10 Films About the Immigrant Experience


“I think ultimately it really is trying to find out who we are, and try to understand a little bit about what it was like to live as an immigrant at that time,” Martin Scorsese said in a 2007 interview about the popular theme of the immigrant experience amongst filmmakers. But the immigrant journey is not limited to our ancestors in decades past. In 2014, more than 42.4 million immigrants resided in the United States. Currently, our nation of immigrants is struggling to cope with the recent order prohibiting immigrant entry into the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries. As the discussions about our 45th president’s ban continue, we’re looking back at some of the ways the immigrant experience has been portrayed on the big screen.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Fassbinder’s 1974 post-war masterpiece. From the AV Club:

Fassbinder’s melodrama tackles the ugliness faced by its protagonists with a bracing narrative bluntness that’s amplified by his austere aesthetics, with limited camera movements and diegetic sound allowing silence and empty spaces to speak to the pair’s pain and sorrow. Ali: Fear Eats The Soul conveys volumes through its expert framing, with the director’s compositions always underscoring Emmi and Ali’s emotional states—and relationship to each other—through shots of the couple constricted by doorways and windows. One of Fassbinder’s most poignant works, the film is a portrait of both individual and joint perseverance that cuts straight to the core of bigotry’s ugliness, the difficulties of cultural assimilation, and the struggle to maintain identity, morality, and love in the face of social alienation.

Dancer in the Dark

“It’s worth noting that the experience of being not American is crucial to the film’s meaning, and may even be the most interesting thing about it,” critic Jonathan Rosenbaum writes of Lars von Trier’s harrowing story of a Czech immigrant factory worker and mother who dreams of a better life.


This 2002 documentary follows Cuban refugees as they travel by homemade rafts for a better life in the United States. From writer Claudio Iván Remeseira:

The plight of the Cuban ‘boat-people’ was depicted in a very raw way in Balseros (Rafters), a 2002 Spanish documentary that tells the story of the tens of thousands who left Cuba during the so-called Período Especial (Special Period), the economic debacle that befell the island after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Una Noche is a feature film, and critics have praised the performance of the non-professional actors. But the fictional e story turned suddenly into reality when two of the protagonists, Anailin de la Rúa de la Torre and Javier Nuñez Florian, asked for asylum in the U.S. while visiting the country as special guests of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

In This World

Michael Winterbottom’s Golden Bear prize winner follows two Afghan refugees as they escape a camp in Pakistan and endure a dangerous journey for a more promising life in London. From the New Yorker:

The central experience of The Immigrant is the flow of time. Although the action moves ahead inexorably, the feel of the movie’s time churns in many directions. It isn’t necessary to know that Gray based the movie loosely on family stories—centered on the motley crew that frequented Hurwitz’s, the bar that his great-grandfather ran in that era, and on his great-aunt’s tales of the neighborhood pimp—to get a sense of the movie’s unifying flux of past and present. The mythical world of immigrant ancestors evokes a sort of Western for families whose westward trail came in the twentieth century, by ocean, from Eastern Europe. Gray exposes the violent and filthy underbelly of that legend, which, for all its revelations, never loses its thread of mythology spun on the wing. The spectre of studio-era classics underlying The Immigrant redoubles its mythological power. The film has, in effect, a palimpsest cast from Hollywood’s golden age on the brink of the Second World War. Ewa would be played by Sylvia Sidney or Paulette Goddard (depending on whether the emphasis would be on vulnerability rising to boldness, with Sidney, or on Ewa’s implacability, with Goddard revealing its fissures). Bruno would be Paul Muni (calculating age yielding to emotion) or John Garfield (tragically impulsive youth), and the snappy, sentimental Emil would, of course, be James Cagney. Instead, Gray’s actors are moderns, and among the best. They’re in the front line of modernity in performance, and their presence, written back into the cinematic history of classic Hollywood and into the social history of ancestral New York, suggests that we Big Apple children of immigrants—and of the culture that they created—haven’t fallen as far from their hastily replanted tree as we might think or expect.

West Side Story

Rebellious urban youth are given voice (and song and dance) in this beloved Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical. From Filmstruck’s blog Streamline:

The America song becomes an argument between the boys and the girls that puts Puerto Rico in a much better light than we get from the stage version. It is also much more honest about the immigrant experience. In some way ‘immigrant’ is a misnomer for Puerto Ricans because we are U.S. citizens by birth, but the point is that in that song as it was re-written for the movie Bernardo and the Sharks get to point out some very serious issues about the question of immigration, and the treatment of immigrants, and the prejudice, and the violence that immigrants are subjected to.

La promesse

The Dardenne brothers tell the story of a father and son’s human-trafficking operation and the moral dilemmas between family. From Joseph Mai:

La promesse reflects a greater awareness of the politics of globalization: in this case the exploitation of undocumented immigrants from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. The subject inspired a number of filmmakers, who turned their attention the experience of immigrants and their children in present-day France.

Death by Hanging

Nagisa Oshima’s 1968 film examines the complexities of capital punishment and the mistreatment of Koreans in Japan. From the Village Voice:

A staggering majority of the Japanese people opposed the abolition of capital punishment, a statistic that Oshima clinically lectures on while touring a death chamber, forcing us to watch the austere step-by-step procedure of an execution. It plays like a sobering doc until the condemned man—known only by the Kafka-friendly initial ‘R.’ (a reference to the notorious case of Ri Chin’u, a Korean who murdered two Japanese girls in 1958)—survives the noose, then develops amnesia. Suddenly, the tone hops to absurd theatrical comedy (the gallows humor in Dr. Strangelove‘s war room now literal) as the guards begin dangerously re-enacting R.’s crimes to jog his memory—after all, killing a man who feels no guilt would be murder! Oshima is unsubtle in his critique of Japan’s persecution of Koreans, and in his questioning of whether collectively imagining crimes, villains, or justifications can make them come true.

No Fear, No Die

Claire Denis explores the lives of two African male immigrants in France during the 1990s and the alienation that ensues. From Senses of Cinema:

Working from a script co-authored by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau, No Fear, No Die directly confronts the personal politics of race, capital, and especially masculinity, as they are marked by colonisation and its pathologies. While plot matters little in the work of Denis, the film follows the tragic consequences of colonised black masculinity in the story of two black French immigrants who survive by staging cockfights. Isaach De Bankolé plays an African named Dah, from Benin, while Alex Descas stars as Jocelyn, from the West Indies. Jocelyn is silent for much of the film, while Dah narrates the narrative action in a flat voiceover reminiscent of that found in early Bresson films, especially Pickpocket (1959). Relentlessly bleak, uncompromisingly honest, and unfolding like a harrowing early Dardenne brothers film, No Fear, No Die is a film that provides a glimpse into the dangerous and inhumane living conditions of many non-white male immigrants in modern France.

America America

Elia Kazan’s 1963 film was inspired by the life of his Greek uncle, the first family member to emigrate to the United States. But America America is a story for all immigrants of the time. From Salon:

But there was at least one exception—Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning America America, which became one of the most daring human rights films in cinema history. In it, Kazan brought the plight of the Armenians and Greeks—the major Christian minorities in Turkey– at the turn of the 20th century into a sharp and dark focus, and he depicted the Turkish massacres of the Armenians in an unprecedented way.

Blissfully Yours

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s impressionist love story plays out during the Burmese immigrant struggle in Northern Thailand. From the Harvard Film Archive:

Blissfully Yours follows a young Thai woman and her taciturn Burmese boyfriend, an illegal immigrant in need of a forged ID, as they venture out to the countryside for a bucolic idyll punctuated by matter-of-fact sexual interludes. Composed of meditative long takes, the film is casually erotic, playful – the opening credits appear 45 minutes in – and gently ruminative. Yet the film’s serene, pastoral nature is not without an oblique political conscience, hinted at by the devastated Thai economy and Burmese military junta that lurk sinisterly in the deep background.