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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: Mountains and Clouds

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: <em>Mountains and Clouds</em>

The second movie in a 12-part series on the politics of U.S. immigration reform, Mountains and Clouds is an IV injection of inside-baseball maneuvering for political junkies. But directors Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini have bigger ambitions than that for the series. As Robertson says on the series website: “Our hope is that if you watch the shows, and get to know Esther or Frank or Alfredo, or Randy, Margaret, Becky, pretty much any of our friends who helped us get these movies made, they will inspire you to be a more active participant in the running of this country.” It’s a noble goal, but I wonder how many of us are up for it. All I could think, after watching this earnest film, was: I’m not worthy.

Robertson and Camerini picked a great topic and had great luck in their timing: They even end this one with a kind of cliffhanger, warning that the battle it covers strengthened the hand of anti-immigration zealot Tom Tancredo and his allies. But the earnest tone of Mountains and Clouds (the film is named for the Calder sculpture in the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building) made me long for a little more sizzle and snap. A little time behind the scenes with the anti-immigration activists, for instance, might have given this more insight into that point of view, and more effectively dramatized the gap between the two sides.

The filmmakers, who spent six years filming, started in early September 2001, when comprehensive immigration reform looked likely. Then the World Trade Center towers fell—an event they wisely refrain from showing yet again. Immigration dropped way back on Congress’s agenda and got mixed up in talk of terrorism and protecting our borders. The directors got very good access to some of the key people working for reform, primarily aides to senators Sam Brownback and Senator Ted Kennedy and staff of an immigration reform advocacy group. As they strategize, schmooze, and react to setbacks, the intensity and sincerity of their commitment is clear. So, for the most part, are the stakes, though I suspect you need to watch more of the series to get the filmmakers’ take on why we need immigration reform to begin with.

A large part of this film focuses on the political maneuvering to try to pass just one small bill: a law allowing illegal immigrants married to U.S. citizens to stay in this country while waiting to have their cases heard. After a small but effective anti-immigration group whips up sentiment against it, the pro-immigration people decide to drop it and save their political capital for a bigger fight. In the silky, NPR-ish voiceover that periodically adds context and measured commentary, Robertson says Kennedy’s immigration aide estimates the law would have saved 80,000 families a year from traumatic separations.

That’s a moving insight, but the focus is generally on the people making the laws, not the people affected by them. Mountains and Clouds sometimes descends into mind-numbing procedural detail, like when Brownback’s aide chortles geekily about his own story of how Senator Byrd finessed some obscure parliamentary point to get his way. This movie may show us how the sausages are made in D.C., but it’s a strictly fat-free affair.

Mountains and Clouds will play on June 19 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.