Broward County may be the setting of the new docudrama “The Infiltrators,” opening in digital cinemas today, but it’s not the sort of picture county officials and tourism agencies would want to showcase with pride.
Most of the action takes place in the Broward Transitional Center, a detention facility operated by the GEO Group where undocumented immigrants are placed after they’re captured by ICE. Many are eventually deported, after cursory legal proceedings, to countries that are dangerous or foreign to them; a fortunate minority makes it back to their place of residence in the U.S. One of the movie’s protagonists, in his early days of detainment, compares the place to a Kafkaesque purgatory and a “Florida motel where I couldn’t check out.”
This is Marco Saavedra, “dreamer” and real-life activist from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, who, along with his colleague Viridiana Martinez, intentionally got himself deported to the Broward holding center so he could assist, and hopefully liberate, fellow low-priority immigrants detained on such charges as overstaying a visa.
In dramatizing this story, set largely in 2012, directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra split the difference between documentary and feature-film modalities. Marco appears in the film as himself, but he’s also portrayed by an actor, Maynor Alvarado, in scripted re-enactments of his time in the immigrant jail; Viridiana is played by Chelsea Rendon.
The co-directors’ agility in swiftly toggling between the formats led to much-deserved praise after the movie’s premiere at Sundance in 2019. At certain points, they weave actual audio from phone-recorded encounters with federal agents into reconstructed scenarios, a blurring of lines that seems wholly appropriate given the blurred legality of the characters’ situations.
Admittedly, the scenes in the detention center feel written, with dialogue that lapses occasionally into stilted exposition. But it’s no more or less arch than most commercial screenwriting, with a straightforward concision of purpose. As the central narrative of one detainee spider-webs out into more and more dehumanized immigrants and refugees, each with a hard-luck story, we feel very much enveloped in their plight, and fascinated by the analog spycraft with which the canny activists game the system from within—such as the byzantine distribution of contraband legal documents, often under the noses of guards.
It is not a spoiler to report that uncertainty clings to the ending of “The Infiltrators,” which catches up with the central characters following the 2016 presidential election. But it’s sobering to remember that its actions take place largely before the present administration, with its draconian immigration policies, came to power—that Barack Obama, as fondly as some remember him, was called the Deporter in Chief for a reason.
This is an inspiring movie for anyone sympathetic to the cause of undocumented workers and asylum seekers, but it’s also an infuriating look at a system paralyzed by both parties—and where potentially lasting reforms are a distant horizon away.
E-tickets for rentals of “The Infiltrators” can be purchased at the virtual cinema pages of the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Savor Cinema and O Cinema Miami Beach, with funds directly supported these local theaters in need.