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Immigration

Currently Watching: Ellis

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Currently Watching: Ellis


This is the trailer for ELLIS, a short film starring Robert De Niro, written by Eric Roth, directed by JR. The short narrative film, ELLIS, awakens our collective memory. Leaving their past behind them, immigrants fleeing poverty, discrimination, dictatorship arrived there. Ellis Island was the gateway to the United States for millions of immigrants. Upon arrival, they were processed, approved or denied access. Due to sickness or simply tiredness, many were placed in the hospital. A purgatory of sorts, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, where thousands of men, women and children awaited their fate. ELLIS tells the forgotten story of these immigrants who built America while questioning about those who currently seek the same opportunities and safety in this country and other parts of the world. The short film stars Academy Award Winner Robert De Niro, was written by Academy Award winner Eric Roth and directed by the artist JR whose Unframed art installations in the abandoned Hospital complex serve as the set for this powerful and timely film.

The past few years I have discovered a deep desire to learn more about my own genealogy and cultural identity. Up until recently, when asked, I told people I was a blend of many European cultures. So blended, in fact, that I don't have any cultures I identify with. Being an artist this was a topic I often explored. Feeling invisible among my diverse peers. It has taken me years to be able to articulate the feeling of being removed from ancestral traditions. I know this plays into my desire to work with and capture stories of all peoples. 

It is not that I don't have a form of cultural identity but for whatever reason, it wasn't a currency in my family system. It has been lost. I have no religion that I feel deeply connected to, I study all of them. I have no traditions that stem from generations. I have a few stories of farming and growing up in the depression but beyond that, there is a void. 

Since as long as I can remember, I longed to see the world and learn about different cultures. I purposely seek out worldly people to fill my life with. I reasoned that if I didn't have a specific culture I identified with, that I would become a student of all of them.

Art allowed me to do that. 

I had been casually looking up french street art, you know, as one does, when I came across JR's work. His talk, "How art can change the world," won the TED prize in 2011. JR is a French street artist who had some beautiful ideas about how art could shape a community. After being in Paris and getting to see their street art first hand, I can tell you, they do it better than anything I have seen in the states. It's sassy and on point in a way Banksy could never touch. If you haven't seen the talk yet, please watch it below. It is amazing. I would LOVE to see something like this in Chicago. 

Ellis is not a new piece of work. It features JR's installation, Unframed. The installation was created in 2014, the short film came out the following year. It feels more relevant to me now given our current events. I remember reading Anne Frank in school and having my eyes opened to the horrors of oppression and immigration. I hope to never know such peril in my life. Truth is America was founded by immigrants who fought their way across the land and conquered it. Unless you are Native American, you are the product of immigration. In Ellis, JR attempts to bring you face to face with these ghosts. These stories of immigration. The people who fled discrimination, war and poverty to seek a better life. A staggering number of people living in the United States can trace their roots back here. Millions came through the island on their way to a better life.

It is estimated that 40% of people alive today can trace their roots back to a family member coming through Ellis Island. 

The film is beautifully written. I love me some De Niro, and think he gives the material justice. Personally, I would have loved to hear it in different languages. The photography of Unframed is haunting. It sits among the dilapidated buildings giving story to it's walls. Simply breathtaking.

When immigration became a political hot topic this year, my brain became interested in this project again. Our modern day immigrants don't look like this. They are no longer the European ancestors we see in our history books, they come from all over the world. When I began traveling I was embarrassed that I didn't speak another language. Everywhere I went, people were bilingual. They never made me feel bad for not knowing the native tongue but I had this deep desire to join them. Travel breaks down walls. The biggest wall it breaks down is fear. Fear of others, fear of other cultures, fear of those who are different than "us." 

I think it is more important now than ever that we see the faces of everyday people from all walks of life doing every day things. 

It is important to know our history. I think of our modern day Ellis Islands. The ones that sit on our borders and detain people. They have the same desire as those who came before. They are looking for a better life. They don't want anything they haven't earned. They just want a shot at creating something better for themselves. I can't imagine having to leave it all behind and start over in another country. One that is hostile towards me. What bravery and courage that takes. 

I am headed to New York for the first time this spring. Ellis Island was the first place on my list to visit. I want to stand there. On the steps of what was hope for so many and gaze at lady liberty. Some never made it beyond the hospital. Others were detained for years, living in limbo. Before the island was opened to the public, it was used for deportations. A crazy full circle. 

You can watch Ellis on Netflix or Amazon Prime. 

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