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The Infiltrators review: Docudrama breaks into migrant detention centres

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

Sundance

In 2018, revelations about children being kept in cages catapulted migrant detention centres 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 centre -- they wanted to get in.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival 2019 this week, The Infiltrators is a hybrid of real footage and dramatised reconstructions. It follows the exploits of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a real-life group of young activists who campaigned for the DREAM act, proposed legislation that would legally recognise migrants who arrived in the US without papers as children.

Themselves undocumented migrants, they deliberately overcame the harsh lesson about avoiding authority such children are taught early in their lives. Instead, they made themselves visible, insisting you could be both undocumented and unafraid. And then they decided to take things to the next level.

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 they began spreading the word.

The real Marco and Viri narrate the 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've spotted the obvious limitation on this method of telling the story -- once they step inside the detention centre, the cameras can't follow. So directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra switch to dramatised reconstructions for this part of the tale.

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 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 actually 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 stay in the detention centre stretching from months to years. But this is more than a bureaucratic nightmare: The detention centre 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, are 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.  

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