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Film Finders: Exploring Special Topics

Dear America: Documented on Film

Dear America Hardcover imageExplore themes from 2020's First Year Common Reader selection, Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, via documentaries and films from the Film & Video Collection

Jose Antonio Vargas tells his story, sharing details of his journey to America from the Philippines as a child; his work as an immigration reform activist; and his relationship with his mother. Through anecdotes from both his own story and the struggles of countless other undocumented immigrants in America, Vargas poignantly explores one of the most divisive questions facing our country today: how do you define “American”?

Streaming Feature Films

Swank graphic featuring, a smartphone, tablet and laptopVargas talks about how important libraries were to him as a young boy:  “Here in America, the libraries were my church – and I was an acolyte.”  He describes how influential his library’s extensive collection of American films were as he learned about his adopted country.  You too can immerse yourself in classic American cinema through our eVideo collections – in particular, we invite you to explore the “Top 1000” collection via one of the Library’s streaming media partners, Swank, and discover (or, perhaps, re-discover) the stories America tells about itself throughout film history.

Documented: A Film by an Undocumented American (2014)

Jose Antonio Vargas may not have attended writers’ workshops or film school, but that didn’t stop him from using his expertise in journalism and his personal experiences as an undocumented student and young adult to write a memoir and create this documentary film.  Jose chronicles his journey to America from the Philippines as a child; his public struggle as an immigration reform activist; and his journey inward as he reconnects with his mother, whom he hasn't seen in 20 years.  Vargas uses his hard-won authority to show viewers how a broken immigration system leads to broken families and broken lives.


Available on DVD

The Central Park Five (2012)

The Central Park Five movie posterJose talks about how interrelated the effects of unjust systems can be on marginalized communities:  “Understanding the experience of black people in America -- why black was created so people could be white -- pried open how Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups have been historically oppressed through laws and systems that had little or nothing to do with what was right”  This documentary chronicles America's complicated perceptions of race and crime through the story of the "Central Park 5" -- a group of minority teenagers wrongfully convicted and jailed for raping a white woman in New York.

Available on DVD and eVideo

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

An influential figure Vargas discusses at several points in Dear America is the American writer James Baldwin.  Baldwin’s work runs parallel to major political movements of the mid-20th-century, such as the Civil Rights and Gay Liberation Movements.  This award-winning film explores Baldwin’s work through his words and archival footage.  Baldwin challenges the definition of what America stands for and how marginalized citizens are treated in a way that remains painfully relevant.

Available on DVD

In Jackson Heights (2015)

In Jackson Heights movie posterJose celebrates the impact of immigrants on American culture.  Likewise, documentarian Frederick Wiseman, known for his in-depth vérité-style looks at American institutions, showcases the one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse communities in the United States and the world – the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens (New York City), where immigrants from dozens of countries live and work together, representing a new wave of immigrants to America.  New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis calls the film “a thrilling, transporting love letter to New York and its multi-everything glory.”

No longer available

Inocente (2012)

Inocente alternate cover artEarly in Undocumented, Jose writes:  “This book is about homelessness, not in a traditional sense, but the unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in.”  This short film offers a glimpse into the life of a homeless, undocumented fifteen-year old girl named Inocente who is a burgeoning artist, and the extraordinary challenges she must contend with on a daily basis.   One can imagine that Inocente and Jose would have a lot to discuss – she says, “I have a lot of impossible dreams.  But I still dream them.”

Available on DVD and eVideo

The Learning (2011)

The Learning DVD coverIn Dear America, Vargas discusses how strategic storytelling can help improve awareness of the many challenges undocumented communities face, even while they are contributing valuable services to their communities.  He writes, “Our existence is as broadly criminalized as it is commodified.”  This documentary tells the story of four Filipino women who leave their homeland to teach in Baltimore’s inner-city schools, showcasing a group of immigrants whose experiences leaving their children and families behind mirror Vargas’s separation from his own mother.

Available on DVD and eVideo

Off the Straight and Narrow: Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals & Television, 1967-1998 (1998)

Jose talks about the power of seeing television actress and comedienne Ellen DeGeneres come out on the cover of Time magazine.  Later in his life, he too would make the cover of Time magazine with a group of undocumented people.  This documentary gives a political and cultural analysis of television's representations of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals through that time.  (Updated by the production Further Off the Straight and Narrow.)

Available on DVD and eVideo

Ragtime (1981)

Ragtime movie posterAs he muses about the importance of American films on how he came to understand his new home, Jose calls out the revelatory experience of watching the 1981 film Ragtime:  “Americans were immigrants, too!”  Based on a popular novel by E. L. Doctorow, this story involving real and fictitious characters in New York City in the early twentieth century. The plot centers around a ragtime piano player, Coalhouse Walker, who demands justice after his car is damaged in a racially motivated act of vandalism.

Available on DVD

This is Home: A Refugee Story (2018)

This is Home movie posterJose describes landing in America with an affectionate network of extended family.  Not all immigrants share that experience.  This film provides a window into the lives of four Syrian refugee families arriving in Baltimore, Maryland and struggling to find their footing. They have eight months to forge ahead to "learn America" -- from how to take public transportation to negotiating gender roles -- and rebuild their lives in a new country.

Available on DVD and eVideo

Vito (2015)

Vito movie posterJose founded an advocacy organization called Define American, which is modeled on LGBTQ rights movement.  This documentary presents a portrait of Vito Russo, a young film student who was among the crowd during an infamous police raid at a Greenwich Village gay bar called the Stonewall on June 27, 1969.  Widely hailed as the event that inspired a new era for gay rights, this event transformed Vito into one of the most outspoken and inspiring activists in the movement.  His seminal book "The Celluloid Closet" explored the ways in which gays and lesbians were portrayed on film.  A documentary based on that book is also available as an eVideo and DVD.

No longer available