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Nov. 17, 2014

New documentary explores immigration from a woman’s perspective

As immigration continues to dominate international conversation, a Venezuelan-born Michigan State University professor has produced a 90-minute documentary about the hot-button issue, hoping to shatter some of the stereotypes surrounding the debate.

Vanishing Borders” focuses on how womanhood shapes the immigration experience, focusing on four immigrant women living in New York City, said Alexandra Hidalgo, assistant professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures. Being a mother, sister, wife and daughter carries its own set of expectations, but combining that with cultural acclimation is an experience rife with challenges and triumph.

“As someone who immigrated here at the age of 16, I’ve always been interested in the portrayals of immigrants, which tend to be either that they are an abstract threat destroying our country, or they become these very tragic stories of heartbreak and sacrifice for very little gained in the end,” Hidalgo said.

While it’s appropriate to focus on struggle, it’s also important to talk about what the United States gains from immigrants and vice versa, she said.  

So four years ago, Hidalgo hired a crew of four and started documenting the lives of her cast: Yatna Vakharia, an Indian mother of two and school volunteer who began attending college when her children became teenagers; Daphnie Sicre, a Latina raised in Spain who is an activist and a Ph.D. candidate in educational theater; Melainie Rogers, an Australian nutritionist whose private practice hires primarily women; and Teboho Moja, a South African professor of higher education who worked in the anti-apartheid movement.

Very few films focus on women, Hidalgo said. In choosing her cast, she looked for intelligent, eloquent women who were good storytellers. It was important that all the women speak English because too many people think immigrants don’t.

And then came the music.

The Venezuelan community is tight knit, so serendipity brought together Hidalgo and Ricardo Lorenz, chairperson of composition in the MSU College of Music, who immigrated to the United States when he was 20.

Lorenz wrote the score for “Vanishing Borders,” the first film score he’s ever written. He also chose the College of Music graduate students who perform the soundtrack in the documentary.

The “Vanishing Borders” score features solely acoustical instruments, including harp. Lorenz wrote different pieces for the different moods displayed by the women in the film, such as uncertainty, sadness and humor.

“Because this film was so close to my experience as an immigrant, the subject immediately spoke to me in musical ways,” he said. “In some moments, there are sounds that are difficult to place. It’s neither this nor that, a place in between, which is what an immigrant tends to become.”

It’s a tough place to be, Hidalgo admits. Her experience immigrating to Dayton, Ohio, was positive, following in the footsteps of her stepfather, a medical researcher.

But the four women in the film haven’t always been so fortunate.

During the aftermath of Sept. 11, Vakharia’s children were bullied for being “Arabs,” even though they’re Indian. When Moja came to America, her fingerprints were faint, Hidalgo said, so the FBI delayed her paperwork since she “had no fingerprints.”

Nevertheless, the lives of the women in “Vanishing Borders” have been enriched by immigration, as have the communities where they now live, Hidalgo said.

With its high population of international students and a culturally diverse community, the MSU community will be able to relate to her film, she said.

Four MSU undergraduate students worked with Hidalgo on the film, creating its website, designing the poster and the production company logo, editing the trailer and managing its social media campaign. Most of the post-production costs for the $20,000 project were funded by an MSU Humanities and Arts Research Program grant and a College of Arts and Letters Research Award.

MSU will host a free public screening of “Vanishing Borders” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at B-122 Wells Hall. Both Hidalgo and Lorenz will attend the screening, which will be followed by a conversation with Tama Hamilton-Wray, assistant professor in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. The audience will be encouraged to ask questions after the conversation.

“What I’m hoping people get after they watch the film is that immigration is something that is incredibly beneficial to both the host country and the immigrant,” Hidalgo said. “That gets lost in our discussions of immigration.”

By: Kristen Parker