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

Web ExclusiveMarch 19, 2024
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Watch Part 2 of our interview with Set Hernandez, director of the new documentary unseen, which is now streaming on POV and follows Pedro, who is blind and undocumented, as he works toward a degree in social work. Hernandez describes his approach to experimental cinematography to promote accessibility for blind and low-vision audiences. “How can I remind undocumented people and migrants and people with disabilities that we are enough, we don’t need to prove anything?” Hernandez said they asked themselves while making the film. “How can we look at each other, lean on each other? Because at the end of the day we need to be interdependent with each other.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Part 2 of this new film that hopes to reframe the narrative about immigration. It premiered Monday night on the PBS documentary series POV. It’s called unseen and profiles a blind, undocumented social work student named Pedro. At one point in unseen, Pedro receives a scholarship from the Mexican Consulate to continue with school. He expressed his appreciation to his professor and parents, who we hear from, along with Pedro himself.

PROFESSOR EZETA: [translated] This will go directly to Pedro’s schooling and whatever he needs for tuition. They also want to continue supporting him. He showed an interest in a master’s degree, but first a bachelor’s degree. This economic incentive is a small piece of heaven so that he can graduate.

PEDRO’S FATHER: [translated] This will give him more space to breathe.

PROFESSOR EZETA: [translated] Yes, to breathe. You can breathe.

PEDRO’S FATHER: [translated] Even though we don’t say it, there is the anguish.

PROFESSOR EZETA: [translated] I know. I realize that, Enrique.

PEDRO’S FATHER: [translated] The anguish of knowing that the payment date is approaching, and not having it, and having to postpone a bit more like during past semesters. Fortunately, with this, he will have peace of mind. He’ll do his best. I know he’ll get a good grade point average.

PEDRO: [translated] I am what I am because of you. I wouldn’t be who I am if it were not for your teachings or your support. For always believing in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. You put your trust in me. You have been there through the good, the bad and the hardest times. You helped me get up and keep going. I have no way to repay you. I can’t…

PEDRO’S FATHER: [translated] I know that, Pedro.

PROFESSOR EZETA: [translated] And the only favor I ask of you — you don’t owe me anything. Absolutely nothing. When you see someone less fortunate or lost, reach out to them. Because someone did that for
me. Someone did it for the person who helped me. It’s an endless chain. Agreed? I love you. And the least I expect from you is a master’s degree.

PEDRO: Yes, of course.

PROFESSOR EZETA: The least I expect of you, master’s degree. The least.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from the new documentary unseen, Pedro weeping as he learns that he has this $5,000 scholarship from the Mexican Consulate to finish his education, his graduate degree in social work. And this is another excerpt from later in the film, when Pedro comes full circle and talks about being in a position to help others.

PEDRO: I always saw myself as an outsider.


PEDRO: I always call it, like, imposter syndrome, because, like, “Wow, they are seeing all this on me, but I feel that someone else might be more qualified or more deserving than me.” But at the same time, having to not prove myself, but at the same time try having to — having that commitment. OK, you see this in me? I need to work hard in order not to let you down or let myself down.

TRAINER: Mm-hmm. It goes deep. I know it goes deep, Pedro.

PEDRO: It does. It does.

TRAINER: I know it does. It can’t be easy. And I feel like you sometimes — I sense that in you, that you stress yourself to a point where it’s like you have to prove that you deserve to be here, because of your immigration and because of your disability. And it’s like you don’t. You don’t have to prove that you deserve to be here, because you do deserve to be here. You’re here. You are here. You are making a difference. There’s nothing to prove.

PEDRO: Thank you.

TRAINER: You know that, right?

PEDRO: Trying to. Trying to. Trying to. It’s so interesting, because nowadays I find this as a refuge for me. Being in the front row of that beautiful experience of seeing how people blossom and seeing how resilience makes its magic with the people, it’s just beautiful.


PEDRO: It’s addicting.


PEDRO: It’s just seeing people grow and seeing other people, like, just so hungry for an opportunity, and in a
way, in a good way, seeing myself reflecting other people. Like, hey, I was there. I needed an opportunity.


PEDRO: And just being able to do that, pay it forward.

TRAINER: Mm-hmm. That’s awesome.

PEDRO: And it’s just powerful. It’s just powerful to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Another clip from the film that just premiered on PBS POV series called unseen. And we’re continuing with unseen director Set Hernandez. Just such a magnificent film in every way, even the way, as we talked about in the first part of this discussion, you have the lens in so many cases out of focus, so in some way we can experience the world like Pedro. Take us on his journey, Pedro’s journey. I mean, he can’t be a DREAMer, because what? That’s for people who came to this country under 16, and he was 16-and-a-half. And then take us on that journey from there, Set.

SET HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I feel like the discourse about immigration the past 20 years, 10 years even, you know, has mostly focused on DREAMers, like you mentioned, DACA recipients. And so many, actually, of undocumented young people who graduate from high school these days don’t even qualify for DACA anymore. And, you know, because of the arbitrariness and circumstances of life, Pedro, unfortunately, also did not qualify for DACA when it first came out.

And I think with the film, we really want to really challenge the existing monolithic rhetoric and narratives about who undocumented people are in this country, what we care about also, you know, and I feel like, through Pedro, we really get to experience how so much of his work as a social worker is really ingrained in his ethos. You know, I feel like so much of the media portrayal also of how immigrants and undocumented people make changes in this country is through the realm of political activism and organizing. And in Pedro’s story, through his social work, we really get to uplift that there’s so many different ways to be part of our community and to make impact and change. There is not one scene in our film where you see Pedro holding a protest sign, you know. And as much as those moments of organizing are important in our movements, I think we really want to amplify other ways that we can contribute to the movement work that we do, and, in Pedro, through the healing justice work that he does as a social worker.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Pedro goes to high school, then college, then graduate school. And when did you meet him along the way, Set?

SET HERNANDEZ: I met Pedro in May 20— actually, no, 2015. And we started filming about a year later, in May 2016. I was helping to coordinate a program for undocumented young professionals, because at the time there were so many — there were so few opportunities for undocumented young people to be able to practice their skill sets, and in Pedro’s case, being a mental health professional. And Pedro happened to have been part of our cohort that supported healthcare access for undocumented people.

And it was about that time, being an organizer myself, having been a community organizer since I was 18 in the immigrant youth movement, I realized that the discourse about immigration, even in our own movements, hasn’t really amplified these various intersectionalities. It took a long time, for example, for the undocumented youth movement to really embrace, for example, the experiences of queer and trans and nonbinary undocumented folks. And when I met Pedro, it dawned on me that we rarely really uplift the experiences of disability and immigration in any of the narratives that we uplift. So, it was in that time that I reached out to Pedro and asked him if he’d be interested in making a film together to uplift his story. Little did we know that it would take about six or seven years to bring the film to life.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you take it through 2017, which is the horrific massacre in Las Vegas. Sixty people were killed. We hear that on the radio as he’s on a bus, I think it is, or in the car. Go from there to the pandemic, going through that period, as well, and how Pedro experiences all of this.

SET HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I feel like I’m just so — I want to lift up Pedro. I wish he was here speaking with you also, because we’re both regular listeners of the show. I want to lift up Pedro because of his trust in allowing me to be a part of his life and to follow his journey. And I feel like, like you were saying also in the beginning of the show, so much of the film transformed from just advocacy, and really a personal journey of how two friends get to know each other for who they are, authentically as they can be. And in the course of the many years, we really get a slice-of-life perspective of how the politics in this country are maneuvering, but the direct implications that it has in everyday people like Pedro, whose journeys are rarely amplified in everyday media, you know, because I feel like even in the discourse about immigration, you know, you kind of have to be like this high-profile, you know, undocumented person for your story to be uplifted. And Pedro, being the shy person that he is, I’m really grateful that he allowed me to lift up his story following his work as a social worker, even with his sessions, you know, with the different people that he speaks with in the film, and really excelling with his skill sets in providing mental healthcare for people through different ways that the political is impacting the personal lives of people.

AMY GOODMAN: Set, can you talk about your showings of this film, when you screen them — you’re often screening for multiple audiences, for Spanish-speaking audiences, for blind people, for others who are challenged in some way — and what that’s like for you to have finished this film and bring it into the world?

SET HERNANDEZ: Yeah, when I first started filming with Pedro, I always told him, “The only audience member that I care about is you. I want you to watch the film. And when you finish watching it, I want you to be able to tell me, 'Set, you made a film about me. You understood who I am. This is about me.'”

But for Pedro to be able to say that, the film has to not only be accessible, but the accessibility also has to be evocative and completely enjoyable for Pedro. That’s why the film is shot in this way that’s out of focus, to really imagine what equitable enjoyment of film could be like for different audience members, where sighted people are not gaining more information and enjoying the film more than blind viewers, for example, like Pedro. Because also in — you know, there’s been so many films about undocumented people, and there’s been so many films about blind people, but rarely are blind audiences, undocumented audiences, audiences with disabilities — rarely are our communities thought of as primary audiences for film. And I think within unseen, we really want to speak to the sensibilities of these audiences. That’s why accessibility is a big component of our work.

And I really want to show — I really want to uplift an example. We had our opening night premiere at DCTV last year. And in there, we had audiences from the disability community, blind audience members, deaf audience members, Spanish-speaking, and only Spanish-speaking, you know — Spanish-speaking immigrants who didn’t understand English. So, how can we accommodate the different needs of these folks? So, every screening of the film, in many ways, feels like a theatrical experience, as in like a Broadway theater experience, because we have to cater to the access needs of audiences that are live with us in person, and how can we really reframe the way we experience cinema so that it’s really catering and speaking to audiences that we want to reach, who — again, whose sensibilities have rarely been thought of in the making of film.

AMY GOODMAN: We touched on this in Part 1 of our discussion, Set, but the collective you, by necessity, put together for undocumented filmmakers, explain how it works. When you’re making a film, you have to raise money. And what that means if you’re undocumented, as you are, Set?

SET HERNANDEZ: Yeah, in the independent documentary landscape here, at least in the U.S., or maybe even in the world, you know, at least here in the U.S. especially, like, there’s a lot of reliance on philanthropic funds because of lack of funding from the government, you know. And for undocumented filmmakers, what we’ve come to realize is that these progressive philanthropic organizations historically have had a citizenship and residency requirement to be able to apply for a grant, in the same way that Pedro struggles to go through college because of his immigration status and not qualifying for financial aid, even not being — not qualifying for resources that the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, provides, excluding him because of his immigration status. That’s pretty much the same journey that our film has had, being excluded from opportunities just because of my citizenship status as an undocumented person.

And because of that, I realized that I was not the only person who was experiencing this struggle. I realized that there were other undocumented people who are also filmmakers and artists who were experiencing the same hurdles as me. So, because of my background having been a community organizer since I was 18, I ended up banding with these amazing collaborators. And through our work together, we co-founded the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, which support undocumented artists across the U.S. to be able to, you know, live up to our potential. The way that our film has been received this past year, even receiving an Independent Spirit Award a couple months ago, really highlights the arbitrariness of these citizenship requirements, because, clearly, our films are making an impact. It’s just that we’re being prevented from receiving resources to bring them to life.

AMY GOODMAN: You are an undocumentarian.

SET HERNANDEZ: You could say that, I guess.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about Pedro, what he’s doing now, that he ultimately went to graduate school, that he is a social worker, and the work that he’s doing with people like him.

SET HERNANDEZ: I think Pedro’s work as a mental health professional is so unique, because, as it’s discussed in the film, actually, he’s not only — he doesn’t only have all these credentials through his education, but he also has the lived experience. He’s bilingual in Spanish and English. He also has a disability and can work with people who are blind and have disabilities in a very direct way. However, because of his immigration status, Pedro is not able to really live up to the potential that his career, for lack of better words, should be providing him. He struggles, for example, to navigate, you know, sustainability financially, you know, which is discussed in the film, of how to make a living as a social worker, even though the skills that he provides are so unique.

And I feel like Pedro’s story is really just another example, you know, of how undocumented people being prevented from doing the work that we do and contributing to our communities in these meaningful ways are so suffocating, in many ways, and the ongoing rhetoric about immigration, I feel like, only makes that more difficult for us. But like I mentioned in the beginning of this interview, how can we reframe that and reclaim our ownership of our own lives and our own experiences as undocumented people?

AMY GOODMAN: So, where does the film go from here? It premiered on the PBS series POV. What do you plan to do with it next? People now have access to it online.

SET HERNANDEZ: Yes. So, as part of our film, we actually have an impact campaign, that is also led by brilliant leaders from the disability community, Conchita Hernandez, Qudsiya Naqui, and also our impact associate, Ana Portnoy Brimmer. You know, with our impact campaign, we’re really uplifting this tagline of “access, affirm and transform.” And when you watch the film, you realize what access and affirmation means. Now we’re really going into this place of transform.

If people want to host a screening of their film, they can go to our website,, to be able to host their screening and bring the film to their organizations.

And I feel like also as part of this work, you know, we really — in my vantage point, you know, this year is an election year. And there’s so much fearmongering that we hear from the news — right? — about what Trump is saying, what Biden is saying. And always when we hear about immigration in the news, like I said, it’s always how people, other people, who are not even undocumented, are talking about our communities, people who are fleeing violence, you know, who are at the border and being portrayed by other people. With our film, I feel like I’m just really interested in: How can I remind undocumented people and migrants and people with disabilities that we are enough, we don’t need to prove anything to anybody else? How can we look to each other, lean on each other? Because at the end of the day, we need to be interdependent with each other. And it’s only really us and our communities that will save us from what’s happening around us.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Set, for this unusual experience, for watching unseen, and your making of it, for seeing the world through the eyes of the ever-compassionate Pedro, absolutely brilliant. We thank you so much. Premiered Monday on POV. You can watch it online. Set Hernandez, joining us from Los Angeles. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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