Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Q&A: 'Panic Nation' Filmmaker George Adams

Immigration has been the theme of several films on the festival circuit this year, including some of those featured at the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival in Hollywood. The festival winds up tonight.

Last month, “Panic Nation,” an immigration-related documentary by filmmaker George Adams, won the award for best documentary at the Broadway International Film Festival Los Angeles downtown. Adams, who grew up in Southern California, moved a few years ago with his wife to Oklahoma, where she grew up. It was there, of all places, that he decided to make a film about the debate over illegal immigration.

In 2007, landlocked Oklahoma, population 3.7 million and almost smack in the middle of the country, took the lead among states enacting their own strict anti-illegal immigration laws. Oklahoma’s HB 1804 foreshadowed Arizona’s SB 1070 – and the many state proposals that have since followed suit - but received scant attention. It did, however, make Adams to want to parse out the debate over illegal immigration, tracking down lawmakers, journalists and others from all sides in hopes of breaking down just what it is that is driving states to take matters into their own hands.

From the film website: "In the eyes of some American citizens, state sponsored laws are the answer to prayer.  To others, state sponsored laws have opened doors to bigotry and hate creating questions about our civil liberties."

Adams, who worked as associate producer on the award-winning 2007 documentary "Torn From the Flag," about the Hungarian Revolution and the decline of communism, came away from making "Panic Nation" with strong opinions about what drives the immigration debate. He spoke by phone from Oklahoma City.

M-A: What inspired you to make this film?

To me, it was shocking that Oklahoma was the first state to pass an omnibus state-sponsored illegal immigration law. Oklahoma is not a border state. It has one of the smallest populations of Latinos in the country. If you talk to the lawmakers, it’s strictly an economic point of view: These people have created a tax burden on Oklahomans. I think it is a fear of change. I think that when people see street signs or store signs that area in a different language than their own, when they hear people speaking a language that is not their own, I think there is a fear, a sense of desperation that their way of life is in peril, and it’s uncomfortable.

The way they view it is that these people haven’t come here legally. The difference is that we haven’t made it legal. We haven’t made it easy for these people to come here.

M-A: What role do you think race plays in the immigration debate?

In the film, race does not come into it until one of the opponents of the bill talks about people who were proponents of the bill wearing KKK lapel pins. (When the law was being voted on), there were people in the (state legislature) gallery watching the vote take place. There were 150 people in the gallery, and some were wearing KKK lapel pins. More than one was spotted wearing one.

"Rule of law," that is a scapegoat. My question is, Mr. Legislator, if you are willing to spend the time and energy to create a law to deport people, if you are willing to spend that kind of energy to kick people out just because they are here illegally, where is the compassion of your Christianity and of American patriotism to create a law to get these people on a path to legalization? Why not create an ID card so you know who they are? If you’re not willing to spend the energy to do that, then the question becomes, why are you really doing this?

Take away those arguments and it really boils down to “we don’t like their culture, we don’t like their music, we don’t like their language, we don’t like the color of their skin.” That is what it boils down to.

M-A: Given the political climate surrounding immigration, do you think that the sort of comprehensive immigration reform that you describe is even feasible?

It sounds almost like a pipe dream, doesn’t it? My father-in-law-says you can’t change the leopard’s stripes, and to a certain extent, he’s right. Are you going to change racist attitudes? Probably not. But where you’re going to effect change is with that person sitting on the fence – no pun intended – who isn’t sure that all the information they are getting is accurate. Can real dialogue happen? I would want to think so, but it is such an emotional issue, such a passionate issue.

We have all but recruited people to come here and do jobs that Americans aren’t willing to do. Until we are honest with ourselves that we have a work force that is willing to do the hard, physical, intense, gross, dirty jobs that we white Americans don’t really want to do, we are not going to have effective policy.

M-A: This is an issue that you are very passionate about. How did it make you feel to win the award for best documentary at BIFFLA?

It was kind of interesting. At the award ceremony, probably 90 percent of the peoeple in the audience had not seen the film, but there was a thunderous round of applause when the title of the film and the description of the film were announced…people were shouting out things in Spanish and actually, as I was walking back to my seat, a (Latino) man came out of his seat and gave me a huge hug. That was moving.

The timing for the premiere of "Panic Nation" at the Broadway festival could not have been better. It was screened July 30, the day after portions of SB 1070 took effect in Arizona, spurring protests. Featured in the film are interviews with former federal Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros, actor Esai Morales and syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. (an NPR contributor and a former colleague).

The film continues to make the festival rounds, screening next month at DOCUTAH, the Southern Utah International Documentary Film Festival. Screenings in Arizona, Texas and Colorado are planned for the coming months.

(Disclaimer: The YouTube trailer above is a fundraising trailer, but we're not promoting fundraising for the film - it's just the trailer that's available.)