…And the Pursuit of Happiness (1986)

Directed by Louis Malle

And the Pursuit of Happiness 7

…And the Pursuit of Happiness is Louis Malle’s documentary follow up to God’s Country, though it’s not a sequel and features none of the same characters.  Still, it feels connected.  Where the former film was concerned with lifelong Americans in a small Minnesota town, people who were born there and unlikely to ever leave, this film follows characters who have been on the move, some who have settled down and others who may never be able to.

The film begins with a man walking along a desolate highway in Texas.  He wears a proud Texas shirt, and he’s an immigrant who moved here a few years ago.  What is he doing?  Louis Malle asks, and the man explains the journey he’s on, a long solo walk to celebrate the state’s 140th anniversary.

This man, as Malle explains to us, represents the attitudes of so many immigrants to America.  Throughout the documentary, we meet people from Vietnam, Cambodia, Mexico, the Soviet Union, the middle east, Cuba, Italy, and even an elderly Greek man who arrived through Ellis Island many decades earlier and who, when we meet him, is in a Nebraska hospital being cared for by a first generation Vietnamese doctor.

In one quick vignette of life in the little Italy part of New York, Malle asks a woman where she is from, and her response, in a jovial manner, is that it doesn’t matter because she’s here now.

So many, if not all, of the immigrants are thrilled to be here.  They are extremely hard working, and they have to be to survive.  Some of them can speak no English, but we see a lot of them in class, learning.  One high school boy has only been in America for four years, at the time of the documentary, and his English is so good you’d be surprised to learn that he spoke almost none when he first arrived.  As Malle interviews him, you’re so impressed with his language skills, and then he tells you that he’s debating between Princeton and Columbia for school.

Many immigrant children have dreams of being doctors or architects, careers and programs that require the hard work their parents have instilled in them.  These are inspiration figures, not just because of their work ethic in America, but also because of what they have escaped to come here.

Many of them escaped countries with the hopes of getting asylum, others just come to America for the work opportunity.  Some plan on never returning home, and they are eager to embrace the American culture (“hamburgers”).  Others, particularly in Miami, have brought their culture with them.

These stories are almost all uplifting, and this film feels like a must watch for people who oppose immigration policies in America today.  But the documentary also interviews people with more harsh opinions of immigration.  One man hates the argument that immigrants take jobs no one else is willing to work.  We didn’t suffer when child labor laws were passed, he reasons.

Another man, who works the border between U.S. and Mexico, admires that so many people want to make it in America, but he calls attention to the fact that the Statue of Liberty isn’t holding just a flame, but a heavy book as well, referring to the Declaration of Independence.  He wants there to be more immigration reform.

The film spends a lot of time at the border so we can get an idea of just how many people try to cross every day and night and how, when they’re turned away, they don’t give up.  One Mexican man cheerfully says he’ll try to get through again that night if he’s turned away now.

Among so many of the immigrants, there are a variety of success stories, such as the Vietnamese doctor in Nebraska or the first U.S. astronaut not born in America.  But there are also people who are barely in America, like the Mexican illegal immigrants who hide out in a shack and are supported by a man, himself an immigrant, who wants to make sure they know that people care about them.

Malle treats these people with empathy and respect, as a foreigner himself, and with admiration.  But his presentation of these people doesn’t differ much from the Americans see in God’s Country.  This film seems to say more about a political atmosphere in America, both at the time and even now, but Malle seems most interested in the people, and if immigrants are anything, it’s diverse.

The basis of this documentary allows him to talk to so many different kinds of people in different parts of the world.  He talks to people in New York, Florida, Texas, Nebraska, northern and southern California, etc.

Though the film makes us empathize with these pretty awesome people and their dreams of America, it focuses on their drive and certain joie de vivre than it does on the way many of them are treated (prejudice, fear, etc.).  He ends with a celebration, showing how thankful the ones who have made it are.

Like the man we first met walking along the Texas highway, all these people from all over the world want to be here, in America.  Maybe they know something about the country that many of the people born here don’t.  At the very least, the film feels like a call for us to reevaluate what we have, as Americans, and to not take it for granted.

The only American-born people in this film who seem to consider what we’re given with by being here, look at it with fear.  They think the immigrants are going to take away from their experience and their opportunities.  This fear, it’s not hard to imagine, can be contorted into anger and beyond.  But you shouldn’t look into your neighbor’s bowl to make sure you have more than him, like the saying goes, you should look into his bowl to make sure he has enough to eat.

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