Arrivals And Departures: Films Explore The Immigrant Experience

Jun 25, 2014
Originally published on August 1, 2014 5:55 am

Immigrant stories are integral threads in the American narrative. And while there are many monuments and museums that testify to Americans' origins as immigrants, few films do the same.

Filmmaker James Gray says this surprised him, since immigrant stories are inherently cinematic. They weave together international settings, powerful characters and narrative arcs built around survival and reinvention. While mainstream Hollywood films often focus on superheroes and commercial guarantees, Gray argues, contemporary world cinema is bursting with stories about borders, migrants and their journeys.

Gray's new film, The Immigrant, revisits the American immigrant experience. It opens with misty, sepia-toned scenes of 1921 New York City, as a young Polish woman disembarks at Ellis Island.

Ewa, played by Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard, is separated from her sister and saved from deportation by a shadowy businessman named Bruno, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Bruno draws her into an unforgiving world of gambling, prostitution and struggle in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

This is not a rags-to-riches American tale, and it's not meant to be.

"That to me is a fantasy," Gray says. "I just don't see the value in that, because in a way it makes the American dream seem less interesting, approachable, tangible."

Instead, he says that he was inspired by his grandparents' story and by the desire to excavate the painful memories of their early years in the U.S.

The Immigrant opened at the Cannes Film Festival last year and has earned raves from critics for its nuanced portrayal of what is often a mythologized chapter in American history. The film was shot on location at Ellis Island.

If The Immigrant is about the arrivals at American shores, a new film from Pakistan is focused on the departures gate. It's called Zinda Bhaag, which translates to "run for your life."

Pakistan is a staple of international news coverage, usually as a hotbed of crisis and turmoil. But the country also made news when it submitted Zinda Bhaag last fall as its first film for Oscar consideration in five decades. It's a film about the way Pakistan's crises have fueled an entire emigration generation — young people trying to get out at any cost.

The film's director, Farjad Nabi, says that emigration is especially common in northern Pakistan. "You would find a belt where every second family has a person outside Pakistan working, and you see all these billboards: 'Study in Australia, UK, go to Poland, go to Bahrain.' "

Since Pakistan is frequently deemed a security threat, the illegal immigration industry is also booming. It follows that young people with ambitions of improving their lives often risk imprisonment, deportation and even death.

Nabi and his co-director, Meenu Gaur, have turned the true stories of those young people into a vibrant, colorful film about three 20-something friends from Lahore "running for their life."

While the film is rooted in Pakistan, Gaur says it shows the face of modern migration. "In a sense, it could be about three boys anywhere in the world who want to change their lives."

Gaur adds,"But it's a doomed journey."

The two films also join a global tradition of filmmaking about the hustle and triumph of migration. Here are a few of my other favorite films about immigration:

America, America (1963)

Elia Kazan received three Oscar nominations for this personal and passionate three hour opus about his uncle's harrowing journey from Anatolia to New York City, concluding with an image of immigrants docking before the State of Liberty and featuring the iconic line: "My name is Elia Kazan. I'm a Greek by blood, Turk by blood and an American because my uncle made a journey."

El Norte (1983)

From the Criterion Collection: "Brother and sister Enrique and Rosa flee persecution at home in Guatemala and journey north, through Mexico and on to the United States, with the dream of starting a new life. It's a story that happens every day, but until Gregory Nava's groundbreaking El Norte (The North), the personal travails of immigrants crossing the border to America had never been shown in the movies with such urgent humanism. A work of social realism imbued with dreamlike imagery, El Norte is a lovingly rendered, heartbreaking story of hope and survival, which critic Roger Ebert called "a Grapes of Wrath for our time."

In This World (2002)

A British docu-drama directed by Michael Winterbottom that recreated the journey of two young Afghan boys leaving a Pakistan refugee camp for a better life in London. Shot on location in multiple countries, the film provided an almost journalistic look at illegal immigration across Asia and Europe. It also won the Golden Bear prize at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival.

The Namesake (2006)

Mira Nair's adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel about an Indian-American family's journey from Calcutta to New Jersey, with a heady mix of self-hate, relationship drama and generational clashes wrapped in a lush, emotional film.

Sin Nombre (2008)

Before he became the force behind HBO's True Detective, filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga's debut feature was this harrowing indie film about the illegal journey from Mexico to California, atop trains and across militarized borders.

Which other films — recent, old, American and otherwise — that examine that bittersweet immigrant journey have stayed with you?

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


The story of migration and questions of who belongs and who doesn't have been a central theme in conversations around the world for centuries. Two new films explore the push and the pull of immigration from different sides of the issue and different sides of the globe. NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Last fall, Pakistan submitted its first film for Oscar consideration in five decades. It's called "Zinda Bhaag." Translation - run for your life.

MOHSIN HAMID: It's a story about the Pakistani dream which is, you know, to get the hell out of Pakistan.

QURESHI: Novelist Mohsin Hamid served on the jury that chose "Zinda Bhaag" as the year's best film.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

QURESHI: It's the story of three twenty-something friends fed up with their lousy lives in Pakistan and hustling to get out. Farjad Nabi is one of the film's directors.

FARJAD NABI: Across northern Pakistan, I would say, you would find a belt where every second family has a person outside Pakistan. And you see all these billboards - study in Australia, study in UK, go to Poland, go to Bahrain. So it's a huge industry, both legal and illegal.

QURESHI: Nabi says the people who choose that path can face imprisonment, deportation, even death. And he says that darker reality is one that audiences need to see.

NABI: These stories about illegal immigration, they're all around you. And they surround you like a mythology - that such-and-such crossed the border in such a way, and such-and-starch had to be deported for this particular reason. And this mythology is kind of a street lore.

QURESHI: Co-director Meenu Gaur says the characters that bring that street lore to screen are the face of modern migration.

MEENU GAUR: At one level I think our - the film we wanted to make was very, you know, rooted in Pakistan.


GAUR: But it's also, I think, a very, very universal story in the sense it's a story about - it could be about three boys anywhere in the world, you know, who want to get over their life circumstances. They want to change their lives, but it's a doomed journey.

QURESHI: If Pakistan's filmmakers are focused on the departures gate, the new film "The Immigrant" explores the arrivals at our shores. The film opens on Ellis Island as a young woman named Ewa, played by Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, disembarks from Poland in 1921.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What was your occupation in Poland?

MARION COTILLARD: (As Ewa) I was a nurse for an English diplomat.

QURESHI: Ewa arrives with ambitions but no money, and she's soon drawn into a seedy world of prostitution, gambling and loss. Director James Gray says he didn't want to follow in a long Hollywood tradition of telling the immigrant success story.

JAMES GRAY: I have real faith in the human race, but this doesn't mean that the art that we produce has to be about success because no matter how well we do, there is always a struggle.

QURESHI: James Gray says the immigrant was inspired by his grandparents' story.

GRAY: You know, it was not the kind of, like, you know - (Imitating grandfather) I came to America, and I was rich. You know, that to me is a fantasy, and I just don't see the value in that because in a way it makes the American dream seem less interesting, approachable, real, tangible.


ACTOR: How is it that you found yourself here, at this very moment, in America?

QURESHI: Gray shot scenes on the real Ellis Island. It's a museum today, but he still remembers when he saw those buildings for the first time, years ago on a visit with his grandfather.

GRAY: You walked in, and it was, like, half-filled-out forms - immigration forms on the floor with footprints on them and half-filled-out cups of coffee in the mess hall and paint chipping and the ceiling falling, but you felt the history. And my grandfather walked us through where he had entered and where he stood and where he waited in line as best he could remember and started to, you know, of course, started to cry. And to be there shooting, I cannot tell you the level of satisfaction and joy that I had.

QURESHI: In the case of the film "Zinda Bhaag" from Pakistan, there was also an element of life imitating art.

NABI: We had this double-task of introducing a modern technology and training a new crew.

QURESHI: That's director Farjad Nabi. In a country where the film industry has been dormant for years, his team had to train first-time actors and set designers, essentially creating jobs. Novelist Mohsin Hamid says that means they were telling their generation's migration story without having to run for their lives abroad, as the film's title suggests.

HAMID: For the vast majority of these young Pakistanis, they're not going to be able to get out. So even if that was a sustainable model - going abroad and working there and sending money back - it's not going to be something that can be the dream for most people. So Pakistan will have to create a local version of the Pakistan dream, where young people can find good jobs - have their different traditions and attitudes and values safeguarded.

QURESHI: Both "Zinda Bhaag" and "The Immigrant" are ideas-driven films. They're global stories about crossing borders - about arrivals and departures. And they bring a modern sensibility to the traditional take on the immigrant's dream. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.