University City

‘From the Back of the Line’ is a documentary that follows the lives of seven undocumented immigrants living in Charlotte.

Hannah Levinson is a 25-year-old graduate student with lazy ringlets of strawberry blonde hair that cascade over her dark-framed eyeglasses, and a penchant for the expression “Oy!” that hints at her family’s Yiddish roots.

Toby Shearer is a 32-year-old filmmaker whose laid-back native Californian personality – accessorized by the sun-kissed blonde ponytail that snakes out the back of his baseball cap – brought him to Charlotte 10 years ago with the intent to follow his parents’ advice and “make something of himself.”

Armando Bellmas is a 44-year-old first generation American who spends his days assisting those following the same path of immigration his Cuban parents took more than a half a century earlier. Through his dense salt-and-pepper beard, words of guidance spoken in both Spanish and English help navigate through the thick, tangled trail of an unfamiliar country laden with rumors of opportunity.

Each of the three share a connection – at some point either they or someone in their families decided to change location for the chance at a better life.

It’s no different than what the millions of undocumented immigrants who have come to the United States are trying to do, they say.

The trio hopes members outside the immigrant community will see that connection, too, when they watch “From the Back of the Line,” their new documentary that follows the struggles of seven mixed-status families living in Charlotte.

The film, set to premiere 7 p.m. May 3 inside UNC Charlotte Center City on East Ninth Street in Charlotte, is free and open to the public.

It’s a documentary that has been months in the making. Levinson, a UNC Charlotte graduate student studying ethics and applied philosophy, initiated the film as a thesis project. Bellmas, director of communications at the Latin American Coalition, joined in to help find the people with the right stories to tell.

“Immigration isn’t a black or white issue,” Bellmas said. “It’s a thousand shades of gray, each situation and story so different that is can’t be answered or dealt with so succinctly.”

Part of the film follows a single mother of three who works long shifts in a factory to buy medicine for her asthmatic son that would be beyond their reach if they lived in Mexico.

The desire to improve the lives of their children is common thread woven into nearly all of the stories.

“We found with a lot of the people we talked to, that’s what they’re working for,” said Shearer. “They’re working for their children. They’re trying to give them a future. They keep saying things like, ‘My parents were really, really poor. I came here to give my kids a better life.’”

Shearer, a longtime friend of Levinson, owns Haberdashery Films in Charlotte, and agreed to take on the project with the $3,000 bare-bone budget – most of which was raised through two UNC Charlotte grants – even though he admits he had little understanding at first of the undocumented immigrant’s plight.

“I had the same reaction a lot of people have toward the issue,” he said. “I didn’t know the depth of the issues, either.”

Through the making of the film he learned how difficult the circumstances could be for people who are just like him in so many ways, except for their birthplace.

“They’re not this faceless threat that is perceived when you say something like, 11 million undocumented immigrants,” said Shearer. “They’re somebody who lives next door to you, that brings you a pie when you move into the neighborhood. They’re some of the most gracious and warm people that I have met in a long time.”

Levinson hopes the current debate over immigration policies will refresh the outdated laws leftover from the Cold War era, and make the path to citizenship simpler and shorter than it is today.

Many of our ancestors, she said, would be considered undocumented immigrants under today’s immigration laws.

She also hopes people who see the documentary will walk away with a new understanding of the undocumented immigrants’ circumstances.

“They’re not numbers. They’re not statistics. They shouldn’t be thought of as law-breakers or people trying to take advantages that they haven’t earned, but as people making the best choices possible for their families, and often times their safety and longevity.”