Review: ‘The Infiltrators,’ starring Maynor Alvarado, Manuel Uriza, Chelsea Rendon, Dino Nicandros, Marco Saavedra, Viridiana Martinez and Mohammad Abdollahi

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Manuel Uriza and Maynor Alvarado (both pictured leaning forward, at far left) in “The Infiltrators” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“The Infiltrators”

Directed by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra

Partially in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Broward County, Florida, the docudrama “The Infiltrators”—about a group of young Dreamer activists who want undocumented immigrants to be set free at a detention center—has a cast that is predominantly Latino, with some representation of white people, African Americans and Asians.

Culture Clash: The activists, who are part of group called the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, have an underground network to free undocumented immigrants from a U.S. detention center in Broward County, and they have conflicts with immigration officials to achieve their goals.

Culture Audience: “The Infiltrators” will appeal mostly to people who are sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants and Dreamers, but the movie’s “split personality” of being a documentary and a scripted drama ends up being a distraction to the overall message.

Chelsea Rendon and Dino Nicandros in “The Infiltrators” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

At what point does a movie that tries to be a documentary end up being a docudrama? When the scripted re-enactments with actors take up most of the screen time instead of actual interviews with the documentary subjects. It’s why the “The Infiltrators” (directed by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra), although well-intentioned, has an uneven tone that dilutes and muddles what could have been a more impactful film if it let the real people involved tell most of the story, instead of actors.

About 65% of the screen time in “The Infiltrators” consists of scripted re-enactments of what are said to be true events. About 25% of the movie consists of archival footage, while the remaining 10% consists of interviews with the actual people who went through the experiences that are depicted by actors in the movie. It would be inaccurate to call this movie a “documentary,” because the movie is really a docudrama or a scripted dramatic movie with some documentary elements. “The Infiltrators” co-director Rivera wrote the movie’s screenplay with Aldo Velasco.

“The Infiltrators,” which takes place mostly in 2012, tells the story of how members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) formed an underground network to get undocumented immigrants (or illegal aliens, depending on your viewpoint) released from Broward Detention Center in Florida. NIYA consists primarily of Dreamers: people who came to the U.S. as children of undocumented immigrants.

Three of the NIYA members, who were in their early 20s at the time, get the spotlight in “The Infiltrators”—group leader Marco Saavedra, Viridiana “Viri” Martinez and Mohammad Abdollahi. Saaverda and Martinez are of Mexican descent, while Abdollahi is of Iranian descent. Because they were underage when they immigrated to the U.S., they are in a gray area of not being legally responsible for breaking immigration laws themselves, since they were brought into the U.S. by adults.

However, Dreamers are still not eligible to become legal U.S. citizens. There are very divisive and heated debates on what should be done about undocumented immigrants who are working, productive members of society, and what should be done about Dreamers who want to work or go to college after they turn 18. Should they be deported or should they be given a path to citizenship?

“The Infiltrators” undoubtedly takes the side of the immigrants getting a path to legal citizenship, since NIYA’s goal is to prevent deportations of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are productive members of society. In order to get immigrants at detention centers released, NIYA members who are Dreamers got themselves deliberately put into the detention center to contact certain immigrants whose families enlisted the help of NIYA.

While at the detention center, NIYA got the targeted immigrants to sign privacy waiver forms that allowed NIYA members on the outside to get petitions signed on the behalf of the detained immigrants. The movie shows that the waiver forms could be smuggled out by detention-center people who had access to the visitor area (such as people on cleaning duty), and then the waiver forms could be given to pre-planned visitors. Because the detention centers are overcrowded, someone can be released without being deported, if enough political pressure is put on people in the U.S. Congress or other influential politicians who represent the region where the detainee usually lives.

“The Infiltrators” shows scripted re-enactments of experiences that Saaverda (played by Maynor Alvarado) and Martinez (played by Chelsea Rendon) had in deliberately getting themselves locked up in Broward Detention Center. Saaverda and Martinez (at separate times) just walked up to a local U.S. Border Patrol Office, revealed their immigration status by playing dumb, and were then taken to the detention center. Meanwhile, the movie (through some archival footage, but mostly through re-enactments) shows that Abdollahi spearheaded the NIYA efforts outside the detention center to get petitions signed and garner media attention for their detention cases. In the movie, the Abdollahi character’s name is changed to Radam Berlinger, and he is portrayed by actor Dino Nicandros.

In “The Infiltrators,” the detained undocumented immigrants who get help from NIYA include Claudio Roja (played by Manuel Uriza), a middle-aged married father who was detained after he reneged on his promise to voluntarily go back to Mexico. Emiliano, Claudio’s oldest son (played by Orlando Peña), also received NIYA assistance when he was in the detention center for three months. Another immigrant named Beni (played by Juan Gabriel Pareja) also gets help from NIYA.

Viewers would be mistaken to think that “The Infiltrators” will show a lot of abuse by detention workers. No one gets beat up or called racist names. The worst “abuse” shown in the movie is when a guard gets angry at a detainee for loitering while on janitor duty. The guard yells at the detainee to keep mopping the floor, and then angrily kicks the detainee’s mop bucket away. The movie is obviously a very toned-down version of how people are treated in facilities such as this one.

And the detention center looks a little too much like a movie version of a detention center, considering the horrific conditions of real immigration detention centers, which are basically jails under a different name. And the movie unrealistically avoids showing any fighting or unsanitary conditions in the detention center. It’s hard to believe that an overcrowded, incarcerated population would be this peaceful and clean. It’s one of the reasons why the dramatized, scripted parts of the movie don’t look very authentic and does a disservice by not showing people the grim and disturbing realities of what really go on in these detention centers.

The main “detention tension” shown in the movie is when Marco and Claudio get paranoid that the detention center’s “frogs” (the word used for detainees who snitch to the guards) will find out about their plans. And toward the end of the film, Marco convinces a group of detainees to join him in a protest by fasting. But aside from Claudio showing some signs of weight loss, the movie glosses over the impact of fasting, and it’s treated in a way that’s almost glib. One of the detainees quips that the reason why he immediately agrees to fasting is because the food in the detention center isn’t very good anyway.

The movie also does an inadequate job at addressing how racism plays a role in how people are treated in the immigration system. A lot of viewers probably won’t notice that there are no white people shown as detainees in the detention center. The racial disparity is not mentioned at all in the film. It’s necessary to point it out to make people aware that white undocumented immigrants (and a lot of them do exist, contrary to what’s shown in the media) are not rounded up and put in detention centers to the same degree that people of color are targeted for this type punishment.

The majority of the detainees in this detention center are Latino, while the rest are African or Asian. Think of how many white immigrants in the U.S. are undocumented or have expired visas, but they’re usually not yanked out of their homes or jobs and taken to detention centers. And considering that the majority of immigration officials are white, it’s no wonder that immigration is a hot-button racial issue in the United States.

And there’s another level of racial preference that’s glossed over in the film: As depicted in the movie, NIYA members give priority help to Latinos, since most of the NIYA members are also Latino. There’s a scripted scene that shows Martinez somewhat befriending an African immigrant named Neema Mukun (played by Délé Ogundiran), who shares a cell-room with her, and the African woman shows interest in having the NIYA help her. But in the end, the only people in the movie who get freed with NIYA’s help are people who “remind them of their families” (as the actress portraying Martinez says in the scripted portion of the movie)—in other words, people who are Latino.

That racial preference might also be a function of how racially segregated detention centers can be, but the movie could have been a lot more honest about this racial preference instead of using an African woman as a token character.  If the NIYA made equal efforts to help detainees of non-Latino races, it’s not shown in “The Infiltrators,” which is another reason why the movie’s over-reliance on scripted re-enactments ends up short-changing what could have been more of a well-rounded picture.

When the movie cuts to scenes of the real people (not the actors) in archival footage or in interviews, it’s a reminder of how much better the movie would have been if the majority of the scenes were in documentary format. That’s because the real people tell the story in much more compelling ways. They actually lived these experiences and can tell eyewitness  details that would be more impactful, as opposed to a second-hand interpretation of events.

If the interviewees were dull or awkward on camera, then it would be understandable for the filmmakers to rely so heavily on re-enactments. But Saavedra, Martinez and Abdollahi are not only charismatic, they also have a great sense of humor. And the former detainees who got assistance (such as the real Claudio and Emiliano Rojas) have a lived-through trauma in their eyes and demeanor, which can’t be faked by actors. The actors in this movie do an adequate job, but they’re not as memorable as the real people.

The NIYA “infiltrators” ended up getting a lot of media attention, which kind of defeats the purpose of keeping things “underground” in order to operate without detection from authorities. Because the identities of the “infiltrators” were exposed in the media, they had to stop what they were doing because immigration officials now know about it. And since their tactics have been revealed to the public, it would be much harder for other people to try the same methods.

The problem with putting all of this in a dramatic, scripted format while trying to pass this movie off as a nonfiction is that the viewers don’t know how much of the script was exaggerated or fabricated for dramatic purposes. Toward the end of the movie, it flashes forward to Election Day in 2016, to show documentary footage of the the real Saavedra (not the actor) watching on TV, to his dismay, the impending results of the U.S. presidential election. The film ends very abruptly on another scene of the real Claudio Rojas on his way to a required check-in appointment with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But the Election Day 2016 footage in the movie is a reminder that when it comes to current ICE policies and issues, “The Infiltrators” is not just an overly scripted film but it’s also an outdated one.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “The Infiltrators” in virtual cinemas on May 1, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is June 2, 2020.