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“Unseen”: New Film Profiles a Blind, Undocumented Social Work Student, Humanizing Disabled Migrants

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As presidential front-runners Donald Trump and Joe Biden scapegoat and attack immigrants on the campaign trail, stoking racist and xenophobic fears for votes, we speak to the director of a groundbreaking new film, unseen, that aims to reframe the narrative. Using experimental cinematography to promote accessibility for blind and low-vision audiences, unseen follows Pedro, who is blind and undocumented, as he works toward a degree in social work. Director Set Hernandez, themself an undocumented immigrant and a co-founder of the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, discusses the film’s uplifting of the “undocumented and disabled perspective,” in opposition to political narratives that exclude and dehumanize immigrant communities.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

On the campaign trail, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump is escalating his attacks on migrants.

DONALD TRUMP: If you call them people — I don’t know if you call them people. In some cases they’re not people, in my opinion. But I’m not allowed to say that, because the radical left says that’s a terrible thing to say. They say, “You have to vote against him, because did you hear what he said about humanity?” I’ve seen the humanity, and these humanity — these are bad — these are animals, OK?

AMY GOODMAN: “These are not people. These are animals.” Trump has also touted fake news about crime rates by undocumented immigrants, even though studies show U.S.-born residents are much more likely to commit crimes than undocumented immigrants, including violent crimes.

Meanwhile, President Biden said he regrets using the word “illegal” during his State of the Union address to describe a Venezuelan immigrant accused of killing a Georgia nursing student, Laken Riley. Biden will campaign in the battleground border states of Arizona and Nevada today.

Well, a new film hopes to reframe the narrative entirely. It premiered Monday night on the PBS documentary series POV, called unseen, profiles a blind, undocumented social work student named Pedro. The film is accessible for blind and low-vision audiences. This is the trailer.

PEDRO: Keep going, Tyler.

SET HERNANDEZ: The bus is coming.

PEDRO: OK.

SET HERNANDEZ: Just right around here.

BUS PASSENGER 1: Oh, that’s a dog!

PEDRO: Yes.

BUS PASSENGER 2: Nice, good dog.

PEDRO: A service animal.

BUS PASSENGER 2: What kind of service does your dog do?

PEDRO: He’s a guide dog.

BUS PASSENGER 2: Oh, OK. So you’re blind now?

PEDRO: Uh-huh.

BUS PASSENGER 2: Well, you want me to describe myself to you?

PEDRO: Sure! Why not?

BUS PASSENGER 2: Yeah. Oh, I’m so cute, got a nice smile.

PEDRO: I believe it.

BUS PASSENGER 2: My eyes are prettier than yours.

PEDRO: I bet they are.

After you have a disability, you’re going to have some type of impediment. With the intersectionality between being undocumented and having a disability, it places a lot of stress and anxiety into you.

I decided to study social work. I wanted to help people. I wanted to give an opportunity for those that they didn’t have an opportunity.

On our path, there are going to be some obstacles. So, I want you to go swipe left and right, cover from shoulder to shoulder, just to see if we can find our obstacles.

I hate that narrative of, like, the good — I’m the good immigrant, especially when it’s like, “Hey, he’s blind. He’s undocumented,” or “He’s going to college,” “Oh, he must be a saint.”

Yes, I’m here. I was able to make it this far. But how many people have to sacrifice for me to get a chance?

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for unseen. We’re joined now in Los Angeles by its director, Set Hernandez.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Congratulations on this amazing film. If you can talk about your journey making it with your friend Pedro, and, I mean, just the title, unseen, of course, invoking undocumented and immigrants, as well as Pedro’s sight challenges, and even the framing, the way you make it out of focus for us all to try to see what Pedro sees?

SET HERNANDEZ: Thank you so much for having me, Amy. I’ve been a big fan of the show and truly grateful for the journalism that you all do at Democracy Now!

unseen really started with me meeting Pedro years ago at a program for undocumented young adults. And I feel like with the film, to your point about the title, while the film kind of uplifts the experiences of undocumented and disability through Pedro, I think at the end of the day the film is also about vulnerability, because often the discourse about immigration, as you just played the clips, you know, with Donald Trump, it’s often kind of coming from this place of the political, the election. And I think, for me, as an undocumented immigrant myself also, I’m really interested in how can we amplify and uplift the internal and inherent humanity of undocumented folks. And I think, at the end of the day, when people watch the film, they’re able to connect with the vulnerability that Pedro portrays, and that inherent humanity that we uplift from the undocumented and disabled perspective is really what’s at the heart of this project.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin with Pedro and his dog, as a dog lover. But how touching it is, this team that makes their way, navigates life. And, you know, what Pedro is doing as a social work student, working with those who are challenged, particularly blind, also dealing with one of the worst massacres in U.S. history in Las Vegas, particularly focusing on Latino victims?

SET HERNANDEZ: I think so much of the film really uplifts the intersectionalities, because when we think about immigration, I feel like the discourse in this country only just focuses on immigrants as immigrants, and through Pedro, we are really uplifting how the different intersectionalities of our experience — in Pedro’s case, being an undocumented immigrant who also has disability — and also mental health, and how so much of the conversations of fearmongering, to be honest, even, that our communities experience impacts the way we think about our future and uncertainty. And I think with the film, we really are uplifting the experience of interdependence and how we, as a community, can continue to lean on each other, which Pedro and his community, through Tyler, his guide dog, his family, his mentors, his teachers, are really showcasing, because it’s so difficult to just rely on the state for so many of us and really claiming ownership over our lives in this way.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the challenges. I want to go to another clip from unseen, when you, Set — you’re the director — you reunite with Pedro.

SET HERNANDEZ: Pedro, it’s been a few years since we’ve last spoken. How have you been?

PEDRO: My grandma passed in 2018, and that created a trauma to me. She was already feeling sick two weeks prior of her passing. Instead of slowing down, prioritizing my family over anything else, I decided to go to school on a Sunday to study, to prepare for a final. And I wasn’t there. And a semester later, I got my master’s. That made me wonder what I was doing with my life. Is it because I really wanted to? Was it because it was being imposed to me, or simply I was just trying to survive? I don’t know. Many times I thought about just going to sleep and never wake up again. I was aware that if I ever did something like that, I was going to destroy my mom and my dad. So I didn’t have the heart to do something like that.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how this is also a film about healing, Set. And in some ways, it’s about you, as well. Part of the seven-year journey you go on making this film, you co-founded, out of necessity, the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, which promotes equity for undocumented immigrants in the film industry.

SET HERNANDEZ: Yes. You know, I want to lift up a quote from Ursula Le Guin. She says, “Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. … We’ll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.”

I feel like in the discourse about immigration, so often it’s the politicians whose voices and perspectives are uplifted. And with unseen, what I’m really proud of is our filmmaking team is reflective of Pedro’s life. We are — our film was led by a team of filmmakers who happen to be undocumented immigrants ourselves. Blind and disabled artists have also been an integral part of our filmmaking practice. And I feel like: How can we reclaim the narrative for ourselves, instead of further uplifting the perspectives that politicians have about our community? How can we really lean on each other and amplify the voices and the ways that we understand our lives and the world?

And I feel like because of the way that the film industry works, undocumented people, systems-impacted people, people with disabilities are excluded from receiving resources to be able to make films, because even for me to be able to make the film, I was excluded from so many grant-making opportunities because of citizenship and residency requirements that so many of these opportunities require. So, we’re really grateful for all the people that supported us through the years.

AMY GOODMAN: Set Hernandez, I want to thank you for being with us and congratulate you on unseen, which just premiered on POV. You can now watch it online. We’re going to do Part 2 at democracynow.org, unseen. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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“unseen” Director Set Hernandez on How Their New Film Amplifies Undocumented, Disabled Voices

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