“Nationality is a Western concept. It was an invention of Western European scholars, who ever since have struggled to explain it”, Jewish Austrian writer Joseph Roth wrote in 1927. Almost a century later, things make even less sense as we find ourselves in an increasingly turbulent and polarized world with nationalism on the rise pretty much everywhere. Through it all, migration remains a significant issue, and filmmakers have always taken a major role in the conversation. Here are 8 documentaries about the immigrant experience.
Directed by Alvin Tsang | Documentary | 2015 | 85 mins | United States
Synopsis: Filmed over a 17 year period, director Alvin Tsang reflects on his family’s migration from Hong Kong to Los Angeles in the early 1980s—fraught with betrayal from his parents’ divorce, economic strife, and a communication meltdown.
What makes it special: An all-time Filmhub favorite, Reunification is an artist at his most vulnerable exploring his own immigrant experience with great depth. Tsang’s story is deeply personal yet profoundly universal, and all the more relatable when many of us are separated from our families by the pandemic.
The Fourth Partition
Directed by Adrian Prawica | Documentary | 2013 | 74 mins | United States
Synopsis: Expert historians present this story of 4,000,000 Polish immigrants who came to the United States between 1870-1920 and worked in hard and dangerous jobs in Chicago’s steel and meatpacking industries during America’s Gilded Age.
What makes it special: All great American cities are built by immigrants. Poland-born, Chicago-based director Adrian Prawica’s debut is a thorough and fascinating recount of a vital chapter of American history that’s often overlooked.
Where to stream it: Tubi
Lessons of Basketball and War
Directed by Ron Bourke | Documentary | 2015 | 56 mins | United States
Synopsis: A dedicated educator is challenged by refugee girls from Somalia as they struggle to leave the hostility and violence of war behind and build a new life in America.
What makes it special: A simple but incredibly touching documentary that follows a year in the lives of a group of middle school girls, who were born and raised in refugee camps in war-torn parts of Somalia, and found new homes in Portland, Oregon. Filmmaker Ron Bourke put his heart and soul into this project and captured moments that will restore your faith in humanity.
Directed by Paul J. Durrant | Documentary | 2021 | 20 mins | United States
Synopsis: At the border between Arizona and Mexico, there’s a dining room like no other. Inside, some migrants eat their last meal before trying to cross into America. Others eat their first meal since being deported.
What makes it special: An unfiltered look at immigration on the US/Mexico border with eating and praying at its center. “It’s not the question of if people are breaking the law or not, the reality is the law’s breaking them”, said Fr. Sean Carroll, the main subject of the film. During his time as the director of The Kino Border Initiative, what started as a modest dining room has turned into an organization that’s providing food and shelter for thousands.
Where to stream it: Plex
Directed by Hauke Lorenz | Documentary | 2016 | 62 mins | Germany
Synopsis: Three Central American migrants embark on a journey to the north. Seeking safety and a better life, they find the will, faith, and support to continue their journey in a shelter in southern Mexico.
What makes it special: For many Central Americans who fled their countries, the US-Mexico border is not the only barrier. Germany documentarian Hauke Lorenz shed light on the underreported crisis on the Mexico-Guatemala border.
Where to stream it: Amazon
Salaam B’y - A Story of a Muslim Newfoundlander
Directed by Amar Wala | Documentary | 2017 | 21 mins | Canada
Synopsis: Aatif Baskanderi grew up in Newfoundland as a Muslim child of Pakistani immigrants, and later traveled the world as an engineer. When his hometown faces tumultuous economic times, he returns to share his story of pluralism and tolerance.
What makes it special: Not all immigrant stories involve some heartbreaking news. Aatif’s story is a reminder of what can happen when a community welcomes newcomers with open arms. A crowdfunded short film, Salaam B’y is uniquely wholesome and inspiring, and the landscape shots of “the rock” are absolutely breathtaking.
Refuge in the Rockies
Directed by Kaio Kathriner | Documentary | 2018 | 12 mins | Canada
Synopsis: Anderson Losada is a Colombian refugee resettled in Canada, where an obscure law prevented him from citizenship and cost him his Paralympic dreams in downhill skiing.
What makes it special: An award-winning short that explores the citizenship barriers refugee minors face in Canada. When Anderson’s struggles caught the attention of a Canadian Senator, his story impacted an amendment that recently changed Canada’s Citizenship Act.
Where to stream it: Amazon
Directed by David R. Liu | Documentary | 2015 | 13 mins | United States
Synopsis: From China’s Shanxi Province to the San Gabriel Valley region of Los Angeles, chef Jeffrey Zhifeng Yang continues one of the world’s most fabled culinary traditions – the art of making noodles.
What makes it special: There’s a food renaissance in Los Angeles and Chinese mainlanders are at the forefront. 7 years since the making of Liu’s short film and through the pandemic, business is still booming at this noodle joint. Our foodie staff has been there recently and the noodles were heavenly.
Where to stream it: Fearless