unseen is a new documentary film about Pedro, an aspiring social worker navigating life as a blind undocumented immigrant. The film highlights important issues at the intersection of immigration, disability, and mental health.
The producers of the film describe, “Most people dream of a better future. Pedro, an aspiring social worker, is no different. But as a blind, undocumented immigrant, Pedro faces political restrictions to obtain his college degree, secure a job as a health care provider, and support his family. As he finally graduates, uncertainty looms over Pedro. What starts as a journey to provide mental health for his community ultimately transforms into Pedro’s path towards his own healing. Through experimental cinematography and sound, unseen reimagines a cinema accessible for blind/low vision audiences, while exploring the intersections of immigration, disability, and mental health.” To learn more about the film, visit their website.
unseen has received many awards already including the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival’s Audience Award, the Emerging Filmmakers Award, and the Documentary Audience Award; and CAAMFest 2023’s Documentary Competition Award!
In this post at My Undocumented Life, we posed a few questions for Set Hernandez, the director and producer of unseen.
Q: What motivated and inspired you to create this film?
A: In the beginning, it was all advocacy-oriented. I have been a community organizer in the immigrant rights movement since I was 18 years old. When I met Pedro, I came to realize that immigrants with disabilities were often disregarded in the advocacy work we did. I approached Pedro about filming his story, hoping to contribute towards a more inclusive immigrant rights movement.
As time went on (7 years to be exact), I realized that confining Pedro’s story only within the parameters of his disability and immigration status missed the opportunity to uplift his full humanity. Pedro might have struggles in life, but he’s more than just the sum of his hardships: He’s also funny, quirky, athletic, great at cooking, and everything in-between. Beyond that, I learned how similar Pedro and I were when it came to our emotional journeys, and eventually, I found myself resonating a lot with the things he would share with me during filming. While unseen started off as an advocacy film, it ended up being a personal film about healing and vulnerability. Hopefully, audiences find that for themselves too when they watch our film.
Q: Can you tell us more about your own background in film and social activism?
A: I went to film school in college, but most of my film education presented a very corporate, studio approach to film. I also felt that being undocumented would prevent me from entering that world. That’s why I ended up being more involved in advocacy, because I felt that at least by doing so, I can contribute to more meaningful change in my community. However, I soon realized that the policy advocates I work with didn’t always value the importance of cultural work in our movements. On the other hand, I felt that the media ecosystem was often exploiting our movements and the stories of our community members just to make more content.
I ended up pursuing filmmaking again, hoping to bring together these two worlds that I inhabit. One of my first significant roles in film was as an impact producer, who would work with organizers so that films can be used as a tool for their advocacy efforts. I feel that impact producing was a tangible way to contribute to my community through film. In the last couple years of making unseen, however, I had another shift in my mindset. Making films for social impact is really great, but sometimes, making films just to make sense of my own personal journey is also okay. Instead of creating impact in a macro scale, films can also make the most specific, personal impact in the lives of the people who work on it and/or watch it. That was an important lesson I had in making unseen.
Q: How did you and Pedro meet and what was the experience working together like?
A: Pedro and I met at a summer program designed to provide professional development for undocumented youth. Pedro was one of our fellows that year working in healthcare access. I was helping to manage communications for the program. It wasn’t until a year after we met that I first approached Pedro to make a film.
Little did I know that it would take seven years to get this project to the finish line. But then again, I really didn’t know what to expect of this journey. This whole experience was a lesson in letting things unfold without any expectations. The most unexpected part of it was how Pedro, myself, and so many of our collaborators found a certain level of healing in making this project. The impact we originally wanted to make with the film was with the immigrant rights movement. The biggest impact we ended up making was within ourselves before the filmmaking process was even over.
Q: What advice would you give to fellow immigrants who are passionate about pursuing a career in film, but are maybe just getting started and/or don’t know where to begin?
A: To be honest, being an independent filmmaker is not an easy path to pursue. Add on top of that being a person of color, and being an undocumented immigrant. There really are so many structural barriers to confront. What was helpful for me in my journey is finding a community of mentors and fellow creatives who provided me with guidance and camaraderie in the face of all the challenges. I was part of organizations like A-DOC (Asian American Documentary Network) and Firelight Media that served as the foundation for me in this journey. When I realized that there were other undocumented filmmakers navigating the same obstacles that I was, I ended up organizing with them, which led to me co-founding the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective. As I always tell my collaborators, “The only way to the mountaintop is together.” Filmmaking cannot be done alone, and it’s important to seek out a community to help us in this journey.
I should also note that I’m still grappling with what it means for me to “pursue a career in film.” For me, I made unseen with Pedro because it contributed to my healing journey. Financially, it was a difficult journey, but spiritually, it was one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had. I think I make films because I have stories in my heart that I want to bring to life. Maybe, someday, I’ll decide to change course and work a more lucrative job. But for now, my mentor reminds me: “Bloom where you’ve been planted.”
To learn more about Set’s story, please see this article by the Center for Asian American Media!
The film will be publicly available to watch online next year in 2024 as part of the PBS Series “POV.” In the meantime, check out these opportunities to view the film before then!
Click here for more information about upcoming screenings!
Woods Hole Film Festival
July 31, 2023, Falmouth, Massachusetts
Woods Hole Film Festival (Virtual Screening): August 6, 2023
Black Star Film Festival: August 2-6, Philadelphia, PA
QWOCMAP Film Festival: June 10, 2023, Presidio Theatre, San Francisco
CAAMFest (Bay Area Premiere): May 14, 2023, The Roxie, San Francisco
Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (US Premiere): May 6, 2023, Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles
Hot Docs: May 6, 2023, Scotiabank Theatre, Toronto
Hot Docs (World Premiere): May 3, 2023, Scotiabank Theatre, Toronto
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