Docurama // Unrated // $26.95 // November 2, 2004
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted November 5, 2004
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One of the most contentious issues in America today is the battle over illegal and undocumented immigrants streaming over the borders looking for off-the-books work. What was once a given fact of live in the Southwest and in large urban centers suddenly became an enormous issue when the workers realized that there were untapped job markets in the quiet suburbs of the rest of the nation. An issue with many sides to it, the immigration controversy hit home once soccer moms and their teenage kids had to deal with dozens of Mexican men standing around their neighborhoods waiting for pickup trucks and contractors to offer them work.

Focusing on one Long Island neighborhood hit hard by this struggle, POV's documentary Farmingville does a very good job of painting all sides of this issue. If the residents of Farmingville come out looking worse than the immigrants it's thanks to their own heightened sense of panic and openly hostile attitudes. But when the film shows large groups of men standing around quiet street corners you can almost see their point: To an insular community this does offer a jarring sight.

If it were only a question of the residents and the immigrants the situation wouldn't be as sticky as it's become. But there are lots of other factors, and the film covers them all. There are the landlords who happily rent small houses to dozens of immigrants at a huge profit, there are the contractors who rely on the day laborers for their work crews, there are the local politicians who are stuck trying to solve problems that no one seems to want to realistically solve, and there's the federal government, which has done little to stem the tide of cheap labor illegal immigration offers. And none of the participants seem to truly understand the other sides of the issue. (One landlord says he'd happily rent to Mexicans, just as he'd rent to "blacks, Chinese or Americans.")

The film starts with the story of two Mexican workers tricked into a basement by a couple of locals under the pretense of a job. Once trapped inside, Israel Pérez and Magdaleno Escamilla found themselves under attack for trying to find a job. Their brutal beating and stabbing defined this conflict and brought Farmingville national headlines, as did the revelation that the accused men had ties to racist organizations. (The film lingers on their swastika tattoos.) But rather than rally against beatings like these, the community becomes more incensed over the issue of illegal immigration, allowing the incident to add to their growing paranoia.

One interesting twist is how Sachem Quality of Life, the local anti-day laborer organization, had their goals muddled and warped when they hooked up with national anti-immigration groups. Until this point SQL sought to reduce the number of day laborers standing around waiting for work. The film includes a lot of locals expressing dismay over a supposed "crime wave" inflicted on the community by the Mexicans (although the only real criminal act is one drunk driving tragedy) and the interviewees seem to indicate at that point that they'd like the immigrants to be less visible. Once they hook up with American Patrol (a national anti-immigration group), however, their goals seem to lose focus and adopt more of a national perspective: Solving the community's problems takes a back-seat to railing against the overall problem of America getting browner.

Early on in the film they hold up protest signs blaming the contractors for hiring the workers, a pretty intelligent and complex view of the situation, but eventually they end up just blaming the immigrants themselves. By the time someone suggests a pretty reasonable compromise that would take a huge step towards solving some of the immediate problems, the community is way too riled up. The idea is floated of building a hiring hall, available to all employers and all potential employees, legal or otherwise. That way the laborers could congregate there, in an organized fashion, and meet contractors without clogging up sidewalks and driveways. But by the time the community has a chance to testify before the local legislature they're so angry that their statements make no sense: They worry about the masses of immigrants gathered on the street, so they urge the legislature to vote against something that would keep them off the street. After getting their way they gather outside and sing "God Bless America."

This conflict is only one of the interesting sequences in Farmingville. The anti-immigrant community is so scared that their confusion causes them to say some very strange things. And the immigrants and their advocates seem confused by all the hubbub. One contractor, interviewed in shadow, talks about how he tried to hire an all-American crew, and wound up with nothing but complainers who didn't want to work and eventually all quit. He finds himself needing the hard-working day laborers to complete his jobs, but at the same time has to deal with harassment from members of his community, which includes tactics familiar from abortion clinic protests: Photographing contractors and their vehicles, trying to shame them, pestering their families, and marching around with handmade placards. The hostility of the protesters is pretty startling as is the fact that the same faces are visible over and over at the various roadside protests. The most curious thing in Farmingville is perhaps the sight of men standing around trying to get jobs being picketed by men standing around who apparently have no jobs. It's enough to make your head spin.

Farmingville is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen video. The video is not of the highest quality and reflects a very TV news sort of look. It's perfectly acceptable, if a little grimy.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is fine, if a little muddled at times. Some of the location audio is a bit rough but overall it works. The Spanish speakers interviewed in the film are subtitled in English. There are no additional subtitles available.

A nice selection of additional segments is included. Each of the eight "outtakes" are actually completed scenes that just didn't make the final cut and they help add to the story.

There are also some text screens with various resources on PBS and the other companies involved in the production. Also, this is a good spot to mention that the disc includes the list of PBS sponsors and a Starbucks commercial at the start of the program.

Farmingville is a thoughtful look at this ever-increasing problem. While critics of PBS will undoubtedly consider it slanted in favor of the immigrants, it is fair to both sides. It's just that fear does a strange thing to otherwise rational people and the citizens of Farmingville, seeing their community change dramatically, give in to their panic. They help paint themselves in a very negative light and are deaf to the voices seeking a reasonable compromise. The film itself only lets the various subjects tell their own stories with a sympathetic, but even, eye.

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