Immigration and the American dream – a class assignment using the short film “Ellis”

Last week I screened the film Ellis  in my class. The film was also screened in the Rivera and Orbach libraries on campus for 2 hours – running in a loop in the lobbies of each library. If you have an opportunity to see this 17 minute exploration of immigration, marginalization, hope and its disillusions, and hope despite disillusionment – please do. Directed by the marvelous JR the film raises some very interesting questions about the centrality of Ellis island in the popular American imaginary of this gateway to the American dream. It is also beautiful, as so much of what JR does is.image1

I screened the film and invited my students to answer a few questions about it (full disclosure – it was an extra credit assignment). Their contributions were a powerful testament to the continued relevance of the imaginary of the American dream, as well as to the lesser relevance of Ellis island in its narrative among students in Southern California.

Asked what their symbol for US immigration was – the answer was invariably “the US-Mexico border”.

Asked how the story in Ellis resonated with their family’s story – if they had one – yielded responses about family members left behind (in Latin America and Asia), of horrors escaped (in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America), of the human cost of illegal immigration (and the perils of desert crossings) and the stark contrast between family stories of voluntarily migration in recent years in search of a better future, and stories of forcible migration in previous centuries as slaves. Such is the diversity of UC Riverside student body – such is the diversity of the American reality.

I spent hours this afternoon reading and rereading many of the seventy submissions. This is not how I usually spend my afternoons – but this was riveting, and not just because I could see some of the lessons of the last 6 weeks permeating (excellent citations, proper grammar and paragraph organization FTW!).

So to JR, and Robert de Niro (who stars and narrates the film) and Ellis, and to all the students who shared their stories with me: thank you.


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