The fast-paced, angelic plucking of Spanish guitars and the smell of powdered butter on popcorn are not the only characteristics of San Diego’s Latino Film Festival that make this cinephile event so inviting. Having begun on March 15 and lasting for nearly two weeks, the festival showcased over 160 films, from horror features by Oscar-winning Guillermo del Toro, to documentaries about cultural music being a tool for liberation. The goal of the festival is to not only educate guests on the stories and lifestyles of other cultures, but to also encourage filmmakers to keep sharing these stories, regardless of their proficiency.
This is the most inviting feature of the Latino Film Festival—its open arms outstretched to first-time filmmakers. Because of this, New York native singer and songwriter Patricia Shih was able to screen her first-ever film, Undocumented, to hundreds of local San Diegans.
“The arts are an amazing tool we can use to educate,” said Shih. “They worm their way into your heart and your mind like a spoonful of sugar, and even as a musician I think that film is the most powerful medium of the arts.”
Narrated by actor Jay O. Sanders, Shih’s Undocumented is a documentary film about the life story of her friend, Dr. Harold Fernandez, a man who immigrated from Medellin, Colombia to the United States on a voyage through the Bermuda Triangle at the age of 13.
For many years, Harold and his family were undocumented immigrants living in, what they refer to as, “the shadows.” But through intense struggle and immense favor, they gained their citizenship and Harold became a top cardiac surgeon in Long Island, New York. The doctor eventually published a book about his experience as an immigrant, titled Undocumented, and this inspired Shih to turn his story into a film.
“My father immigrated from China in 1945, after The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed,” said Shih. “He was number 25 out of 105 Chinese immigrants allowed to enter the country that year. I’m passionate about immigration because if that law had not been repealed, I wouldn’t be here and so many other immigrant families, whose contributions have helped to make America as great as it is, wouldn’t be either.”
Shih’s father has since passed, but always wanted his daughter to go into journalism. Shih says that journalism and world affairs were her father’s whole life. This film, in a way, is a labor of love for Shih’s father, as well as immigrant families around the world. That’s what makes it personal not only for her, but also for everyone else.
“This is not a typical immigration story, it’s about one family’s story of love, perseverance, determination, courage and sacrifice,” said Shih. “It’s a human story. That’s the message I wanted to get across with this film. If it was your family or my family, we all would do whatever it took to stay together and give our children a better life. It’s a human thing, not just an immigrant thing.”
Having previously premiered at nine other film festivals across the country, the Latino Film Festival is Undocumented’s last cinema stop for the year. At the film’s last screening, there was another immigrant in the audience from Medellin, Colombia who was deeply moved by Harold’s story.
“I’m proud of my country, but I am more proud of him and I who are doing more for this country than we are given credit for,” said the man, through tears.
Shih says she has always had three main passions in life: children, education and music. Now, after devoting two years of her life to this documentary, Shih has added film to that list.
“I loved every minute of it—the interviewing, the editing—I loved every moment,” said Shih, who is in the early stages of her next documentary film on Chinese immigration. “I’ve learned a whole lot from this about Colombia and film-making both. If my film goes out into the world and doesn’t make any money, the fact that it’s out there is the important thing. That’s what I care about.”