Local Arts

How do you define ‘American’? Watch these and that may change

Moises Serrano, who grew up in Yadkin County, tells his story in “Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America,” a documentary to which the Southern Poverty Law Center awarded its first-ever Social Justice filmmaking honor.
Moises Serrano, who grew up in Yadkin County, tells his story in “Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America,” a documentary to which the Southern Poverty Law Center awarded its first-ever Social Justice filmmaking honor. Kathi Barnhill

Moises Serrano says the first thing people tell him, after watching the film about his journey, is always the same:

“I didn’t know.”

Serrano, raised in Yadkin County, tells his story in “Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America.” That’s one of a half-dozen works in the Define American Film Festival – coming May 11-13 to Charlotte’s Gantt Center – founded by Jose Antonio Vargas. He’s the former reporter who helped the Washington Post win a 2008 Pulitzer, then revealed he’d been living and working in the country illegally since 1993.

The festival, the second annual one, aims to explore immigration, identity and citizenship. Vargas will be there to take part in after-show discussions; so will Serrano – and Bishop Tonyia Rawls, founder of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice; “Forbidden” filmmaker Tiffany Rhynard; and Cristina Morales of trans group Entre Nosotras in Durham.

And so will rock-star-level civil rights activist Dolores Huerta – co-founder, with Cesar Chavez, of what became the United Farm Workers, and star of “Dolores,” which premiered in January at Sundance. (Festival film tickets run $5 per; you can also get packages.)

[Keep scrolling to watch trailers of the films, below.]

“I think the festival is trying to portray immigrants in a different lens, in ways that we don’t typically think about them,” says Serrano, 28, now a junior majoring in public policy at Sarah Lawrence College. He answered questions as he made his way to the United Nations for a volunteer job; the interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: How does a film like “Forbidden” spur change?

A: I think it’s a conversation starter. There haven’t been documentaries that focus specifically and wholly on the issue of being undocumented and queer in rural spaces. The purpose is to have a conversation and to educate people about the legal realities of immigrants.

Q: Why is this film important for Charlotte now?

A: There’s a large invisible population in the South who happens to be undocumented. Visibility is why I feel like Charlotte is important. Once we put a face to invisible communities, I hope that translates to some sort of representation.

Q: In the film, your mother shares her story of trying to cross the border to the United States. How does hearing that story impact you?

A: Who likes to see their family cry in a documentary in order for other Americans to see her as a human being worthy of having rights? Every time I see that, I am devastated. My mother is just one of millions of mothers who made this really tough decision.

Q: What’s a misconception people have about being undocumented?

A: I think the biggest misconception is that there is a pathway toward citizenship. Most people just assume that immigrants do not want to get in line or do not want to adjust their status. There is no line. (Editors note: Serrano says in his case, if he returned to Mexico, he would have to begin an estimated 20-year waiting period, with another decade of waiting added, as a penalty called an “unlawful presence bar for living in the United States as long as he has.)

Q: How has the film been received?

A: The reception that I always get, and the most common phrase is, ‘I didn’t know.’ Americans are shocked at how little they know about the current situation about undocumented people in our nation. The second reception that I get is, ‘Well, I have a friend. I have a family member. This affects me.’

Q: What can Charlotteans do to affect change?

A: Instantaneous gratification doesn’t exist. It’s going to take a lot of work. We have to commit to engaging our state and local politicians first. That’s always my first piece of advice. In-state tuition is a state-based right. Only each state can provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. Driver’s licenses are also a state right. Only state legislature can provide immigrants with a driver’s license. Partnerships with immigration, 287(g) and Secure Communities, are partnerships that are decided at a county level. That’s not an appealing answer. It’s not an easy answer, but again, this is not an easy issue.

Q: What can the audience expect to learn from ‘Forbidden’ that they haven’t already learned from other sources?

A: I think it’s important to hear information from the people actually being impacted by an issue. For Americans who are curious, who feel like they are ill-informed, who do not know enough, this is the film for them.


Below is a look at the festival’s lineup. The website – defineamerican.com – has ticket links; as well as a wealth of other interactives, stories and more. The festival concludes with a panel called “Stories We Tell: How Immigrants are Portrayed in Hollywood & Popular Culture” at 8 Saturday night. Who’ll talk? Writer and Wake Forest prof Melissa Harris-Perry, LA Times TV critic Lorraine Ali, actor Nico Santos from “Superstore,” comedian Cristela Alonzo and April Reign of Broadway Black (she started the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag). “Casting Call Confessions,” a short, will be screened first.

The Image Works
Dolores Huerta, organizing marchers in 1969; she’ll be in Charlotte to discuss the documentary about her, “Dolores.” George Ballis/Take Stock/The Image Works


7 p.m. May 11: Huerta, like nearly all those who’ll be in town to talk, has a multitude of descriptors: In addition to founding what became the UFW with Cesar Chavez, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and has a foundation that works for civil rights. For the discussion – about the challenges of women of color within the civil rights movement and “mainstream feminism” – she’ll be joined by Paola Mendoza (organizer, film director, co-artistic director of Women’s March on Washington), activist and Teach For America officer Brittany Packnett and P. Kim Bui of NowThisNews. “Unlicensed,” a short, will be screened first.


2:30 p.m. May 12: To talk about this doc about Perez Joglar’s journey across the world to trace his ancestry (while also seeking out stories and creating music) will be Levine Museum of the New South program director Oliver Merino, Damian Woetzel of the Aspen Institute Arts Program and artist Zun Lee (whose work, described as focusing on “the importance of quotidian Black life,” is at the Gantt through July 8). The short “I Too Sing America” will be shown first.

Am I : Too African to be American or too American to be African?

5 p.m. May 12: words. Filmmaker Nadia Sasso, curator/writer/more Desirée Vonn Frederic and Jonathan Jayes-Green (co-founder of an advocacy group for undocumented African, Caribbean and Afro-Latinx people) will talk afterward about how African women wrestle with concepts such as race, gender and heritage. “Good Immigrant” will be screened beforehand.

Meet The Patels

8 p.m. May 12: Vasant and Champa Patel flew to India in 2008 with their son, Ravi, and their daughter, Geeta. (As always, her video camera went, too.) They dreamed of an ideal Indian bride for Ravi and the prospect of grandchildren. They returned to Charlotte with no bride and raw footage for a remarkably entertaining documentary about Indian kin and communities. Lawrence Toppman talked with the Patels for the Observer when it was released nationally, in 2015. Activist Taz Ahmed and Kalia Abiade of a social investment fund will be the panelists. “Rita Mahtoubian Is Not a Terrorist” is the introductory short.

Forbidden: Undocumented & Queer in Rural America

1 p.m. May 13: Joining Serrano to talk about this will be filmmaker Tiffany Rhynard, known also for her choreography and dance films; Bishop Tonyia Rawls of the Freedom Center for Social Justice and founder of Charlotte’s Clergy Coalition for Justice; and Cristina Morales of Durham, program coordinator of trans group Entre Nosotras. The short “Entre Nosotras” will premiere first.

White People

4 p.m. May 13: This MTV doc, produced by the festival’s own Vargas, will be followed by a discussion with him, Define American producer Shauna Siggelkow, MTV VP Ronnie Cho, MTV writer Marcus Ellsworth and actor Ian Nelson, from Winston-Salem, best known for “Hunger Games” and “Teen Wolf” (but also in “The Deleted” with hometown social media star Nash Grier). First: The short “The White Box.”