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New Americans, The

Facets Video // Unrated // January 27, 2009
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Neilson | posted June 26, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The New Americans is a sprawling seven-hour documentary following five diverse groups of legal immigrants to the United States over four years as they leave their homelands in pursuit of something better. All find extremes of happiness and heartache in their pursuit of an American Dream. Executive producer and series editor Steve James, best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary Hoop Dreams, expertly intermixes the work of five documentary film crews into a rich chronicle of the contemporary immigrant experience.

The New Americans originally aired on PBS over three nights in the spring of 2004 under the Independent Lens banner. Three narratives were introduced in the first two-hour episode, with an additional narrative added in each of the following episodes. The original trio of immigrant narratives included a pair of Dominican baseball players with major league dreams, two families of Nigerian political refugees, and a Palestinian bride marrying a first-generation American-Palestinian. These narratives were joined by those of a Mexican family immigrating to fill an unfilled need for manual labor in the meatpacking and agriculture sector, and an Indian family filling an unmet need for high-skilled computer programmers in Silicon Valley in the frenzied run-up to the tech-bust.

Each narrative begins with its subjects awaiting permission to enter the United States. Major League Baseball hopefuls Ricardo Rodriguez and José Garcia, who play for a L.A. Dodgers' farm team in the Dominican Republic, get their shot at success when they're selected to join a minor league Dodgers affiliate in Great Falls, Montana. Ricardo and José are following in the footsteps of hundreds of Dominicans who came before them, most of whom after a failed minor league career returned to their homeland to a future of disappointment and underemployment. During their four-year journey one player experiences great success on the ball field and one washes out.

The two Nigerian families are members of the persecuted minority Ogoni people. One family is led by Barni Saro-Wiwa, who had her restaurant and catering school bulldozed by the Nigerian government because she was the sister of slain Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The other family is led by Isreal Nwidor, a target of government intimidation for being a chemical engineer. These heads of households face difficult adjustments when they find that their skills are not valued in the United States and they must begin at the bottom with low-skill, low-wage employment.

Naima Saadeh, a young college graduate from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, comes to the United States as the bride of a first-generation Palestinian-American. The newlyweds find marriage to be more trying than either expected, and their story takes ironic turns as Naima first finds herself compelled to dress more modestly in her Muslim-American community than she did in her homeland, and then finds fulfillment teaching nursery school at a Jewish community center.

Pedro Flores worked in the United States for thirteen years as a meatpacker before he could afford to fetch his wife and five children from Mexico. Once in the United States, Pedro's children thrive in the surprisingly progressive public schools of Kansas, but his wife Ventura hates Kansas and wants to relocate the family to California to work in the fields with her sisters' families.

Anjan and Harshini Bacchu migrate from India to California for Anjan to follow his dream of getting rich in Silicon Valley before returning permanently to India. Anjan's skills command a $100-per-hour starting salary in California though all but $30 of it goes to the headhunting service that got Anjan his work visa. Long hours for Anjan and limited opportunities for Harshini put stress on the marriage, but just as things begin to look up the dot-com crash pummels the family's dreams yet again.

The New Americans is told through the immigrants' own voices through subtitles which are accompanied by voiceover narration. Long stretches between segments of this four-year film project means that the subjects and narration are often recounting past events for the benefit of the camera. While this is a matter of practical necessity it does rob the narrative of some of its drama. For example, though all the participants were in the United States during the September 11, 2001 attacks and their aftermath, only the experiences of Naima and Hatem are documented.

Produced by Kartemquin Films and distributed on DVD by Facets Multimedia, The New Americans is a two-disc release. The producers of this release intended to allow viewers to select between watching the series as it aired on television or selecting the five stories individually. Unfortunately, many of the segments on the second disc are skipped when the stories are selected individually.

The New Americans is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1). Image quality is above average for documentary video of its kind. There is slight softness in the image and edge enhancement, but colors are warm and steady. Non-removable English subtitles are provided for the non-English and heavily-accented English dialogue.

The Dolby Digital stereo audio mix is good with no noticeable dropouts or distortions. Dialogue is surprisingly clear and the score is subtle in style and audio level. An optional Spanish audio mix is also provided which is mixed much like a standard episode of Frontline (i.e., the Spanish audio plays over the original audio which is reduced in volume but not removed).

Extras include more than a dozen deleted scenes, a biographical update on the five narratives, and four trailers for other documentaries from Kartemquin Films released on DVD by Facets Multimedia.

Final Thoughts:
The New Americans provides a rich and moving examination of the immigrant experience in the United States at the turn of the 21st century. Through seven hours of screen time, the filmmakers follow five disparate groups seeking futures that range from modest aspirations for working class success to dreams of multimillion dollar sports contracts.

The New Americans is recommended viewing.

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