Exploring the Migrant Experience: The San Francisco Immigrant Film Festival

Emma Corcoran October 25, 2013

Each December, the struggles and joys of immigrant life are celebrated in an unusual short-film festival in Northern California. The San Francisco Immigrant Film Festival shows films at an annual weekend screening at the City College of San Francisco, but also at a variety of migrant centers around the city and surrounding areas.

(Image source: www.sfimmigrantfilmfestival.com)

Romulo Hernandez, who worked as a journalist in Venezuela before migrating to the United States 21 years ago, is the founder of the Immigrant Film Festival. He says that although he worked in journalism and social-services after coming to the United States, “always I think the best way to get to people, to know their problems, is through the movies.”

The non-competitive festival accepts submissions from movie-makers around the world who have a particular focus on showing the human face of immigration. Films may focus on a variety of issues, including migrant worker’s rights and the experiences of asylum-seekers and refugees.

Romulo says that there is an enormous diversity in the immigrant experience, and that this is represented in the submissions he receives: “I think that immigration is a world-wide problem, everybody is looking for a better place to live where they can express them self, or get better jobs, or look for democracy. There are so many reasons why someone can become an immigrant.”

When asked about his favorite films, Romulo says, “The movies that are the most touching are the ones that talk about children.” He describes one particularly moving documentary film, which is on the festival’s website at the moment: “It’s about a family that is gathering around the border between Mexico and United States… its name is Border Gathering. There is a giant fence where you can see through to the other country. The boy’s father is in the United States, and his wife and two kids are in Mexico. They are trying to touch each other, to kiss each other, through the wall. It’s very short — about two minutes — and you don’t have a narrator, just the image and the voices. It’s very powerful.”

The Immigrant Film Festival accepts movies in three categories: Short Documentary, Animated and Narrative. An example of a narrative film that is available for viewing on the festival’s website is Cada Vez Que me Acuerdo, me Olvido (Every Time I Remember, I Forget), a 14-minute fiction movie set in the city of Madrid in Spain.

The atmospheric film narrates the story of Maria, an elderly Spanish lady who has Alzheimer’s disease. Maria is being cared for by a young woman, Rosa, who has come to Spain from Colombia. Because of her illness, Maria keeps reliving her childhood, during which she experienced the Spanish Civil War. The movie explores the relationship between these two women, who are from different countries and generations, but bond together because of their shared experience living through conflict and political turmoil.

Each year, the Immigrant Film Festival reaches out to the members of San Francisco migrant communities by screening movies at community centres, such as the San Francisco Day Labor Program and the Mission Neighbourhood Resource Centre. “It’s better to go the places where the immigrants are,” says Romulo. “In one of these places for example, the people are waiting around to get a call for a construction job. So, while they are waiting, they are watching a movie about their life.”

Volunteers from 2012’s Film Festival
(Image source: sfimmigrantfilmfestival.com)

One of Romulo’s favourite community screenings took place in Sonoma, the wine-growing area outside San Francisco, and brought together the diverse residents of the region.  “It was in the best theatre of Sonoma, and a fund-raiser for an organisation called Nuestra Voz, which helps the Hispanic community,” he says. “Most of the audience were wine-people, who owned the businesses, but the other half were the immigrant workers from the wine community. It was a wonderful event.”

If you’re interested in attending an Immigrant Film Festival screening, organizing an event in your home-town, or volunteering to help arrange this year’s festival, you can contact Romulo through the festival’s website. If you’re a film-maker, the festival is also accepting submission for the 2013 screening until the 31st of October. Most of the festival’s 2012 submissions are available for viewing, free of charge, on its website.