Judge Daniel MacDonald has a well-founded sear of sea anemones. No animal should have than many vowels.
"Tell me once again sir, what you are afraid of."
As of 2000, at least 16 million people are refugees somewhere on the planet, according to Well-Founded Fear's opening crawl. A small number of these manage to travel to the United States in search of freedom from persecution; those who successfully enter the country may apply for political asylum, a heady process involving extensive documentation and, ultimately, a face-to-face interview with an asylum officer of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). One of the main criteria the applicant must establish is a "well-founded fear" of returning to his or her homeland.
This confidential process is examined in empathetic detail from multiple perspectives in Well-Founded Fear, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Never before has the INS granted unfettered access to its closed-door meetings and to those applicants who agreed to be featured. We hear directly from asylum seekers what they left when they ventured to America, and become emotionally invested in some of their struggles before witnessing the all-important interview and ultimate judgment. This decision to allow their story to be told is no small matter for these applicants, as many would face strict consequences for discussing their maltreatment if returned to their countries. But bravery is not in short supply for most of these subjects.
The choice facing asylum officers with each case is to recommend asylum or recommend an immigration judge review the supporting information; however, since cases forwarded to a judge are granted asylum only about 20 percent of the time, the decision is effectively made here at the INS. Much of the recommendation's basis relies on the gut instinct of the Officer, which may be influenced by past experiences, personal inclinations, or speculative sympathy. One refers to the process as "Asylum Officer Roulette," as which officer an applicant gets may factor largely into his or her success.
Obviously there is an immense amount of human drama available on both sides of this process, which is what makes Well-Founded Fear so successful as a documentary. For the asylum officers, they must cope with the fact that decisions they make—often based on "fuzzy" information—may result in an applicant being sent back to be tortured or killed, or may admit a criminal or terrorist. Monday to Friday, they decide who will benefit from America's freedom and opportunity, and who will be relegated to their previous life. For applicants, their all-important interview may be hamstrung by a language barrier, with errors in translation and misunderstandings potentially placing doubt in the mind of their inquisitors, and they must sometimes admit to embarrassing circumstances of abuse and terrorism that they would prefer to forget. When one Albanian asylum seeker describes the conditions in which he lived when imprisoned—conditions he may face if sent back—he nearly fails to mention that the only water available to him and his cell mate was in the toilet, an astounding revelation that goes a long way toward convincing his interviewer that he should stay.
The cases we are privy to range widely in their content and believability, but it is difficult to predict who will be recommended for asylum and who will be sent to the judge. Directors Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini (with Camerini also handling camera duties) do an excellent job of cutting between behind-the-scenes discussions that reveal individual biases of the asylum officers, informal conversations with the applicants showing them more relaxed than in the INS offices, and sections of the interviews themselves. One officer opines that this is not a moral issue, and that she holds no ill will toward candidates who would lie to stay in the country; making a judgment toward these is no less nonsensical than considering someone a bad person for getting a parking ticket. Very little is cut and dried, and it is almost impossible to predict who will or won't be recommended for asylum in most cases. The suspense is palatable as Camerini's camera hovers over the shoulder of a clerk as she calls up a nervously waiting applicant, requests picture identification, and then dryly answers the only question on his mind.
Released in 2000, and filmed over five years in the '90s, Well-Founded Fear also acts as a snapshot of the INS as it will never be again; I would imagine the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and subsequent government actions, had a profound affect on the policies and procedures at work, heightening restrictions in the name of security. A follow-up companion piece to this work would be fascinating in its contrast.
Camerini films the proceedings in an artful, unimposing way, using long lenses and shallow focus to bring subjects intimately close yet unassailably natural. It's very pleasing to watch, at times resembling a Michael Mann (Heat) or Paul Greengrass (United 93) film. The music by Mark Suozzo (American Splendor) effectively moves Well-Founded Fear along, offering a sense of scope and perspective to what could seem personal and anecdotal. The technical presentation on this Docurama DVD does passable justice to these elements, with a grainy non-anamorphic transfer that nonetheless is mostly clean and fairly sharp, although macro-blocking is definitely a problem. The audio is clear, well-balanced, and distortion free.
A number of supplemental features are included, the highlight being a 12-minute segment of outtakes called "The Hazards of Translation," showing several scenarios where an applicant's best efforts are undermined by the language barrier. Another outtake, "The Preparation," allows us to be a fly on the wall during a pre-interview session between an applicant, an immigration lawyer, and a translator, showing the work needed to make an interviewee comfortable enough to conduct a successful encounter with an asylum officer. "Tales from Real Life" is a re-interview with an applicant whose initial session raised some issues the officer wanted to revisit, and the sole interview with the filmmakers is a short but informative piece on how Well-Founded Fear came to be.
Well-Founded Fear makes a largely bureaucratic process, driven by paperwork and procedure, into a forceful and unforgettable piece of real-life drama. Without an overt agenda, it's a balanced examination of both sides of a nearly impossible situation. Well-Founded Fear is granted asylum.
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• Outtake: The Hazards of Translation
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