‘The Infiltrators’ Film Review: Doc-Narrative Hybrid Celebrates Defiant DREAMers

Sundance 2019: Alex Rivera and Christina Ibarra blend talking heads and reenactments in this unflinching look at privately-operated immigration detention facilities

Last Updated: January 26, 2019 @ 2:09 PM

Chronicling the audacious acts of a group of organized undocumented youth prior to the Obama-implemented, temporary relief known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), “The Infiltrators,” from Latinx directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra, is a vital piece of hybrid cinema that shines light into the obscure realm of privately-operated immigration detention facilities. The timely film world-premiered Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival.

Interweaving firsthand accounts in talking-head format and scripted reenactments, Rivera and Ibarra construct a high-stakes, real-life drama centered on the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), comprised of resourceful and deeply committed DREAMers who’ve dared to defy the system, not only for their own benefit but also for the greater good.

“Everyone needs a plan,” says NIYA activist Marco Saavedra (played by Maynor Alvarado in the docufiction sections) when detailing their strategy behind the 2012 infiltration of the Broward Transitional Center, an immigration jail in Florida, in the hopes of contacting inmate Claudio Rojas (played by Manuel Uriza), an Argentine father with no criminal record.

Risking deportation, Marco agrees to walk into the mouth of the beast and turns himself in to Homeland Security, his “personal Death Star.” Once inside, the determined young man enlists Claudio to spread the word about NIYA among the other detainees. Though occasionally stilted, the performances manage to enhance the creative non-fiction call to action by capturing experiences lived where cameras couldn’t go.

Outside, in documentary footage, NIYA’s Mohammad Abdollahi (an Iranian-born undocumented organizer) and his team escalate actions to force the government’s hand into releasing some of the men. Tension heightens, as they up the ante by sending member Viridiana Martinez (Chelsea Rendon) into the female side of the for-profit, prison-like center to serve the same function.

As the nerve-wracking mission unfolds, the filmmakers introduce footage from NIYA’s makeshift headquarters, interviews with some of the DREAMers’ parents, and testimonials on the devastating losses endured by the immigrant community at large. Rivera and Ibarra highlight the selflessness and commendable bravery of their subjects, but even more so the belief that mobilizing in defense of a common ideal or to defeat a shared hardship is what gives power to the voiceless.

It’s been more than 10 years since Rivera first got on the Sundance radar with his unprecedented sci-fi film “Sleep Dealer,” a brilliant commentary on immigration, and five since Ibarra last made a feature, “Las Marthas,” about a peculiar Mexican-American tradition, but they’re back in full force for this joint storytelling venture. Their sensibilities are superbly aligned in “The Infiltrators,” while their aesthetic strengths complement each other: his experience with actors pairs well with her knowledge as a seasoned documentarian.

What’s also notable about “The Infiltrators” is that it features a myriad of human stories that emerged from within the Broward detention center, not only pertaining to people originally from Latin America, but also those affected who came from places as remote as the Congo and Sri Lanka. (It may come as news to some that Latin Americans are not the only immigrants of color struggling under the current system.) Their wish for a chance at a safe future in the company of their families is an undivided dream.

Bringing down the wall from within is the heroic campaign that NIYA, and countless others organizations like United We Dream, are pursuing, not to antagonize but as an act of self-defense. To that end, “The Infiltrators” is eye-opening on both sides: It delivers an encouraging example of the power of a united people, and it opens a window into the abuses and inhumane separations that are carried out under the guise of protecting the nation.