden lives of Mexican immigrants working for, but never attaining, the same lives as their affluent Angelenos.

Yvette Mancilla studies multimedia journalism at Fresno State. She currently serves as the Filmworks marketing intern.

Every second Friday of the month, Fresno Filmworks screens first-run independent and international movies at the historic Tower Theatre.