Immigrant Stories: Movies about leaving home

Get an inside look at movies featuring immigrant characters.

A colorful Guatemalan village; a boutique hotel in London; a small apartment in Singapore and a temporary shelter for illegal immigrants in Iceland all share a distinct sense of place. None of these settings are havens for the characters in these stories. At one point in the Icelandic movie And Breathe Normally, the character Adja observes, “I’m traveling alone.” Her simple statement applies to most of the individuals in these insightful movies. Selected for their strong narratives and characters, these films convey the uneasy tension surrounding the lives of immigrants or in Ilo Ilo, the strain of living as a foreign worker.

Dirty Pretty Things (screen capture)

Dirty, Pretty Things 2002

Both the title and the first scene suggest that things are not what they seem. This tense thriller focuses on the shaky, threatened world of immigrants who keep a small hotel in London running. Behind the respectable façade, shady activities take place. Audrey Tautou gained attention as the spirited charmer in the 2001 international hit, Amelie. Here she is cast as the Turkish immigrant, Senay, who hopes to be granted asylum. Her dream is to move to New York City where lights twinkle in the trees. Tautou convincingly conveys the vulnerability and the toughness of her character. Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays the Nigerian, Okwe, who is the hero of the story. He works the hotel front desk during the night and drives cabs during the day. To keep awake he sucks on some kind of exotic weed. Tautou and Ejiofor form a believable relationship that is tense and tender. Sharply drawn characters capture the good, the bad and the dreadful. The dreadful is portrayed vividly by Sergi Lopez who, as the appropriately named, Sneaky, masterminds the nefarious illegal activities. Small touches and details make us care about these individuals. Okwe, resourceful and smart, makes cash only sandwiches after the hotel kitchen closes for the night. We watch as he patiently shows another immigrant how to cut the crusts. There are suspenseful sharp bumps along the way and, thanks to Okwe’s skills—a grand revenge. This is a fine collaboration between veteran director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Steven Knight and a vibrant, strong cast. We gain insight into the invisible immigrants who keep the economy running. In a moment of verbal confrontations, the feisty character, Juliette, played by Sophie Okonedo, ironically states, “We don’t exist.”

TRIVIA: Steven Knight, who wrote the screenplay, also directed and wrote the screenplay for the equally tense 2014 movie, Locke.

Ilo Ilo (screen capture)

Ilo Ilo  2013

This is the first feature for Singapore filmmaker Anthony Chen. Based on his childhood memories, this insightful film won the prestigious Best Debut Film award at the Cannes Film Festival. This is not the world of the Singaporean wealthy featured in the 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians, but a society weathering the crippling effects of the East Asian financial crisis of 1997. The middle-class Lim family faces financial distress. The details sound like an American soap opera. This frazzled family features a pregnant mother, Hwee Leng (Yeo Yann Yann), who writes employment termination letters; a bumbling father, Keng Teck Lim (Tian Wen Chen), who fears his own employment termination letter; and 9-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) who seems to be in training to become a juvenile delinquent. Arriving from the city of Ilo Ilo in the Philippines, Terry (Angeli Bayani), takes on the many tasks of running the household and caring for Jiale. Terry has traveled to this foreign land to make money to send home to her sister who is caring for Terry’s infant child. For the set, Chen recreated his own family’s small apartment where most of the action takes place. The space is so tight that Terry sleeps on a cot in Jiale’s room. Bayani conveys Terry’s isolation as the outsider. She is Catholic, speaks only English and has no privacy or time for herself. Her alien status becomes shakier when Hwee demands that she hand over her passport. Permeated with touches of humor, Chen weaves a tale that explores familial tension, class consciousness, loneliness and plenty of secrets about money. The story revolves around the developing relationship between Jiale and Terry. You will remember the ending.

TRIVIA:  Chen traveled to the Philippines and with the help of the Filipino media, located his “Terry.” Around her waist she wore a blue pouch that contained photos of Chen and his brother. She kept it with her all the time. Chen brought her to the premiere at Cannes.

El Norte (screen capture)

El Norte 1983

This epic length (two hours and 19 minutes) movie transports us from Guatemala through Mexico to Los Angeles, recounting a treacherous tale of illegal immigration. When a government massacre decimates their family, teenage siblings Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez), flee from their remote Guatemalan village, determined to reach El Norte—and ultimately America. Independent film director Gregory Nava conveys Enrique’s and Rosa’s nervous tension and resourcefulness as they escape terror in Guatemala, hostility in Mexico and betrayal in Los Angeles. Nava infuses his tale with touches of magic realism, a convention popular with Latin American writers and filmmakers in which realism mixes with magical elements. The Guatemalan village looks like an enchanted setting with heightened colors in the clothing, lush green landscape and vivid lighting and details in the cozy homes. Rosa creates her own magical realism as her vision of America aligns with the pages of her aunt’s Good Housekeeping magazines. On their journey north they outwit a despicable coyote (a transporter who assists with illegal immigration) and endure a harrowing crawl through a sewer pipe. In Los Angeles they begin to learn the language and secure menial jobs while always fearing apprehension by immigration officers. Rosa works as a maid in an upscale Los Angeles residence. One humorous scene involves Rosa, the washing machine and the lady of the house. We identify with Rosa’s frustration and her solution to the dilemma is memorable. Magic realism lights up their lives in Los Angeles. It seems as if the wand of a generous fairy godmother transforms their filthy, minuscule apartment into a shabby chic haven reminiscent of their Guatemalan roots. Nava creates this space to emphasize the siblings’ need to feel safe and sheltered. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Gregory Nava stated that everyone is looking for the Promised Land. He visually captures the hopes and perseverance that accompany Rosa and Enrique on their bittersweet journey to their Promised Land.

TRIVIA: El Norte received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Anna Thomas, Gregory Nava’s wife, wrote the screenplay.

And Breathe Normally (screen capture)

And Breathe Normally 2018

Resilience, reliance, risk and rain feature prominently in this story of two women who come together in the worst of circumstances. Isold Uggadottir’s first feature film is set in Keflavik, far away from scenic waterfalls and the Blue Lagoon. The story stays sharply focused on four characters—Lara (Kristin Haraldsdottir), her 8-year-old son, Eldar (Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson), along with Adja (Babetida Sadjo) and Musi (Dexter), the cat. Lara, a recently recovering addict, is one step away from disaster. Desperate to salvage her life and provide for Eldar, she must keep her new job at Keflavik International Airport. Conscientiously she follows all the rules while inspecting international passports. Adja, hoping to escape tyranny in Guinea-Bissau and start a new life in Canada, winds up in Lara’s line at the airport. Lara’s decision to do the right thing results in dreadful consequences. To divulge more of the plot would lessen the effect of this powerful tale that works as both a character study of three individuals and a tense thriller. Pétursson shines as Eldar in his moments with Lara and Adja. And Musi is the best cat actor ever. Watch for Mr. Rogers’ helpers. They brighten up the dreary Icelandic landscape in small, subtle ways. Frequently we forgive first time filmmakers who seem to stumble with their endings. Uggadottir had no problem with the ending of And Breathe Normally. It is perfect.

TRIVIA: The title refers to the safety instructions on a plane—“Secure your mask and then your child’s and breathe normally.”

And Breathe Normally is only available for streaming on Netflix. All the others films are available on streaming services or through the Carnegie Library.


Here are other films that deal with a variety of topics concerning immigration. While some reach back a few years, they demonstrate that powerful storytelling and universal themes never become dated.

Monsieur Lazhar 2011—Monsieur Lazhar conveniently appears to teach when a middle school faces a crisis. Great timing—or is it?

Le Havre 2011—Aki Kaurismaki’s whimsical tale of a bohemian shoe shiner who hides a young, African immigrant.

The Other Side of Hope 2017This Kaurismaki comedy drama focuses on two of the 30,000 Iraqis refugees who arrived in Helsinki in 2015.

In America 2002—A young Irish immigrant family makes their way in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.

The Visitor 2007 —This “down the rabbit hole” movie explores what happens when an immigrant get stuck in a New York City subway turnstile. Richard Jenkins’ performance as Walter earned him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination.

The Donut King 2020—This documentary tells how a Cambodian refugee cornered the donut market in California.

Sugar 2008 —Sugar is a promising baseball pitcher from The Dominican Republic. He lands a position on a Single-A team affiliated with the fictional Kansas City Knights—in Iowa.

Midnight Traveler 2019—This documentary follows filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his family’s harrowing escape from Afghanistan. Fazili recorded the family’s journey across Eastern Europe entirely on his cell phone.


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