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A Critical Analysis of Jose Antonio Vargas’ “Documented”

Jose Antonio Vargas’ documentary is a fascinating look into his childhood journey from Asia to the United States, and how he lived his life with these unique experiences. This sample essay written by an Ultius professional writer explores the documentary presented by Vargas and argues that the film should be considered a “must-watch.”

Jose Antonio Vargas’ documentary

Released in June 2013, the impact of journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’ biographical documentary Documented has continued to evolve. Like most documentaries, Vargas’ story does not involve convoluted narrative twists and a surprise ending: instead, it presents his childhood journey from the Philippines to the US, his upbringing in the home of his grandparents, his education and career as a journalist and immigration reform activist, and finally his relationship with his mother, whom had been absent from his day-to-day life for 20 years.

As well as charting the varied facets of Vargas’ complex life journey up to the present, the film also raises issues surrounding immigration policies in the US and worldwide, inserting a much-needed personal point of view into the political debate surrounding immigration. The documentary serves as an important reminder that so-called illegal immigrants are human beings—and ones who offer many benefits to their adopted countries.

Documented’s representation if illegal immigrants

Vargas’ intended statement in support of illegal immigrants is apparent even before the documentary begins.

The poster and various marketing campaigns show the title Documented with the subtitle “a film by an illegal immigrant”, struck out and replaced by “a film by an undocumented American [sic]”, indicating the legitimacy of Vargas as a member of the community, at the same time as dispelling and correcting stereotypes surrounding illegal immigrants to the US (Tseng, “All-American Boy”).

Chronicled alongside Vargas’ political activism and the viewpoints of the supporters and detractors of undocumented Americans is a highly personal chronicle of the filmmaker himself, one that started with his article in the New York Times Magazine in 2011 and is continued on film (Vargas, “My Life”). The documentary is not the work of an impersonal narrator—the meaning of the film is instead underscored by a man who participates with his audience and allows them access to his life.

Vargas’ personal pleas for immigrants

The personal nature of many of the scenes with Vargas’ family and his own frequent appearances in front of the camera are compelling, particularly in consideration of the fact that Vargas was initially reluctant to include his story.

Instead, Vargas says the idea for the film began as he was talking to “five undocumented young people from various backgrounds” (Tseng, “All-American Boy”).

After a suggestion from a colleague, Vargas agreed the documentary warranted his participation, though he maintains that “in some ways, this film isn’t what I wanted to make, but it was what I needed to make. I was frankly afraid of myself” (Tseng, “All-American Boy”).

Fear and shame as well as the pride and defiance felt by members of the undocumented American community are sensitively explored in the film, particularly in the scene where Vargas is shot interacting with his detractors, represented by audience members at a Mitt Romney rally in Iowa.


In such scenes, Vargas creates tension between his accomplishments and worthiness as an “unofficial” US citizen and his vulnerable status as an undocumented American that underline the issues and problems surrounding immigration. Reflecting on the inclusion of his relationship with his mother in the film, Vargas asserts:

“I wanted the messiness. I wanted all these answered questions and mixed emotions. You want to talk to me about a broken immigration system? Well, let me show you a broken family. That’s what a broken immigration system is” (Tseng, “All-American Boy”).

In wishing to document the system and his place within it, Vargas has achieved well-deserved acclaim. Documented is a thoughtful film for viewers interested in the personal nature of a political issue. The positive attention and marketing success the documentary has attracted is an indication that it is getting the consideration it deserves and, one hopes, even from audiences who would not normally be drawn to documentaries. Documented has the potential to reach and change the minds of those who should be awakened to the serious issues facing immigrants in our national and global societies.

Want literary example? Check out this critical analysis on stories by two prominent female writers.

Works Cited

Documented. Dir. Jose Antonio Vargas and Ann Raffaela Lupo. Apo Productions, 2013. Film.

Tseng, Ada. “All-American Boy: A Conversation with Documented’s Jose Antonio Vargas.” Asia Pacific Arts. University of Southern California, 11 Dec. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

Vargas, Jose Antonio. “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” The New York Times Magazine 22 June 2011: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

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