Well-Founded Fear documents a variety of dramas unfolding in INS offices in the New York City area. The filmmakers focus on both the pleas of immigrants to stay in the United States, and the consideration of their cases by INS officers. At issue in every case are the requirements of asylum. To be granted, applicants must demonstrate a “well-founded fear” of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
For applicants with a genuine “well-founded fear,” the asylum process is fraught with tension. A brief in- person interview requires that the applicant recount the horrors of life in the old country, dredging up memories that have been suppressed or best forgotten. And the stories must be convincingly told and documented.
The officers charged with deciding about each applicant’s future sometimes must sort extensive documentation and at other times, no evidence at all, then attempt to discern truth from lies. The job requires convincing a supervisor that each person either deserves to be invited to stay in America in safety, or to be put on the road to deportation. No other recommendation is possible.
Cases are assigned at random by computer. Applicants, after submitting the necessary paperwork through lawyers and intermediaries — in some cases, applicants cannot even read the material provided — have one hour in a small, florescent-lit office to tell their stories in a convincing enough way in order to be granted asylum. On the other side of the desk is a case officer who listens to story after story, many filled with brutal details. He or she then has about 90 minutes of additional deliberation before deciding the fate of another human being.
Two weeks later, applicants return to an INS processing window pick up a paper from someone they’ve never seen. This page tells them their fate.
Well-Founded Fear reveals a rich humanity in the situations of all the film’s characters. Officers are skeptical of liars, but are articulate and surprisingly concerned with their decisions. Applicants are hopeful, heartbreaking, sometimes slick and too polished, but all may be telling some version of the truth. The film’s triumph is that it is able to show and share the dilemma of a nation that has traditionally opened its arms and culture to the influx of immigrants, yet is wary of continuing to do so without checks and balances, so that even a proud tradition of generosity toward refugees becomes suspect.
Central to the film of Well-Founded Fear are the testimonies of key individuals and their case officers — Dissident Chinese poet Huang Xiang and the very pregnant Farida from Algeria with Gerald; Mr. A. from Nigeria with Martha-Louise; Cristian from Romania with Paul; Gladys from El Salvador with Todd. Details from many other cases show how the process both works and doesn’t work.
“Asylum is an institution that clearly turns the spotlight back on us as Americans — how we deal with others in need reveals fundamental truths about ourselves and our institutions, and cuts to the core of our commitment to human rights,” says filmmaker Michael Camerini.
Adds Shari Robertson: “At the level of public discourse, the film is about America’s relationship to its ideals and to the complexity of living up to an ideal. At a personal level, it’s about how easy it is to take on the distancing role of judge, how ephemeral one’s own compassion can be, how hard it is to be fair, and how nearly impossible it is to really know the truth.”
“As we watch asylum officers struggle to balance sympathy with good sense and tough-mindedness,” say the filmmakers, “we may also realize that their decisions mirror the larger choices about our role in the world that America as a whole must make.”
Well-Founded Fear is made possible by grants from The Ford Foundation, The Spunk Fund Inc., The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Emma Lazarus Fund, and The Soros Documentary Fund of The Open Society Institute, The Overbrook Foundation, The Peter L. Buttenwieser Fund of The Tides Foundation, and The Eastman Kodak “In The Works” Prize for 1999.