Lawrence Toppman

Film festival headed to Charlotte asks ‘What does it mean to be an American?’

Director Chris Weitz and actor Demián Bichir (center) chat with Define American Film Festival head Jose Antonio Vargas at the first DAFF last year in Iowa.
Director Chris Weitz and actor Demián Bichir (center) chat with Define American Film Festival head Jose Antonio Vargas at the first DAFF last year in Iowa.

Last winter, Iowans preparing for the presidential primaries found themselves discussing what it means to be an American – at a film festival that debuted in Des Moines.

This May, it’ll be Charlotte’s turn. The Define American Film Festival comes to town May 11-13. The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture will present it, hosting screenings, panels and discussions. And the guy spearheading the debate about the term “American” is a prize-winning reporter who ... isn’t, at least legally.

Jose Antonio Vargas, part of the Washington Post team that earned a Pulitzer for covering the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, co-founded the organization Define American in 2011 and serves as CEO. In 2016, his board added a movie component to its mission, which is to further the national dialogue about the role immigrants (documented or not) play in shaping America.

And who knows better than he? Vargas wrote a first-person article in the New York Times six years ago, explaining that he entered the country illegally in 1993 and had spent 18 years finishing college, holding jobs and paying taxes under the governmental radar.

Movies had been a big part of that.

“My first introduction to America was always the movies,” says Vargas, who left the Philippine Islands to live with grandparents in California. “I knew of America before I got here, because of American movies. I made sense of America by borrowing every single movie from the public library (in Mountain View, Cal.).

“For us at Define American, the biggest goal is changing the culture around immigration and humanizing the experience. Movies are a perfect way to introduce what we do to the community.”

Last year, Oscar-nominated actor Demián Bichir and director Chris Weitz, who teamed for “A Better Life,” headlined the panels in Iowa. Vargas says he’s still assembling talent and inviting guests for May. At the moment, the screening schedule looks like this, though shorts will be added later:

May 11 at 7 p.m.: “Dolores,” a documentary about farm worker and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta.

May 12 at 5 p.m.: The documentary “Am I: Too African To Be American or Too American To Be African?” It examines how African women here and abroad wrestle with race, complexion, gender and heritage.

May 12 at 8 p.m.: “Meet the Patels,” a documentary about an Indian-American from Charlotte who looks for love with help (wanted and otherwise) from family members, plus the short “Rita Mahtoubian is not a Terrorist.”

May 13 at 1 p.m.: “Forbidden: Undocumented & Queer in Rural America,” a documentary about Moises Serrano’s life as a gay immigrant from Mexico in the rural south. This may be paired with a short documentary about a trans/Latina community in Durham.

May 13 at 4 p.m. “White People,” a documentary Vargas made in 2015 about the concept of white privilege and its effects on other cultures.

You can get tickets at

Why here? Charlotte-based Red Ventures is sponsoring the festival, and Vargas says he considers CEO Ric Elias “a mentor to me.” More importantly, Vargas cites the immigrant population, quoting figures that show it has more than tripled over the 27 years to almost 750,000 – “not just Latinos but Asians, who make up about 250,000.” And he notes, North Carolina has spent years wrestling not just with immigration issues but racial problems, LGBTQ rights and legislation that has divided the state down the middle.

Recent state and national elections have not dampened Vargas’ optimism.

“I think (our) work is more essential,” he says. “It may seem like a fool’s errand. But in my experience, when people understand what the issues are, they empathize and look beyond ‘illegal’ and ‘immigrant.’ That’s what storytelling does: People have a license to voice something they would otherwise not have voiced.

“I think the current (political climate) may be a silver lining. I would rather people say what they think – ‘Are you really an American?’ – so I can say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about that.’ ”

Toppman: 704-358-5232