Most states have no public-college restrictions on undocumented students. But in Georgia, where undocumented students aren’t eligible for in-state tuition and where DACA recipients are banned from attending in-state public universities, the obstacles to attaining higher education are all but prohibitive for the undocumented community.
Director Heather Courtney and Panamanian-American filmmaker Anayansi Prado tackle this issue head on in documentary feature The Unafraid, which follows the lives of three undocumented students in Georgia as they navigate countless personal struggles and limited opportunities for higher education. The film premiered to a packed house at the 2018 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, one of the most renowned events for non-fiction cinema in the country.
The documentary’s central characters – Alejandro aka “Cheesecake,” his best friend Aldo, and Silvia – were all deeply involved in activism when the directors met them. As members of Freedom University, an organization that offers tuition-free education, guidance and services to students in their situation, they were actively engaged in the fight to provide education to the undocumented community. “They are Americans that happen to be undocumented,” Prado told Remezcla about the movie’s subjects (and DREAMers in general).
For over four years, Prado and Courtney spent summers in Georgia shooting with their protagonists, returning on multiple occasions throughout the years as developments emerged in their stories. Originally, the filmmakers’ goal was to document their subjects’ lives for 10 years, but the 2016 election cycle changed all that. Once Trump’s attacks on the immigrant community became commonplace, they felt a new imperative to get the film done and put it out into the world.
This urgency reached a critical point when Trump got elected and eventually rescinded DACA in September of 2017. Suddenly, the directors didn’t need to explain what DACA was anymore, because it had turned into a mainstream conversation.
The three resilient young people who star in the film and their families were in attendance at the premiere in North Carolina, where the reception was overwhelmingly encouraging. But even in the context of this celebration, the precariousness of their situation loomed in the background. As publicly undocumented individuals in a red state where anti-immigrant sentiment abounds, the families worried for their safety, and the film’s directors arranged for an immigration attorney to be present at the screening in the event any issues arose. Fortunately, the event went off without a hitch, and the documentary took home the Kathleen Bryan Edwards Award for Human Rights.
As a sign of respect for the community it depicts, The Unafraid was screened with Spanish subtitles (as have all of Prado’s previous works focusing on immigration). “This is a film about the Latino community and for the Latino community,” Prado explains, adding she believes including subtitles sets a precedent for more bilingual content to exist.
“We also hope to outreach across the South to communities that don’t know a lot about the immigration issue and that don’t know a lot of immigrants personally. We want to educate people,” said Courtney.
The directors are planning for more festival appearances, screenings hosted by allied organizations, and eventually a broadcast release – so keep your eyes peeled for the opportunity to catch this important story.