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The Infiltrators review: Docudrama breaks into migrant detention centers

Combining documentary footage with dramatic reconstructions, this entertaining film reminds us migrants are real people with real families.

The Infiltrators takes you inside the strange limbo of a detention center.

Sundance

In 2018, revelations about children being kept in cages catapulted migrant detention centers into the headlines. With immigration still proving an inflammatory topic around the world, charming docudrama The Infiltrators tells the story of the undocumented immigrants who didn't try to break out of a detention center -- they wanted to get in.

Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2019, the Infiltrators will be available on-demand from June 2, 2020. A hybrid of real footage and dramatised reconstructions, it tells the story of the real-life National Immigrant Youth Alliance. This idealistic group of young activists began by campaigning for the DREAM act, legislation to legally recognise migrants who arrived in the US without papers as children. And then they decided to take things to the next level.

Themselves undocumented migrants, the NIYA's members deliberately overcame the harsh lesson about avoiding authority that such children are taught early in their lives. Instead, they made themselves visible, insisting you could be both undocumented and unafraid.

Campaigner Marco Saavedra walked up to border officers to ask about a friend. The border officer couldn't resist joining the dots and detained Saavedra for lacking papers. Later Viridiana Martinez did the same. Both were thrown into Florida's Broward Transitional Center -- where their real mission began.

The actual real-life Marco and Viri narrate their story in straight-to-camera interviews. We also see them setting about their mission in footage shot at the time by the NIYA. So far, so traditional, for a documentary.

But you may have spotted the obvious limitation on this method of telling the tale -- once they step inside the detention center, the cameras can't follow. So directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra switch to dramatised reconstructions for these segments.

The Infiltrators uses prison movie tropes to tell the story of migrants stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

Sundance

That means the real people and the actors playing them are introduced with onscreen captions that literally say "Marco Saavedra" and "Maynor Alvarado playing Marco". This hybrid form could be confusing, as you have to remember two faces for every person involved in the story. National Geographic's tech industry-focused TV show Valley of the Boom adopted a similar approach, and the dizzying cast of real people and their actor counterparts was a recipe for confusion.

The Infiltrators pulls it off, however. The conceit is executed with a light touch, marshaling each new person so we get to know them. And the subject matter helps sidestep Valley of the Boom's big problem, which was that it was a huge cast of very similar white guys.

The Infiltrators introduces us to people from Mexico, Venezuela, the Congo and all over the world. Each of them has been snatched up by immigration officials and deposited in orange jumpsuits in South Florida's Broward Transitional Center. It's there that Marco and Viri get themselves locked up.

The migrants held in Broward hadn't committed a crime, so they weren't entitled to a lawyer, a trial or even a sentence. Stuck in Kafkaesque limbo as they waited to see a judge or be shackled and put on a plane, some of them found their imprisonment in the detention center stretching from months to years. But this is more than a bureaucratic nightmare: The detention center is run by private prison company Geo Group, setting the tired and poor to work for a dollar a day.

So Marco and Viri secretly begin handing out the phone number of the NIYA. The activists, spearheaded by charismatic Mohammad Abdollahi, help the detainees' families campaign for their release.

Once the characters are inside, the dramatised sections play out like a prison movie. The green new fish is shown the ropes by a salty old-timer, and they're soon hatching elaborate schemes under the noses of the glowering guards. The earnestness of the real kids and the knowing use of genre tropes give the film a lighthearted, larky air, which is where the documentary interviews come in useful. There are harder-hitting ways to tell this story, but while the reconstructions provide stranger-than-fiction surrealness that'll intrigue viewers, the interviews keep things anchored with a reminder that these outlandish events happened to real people. And are, in fact, still happening to real people.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room. The Infiltrators does give us some heartwarming victories, but we know something those earnest kids don't. Because all this happened in 2012, and we know that any progress made with publicising inhumane treatment or persuading lawmakers is only leading up to our current era. Today, immigration is a flashpoint of vitriol and division, the private prison industry is still growing, and people are screaming for a wall. 

Despite the Pyrrhic nature of any victories seen in The Infiltrators, it's still timely -- even more now than in 2012. Now more than ever we need to be reminded that the poor and huddled masses are real people with real families, all yearning to be free.