(USA, 94 minutes)
Dir. Alex Rivera, Cristina Ibarra
Programme: Docx (International Premiere)
One of the last films to screen at Hot Docs 2019, The Infiltrators is both as timely as Donald Trump’s latest tweet and unusual in form. Rivera and Ibarra’s doc focuses on the Broward Transitional Center in South Florida, a facility that holds undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, some of them “dreamers,” people who were brought to the US by their parents.
The story unfolds in 2012, but The Infiltrators is not a history lesson dependent on archival footage and present-day interviews. It builds a twisting, turning storyline about young activists (members of a group called the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, and themselves “illegals”) trying to dismantle what one of them calls a Kafka-esque system.
Broward detains people who have not committed crimes. Because there are no charges against them, they have no legal representation. Like Kafka’s Joseph K, they wait, sometimes for years, for an outcome, which is usually getting deported to Mexico, Honduras, and the Congo, and other countries, where in many cases, their lives are in danger.
We see Broward, which is a private institution run by the politically connected GEO Group, via the activist characters, who are opposing them. Marco and Viridiana, playacting ridiculous and even comical stereotypes about Hispanics, get themselves detained in Broward to infiltrate it. They and Mohammed, their Iranian born co-ordinator on the outside, hope to help inmates and subvert the place.
The stakes are very high. Marco and Viridiana risk their own exposure and deportation. How could the filmmakers follow people doing risky, clandestine things in an actual lockup? Throughout the film, the duo swings back and forth between the real people and actors playing them. Sometimes, identities blur.
As rave reviews have noted, The Infiltrators plays like a blend of caper and prison picture. Watching it, you need to keep reminding yourself that Broward is not a prison; nobody has committed a crime, but it sure looks like a pen, complete with prison uniforms for both men and women, solitary confinement, and the mishandling of “prisoners.” The Geo Group, which runs prisons all over the US, encourages the inmates to work at jobs, like cleaning, for $1 per day.
Marco and Viridiana feed information about the installation to Mohammed and team members: bad treatment, poor medical care and so on. Most importantly, they distribute the phone numbers of activists who take case details and agitate for release and asylum. Their tactics include petitions, demonstrations, media coverage, and seeking support from potentially sympathetic politicians. After all, Barack Obama saved his uncle from deportation.
No one on the outside can do anything if the inmates are invisible, and the system blocks the flow of information. Among many tense situations, the film tracks how a US citizen sympathizer sneaks necessary documents into Broward. Not drugs, not guns. Privacy waiver forms that inmates must sign for appeals to be made.
In what functions like a subplot, Marco undermines the deportation of a character called Beni by advising him to refuse boarding a plane, or bang on the pilot’s door saying he’s an asylum seeker, or decline seatbelts. If Beni can get himself back to Broward, he has another shot at staying in the US. The sequence is one of many high-tension, thriller-like highlights.
The Infiltrators pushes the envelope on the docudrama to reveal the truth behind ugly rhetoric, especially that of Trump, concerning people seeking safe lives.