REEL Images of Immigration: The Visitor

By Jennifer Kottler 8-09-2010


[Editor's Note: This week we will have a series of reviews on films with a focus on immigration. Check back each day for a new film review, and visit for more information]

100809-the-visitorSome months back (while I was still getting Netflix) I received a movie that I quite honestly couldn't remember having in my queue. And as anyone who has ever gotten Netflix knows, each movie comes with only the briefest of descriptions. So late one night, I found myself at home watching The Visitor on my computer.

I didn't know what it was about -- at all. But I sat there transfixed for 104 minutes as I watched the story of Tarek and Zainab, a couple who both immigrated to the United States from different countries and who were undocumented. I watched as this couple struggled to live below the radar of ICE agents, knowing that the smallest infraction could lead to deportation. And I sat there stunned as the "issues" that I advocated for (comprehensive immigration reform) and against (deportation of law-abiding, contributing-to-the-community residents) came to life before my very eyes. Even though I felt strongly about the cause of comprehensive immigration reform, preached on it, prayed for it, and worked as a professional Christian advocate for this (and other) issues, it wasn't until that moment that it hit home exactly what the "broken system" looked like.

However, the beauty of the movie is that it's not only the viewer who gets to struggle with these things; the protagonist, a middle-aged, middle-income, middle-class white guy named Walter is forced to struggle with these things too. Clearly needing a change in his own life, a random encounter with Tarek and Zainab (who are residing in Walter's usually unoccupied New York apartment) leads him into a relationship with Tarek. Tarek is a drummer who works as a bar musician at night and plays in drum circles in Central Park during the day. Tarek encourages Walter to step into his world by teaching him how to play the drums. Through a shared love of music, Tarek and Walter transcend the barriers of race and class and immigration status to build a bond that is palpable to the viewer. Walter also develops a relationship with Zainab and Tarek's mother, Mouna.

One of the most touching scenes occurs when Tarek invites Walter to come with him to the park and participate in the drum circle. Walter is at first reticent about going and is clearly self-conscious about playing. But with Tarek's gentle encouragement, Walter joins in feeling the warmth of community for the first time in a very long time, if ever. It was as clear an expression of the kind of love that develops between friends as I have ever seen on film. Clearly, sometimes love looks like a drum circle.

And it is after the drum circle that things go bad for Tarek. He is arrested and detained as he tries to help Walter get through the turnstiles at a subway entrance. Despite Walter's protestations, Tarek is detained. But as you can imagine, the detention process is not clean, clear, or transparent and the threat of Tarek's deportation looms.

This film opened my eyes to the way that our broken immigration system tears apart families. And how in our current system, children are held responsible for their parent's decisions.

I would encourage you to watch the film with your family, your congregation, even your community. We invite you to download Sojourner's newest resource, "REEL Images of Immigration: A Film Guide To Discussing Faith and Immigration" and allow that to help guide your conversation.

Additionally, I invite you to pray, individually and corporately, for the families who find themselves in the midst of this system. And finally, I invite you to act with us as we continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for the hard-working immigrants who are here simply trying to provide for their families.

But whatever you choose to do, watch The Visitor. I have to believe that you, like Walter and myself, will be transformed by what you see. And remember, sometimes love really does look like a drum circle.

portrait-jennifer-kottlerRev. Jennifer Kottler is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at Sojourners. A long-time advocate for justice, Jennifer has served in advocacy ministry for more than seven years through her work at Protestants for the Common Good (Chicago, IL), the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, and the Chicago Jobs Council.

+ FREE Download: "Reel Images of Immigration: A Movie Guide to Discussing Faith and Immigration": Check out movie summaries and discussion questions on featured immigration films. Plus, learn how to host a film screening for your friends or small group.

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