I’ll never forget the day the highfalutin filmmakers from “9500 Liberty” blew into town with their incredibly ostentatious offer. Hot on the heels of the success of their new documentary dealing with anti-immigration legislation in Prince William County, Virginia, they had arrived in Phoenix to screen their film and propose the opportunity of a lifetime for Arizona documentary filmmakers: give us all of the footage you have dealing with Arizona’s own immigration issues, and if we use it, you might get your name in the credits of our next documentary. If Arizona filmmakers are anything, they are a resilient and swarthy lot. Having just lost the film tax incentives at the time, and being way up high on the Governors list of most viable Arizona industries to completely annihilate; they were politely informed that Arizona filmmakers are quite capable of making their own documentaries thankyouverymuch, and this footage will remain in the hands of the Arizona filmmakers that live and breathe Arizona history every day.
After nearly 4 years of covering marches, protests, arrests, separations and reunifications; freelance journalist Valeria Fernandez has teamed up with filmmaker/producer Dan De Vivo (Crossing Arizona) to create the comprehensive and eye opening documentary “Two Americans.” Just as the title implies, the film follows the story of two Americans: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and 9 year-old, American born Katherine Figueroa. Arpaio’s deputies have arrested Katherine’s mother and father during an immigration sweep at a Phoenix car wash, and Katherine makes an impassioned YouTube plea to President Obama for the return of her mother and father. While Katherine raises money for her parents’ legal costs by holding car washes and yard sales, Sheriff Joe goes about his daily routine of press conferences, immigration sweeps and PR events.
While not presented as a split screen; the film adroitly and capably juxtaposes two human beings deeply affected by the strict enforcement of Arizona SB1070 with a clear and emotional contrast of culture, race and law. As Katherine struggles to be reunited with her parents, she also faces her own uncertainty about her future, and her identity as an American. At the same time, Joe Arpaio struggles with his own crumbling oligarchy and a massive sheriff’s department facing expensive lawsuits and an array of allegations ranging from corruption, fraud, civil rights violations and murder.
Fernandez has been interviewing Arpaio for many years, and uses this experience to her advantage while making the film. Having personally observed Fernandez interview the sheriff on several occasions, the director/journalist never resorts to any lame, Michael Moore-ish ‘gotcha’ tactics to illicit a reaction. This is illustrated in a very telling scene as Fernandez calmly questions the Sheriff on MCSO policy and procedure. As the interview progresses, the Sheriff seems to grow tired of being the Sheriff of Maricopa County, and slips away from this stodgy persona, slowly disintegrating into jovial Sheriff Joe. Frustrated, Fernandez thanks him politely and leaves, while Sheriff Joe continues to mug for De Vivo’s camera, giddily informing his staff of his cheeky responses.
Fernandez and De Vivo have deftly taken on the unenviable task of pouring over hundreds of hours of contributed and archival footage and condensing it down into a viewable and engaging representation of what is happening in Maricopa county, creating a documentary that is both personal to Arizonans, and informative to international audiences. “Two Americans” covers the entire history of Joe Arpaio’s reign over the MCSO, including empathetic interviews with former MCSO officials who proudly supported Arpaio in the beginning, only to resign in disgust years later. The passé partout DeVivo is granted is both chilling and revealing, as the Sheriff calmly croons his favorite tune “My Way” with an Elvis impersonator, and is later visibly incensed at the unfair treatment he feels he is getting from his landlord; Wells Fargo. Throughout the ordeal, Katherine’s strength and determination never wavers; as she becomes a quasi-spokesperson for immigration and the unofficial poster child for the impact of the sheriff’s immigration sweeps.
There is so much going on in “Two Americans” that at times the politics and images become jumbled and don’t quite correspond. There are tangents aplenty and they are often unresolved. My only umbrage from a filmmaking standpoint was the depiction of Katherine and her parents participating in a “march for human rights” and along the way, encountering swarms of mounted policemen, skies filled with helicopters, an army of goose-stepping Nazis and hordes of angry, anti-immigration counter-demonstrators. While all of these events did take place, they were compiled from footage taken during several different marches over the course of several years.
“Two Americans” is a well made and well executed documentary presenting the unseen and ultimately ignored human side of the immigration issue. While the film clearly makes its case for an end to the current anti-immigration legislation in Arizona, it makes a stronger plea for humanity and compassion in the treatment of those arrested for immigration violations, graphically illustrating the suffering that is inflicted upon human beings when the demand has been made that all who are in Arizona illegally be severely punished and forever branded as criminals.