Documenting the Immigrant Experience

From the film “Brazilian American” – Matthew Basílio (middle) with his parents

From the film “Brazilian American” – Matthew Basílio (middle) with his parents

Family, Sacrifice, Courage, Hope

May 2, 2017

“Family is the thing that I live for. Family means happiness, joy – my whole life, basically.... My family kept me strong and made me who I am.” 
– Matthew Basílio, 11th grade, Waltham High School 

Matthew’s testament to the power of family is part of a documentary short film called “Brazilian American: The Immigration Story of Matthew Basílio” – one of five directed by teams of Brandeis students this spring in Prof. Azlin Perdomo’s new course “Documenting the Immigrant Experience,” offered by the CAST (Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation) Program. 

Perdomo partnered with Waltham High School’s family and community engagement specialist, Mary Jo Rendón, to match the Brandeis undergraduates with students in the high school’s English Language Learners program interested in participating in the project. The stories they shared became the basis of the documentaries. 

The films explored themes such as family, sacrifice, courage and hope. Since the subjects were all high school students, the documentaries also highlighted how despite their challenges, the students are very much like their classmates – they play sports, go to prom, and think about their dream college. But two films also show that some students may have trouble applying to college because of their citizenship status. 

As they worked on their films, students in the course learned the technical skills of filmmaking and editing, and studied the ethics of documentary filmmaking and the connection between art and social change. They challenged their assumptions about communities around the world, and considered how documentaries succeed – or fall short – in ethically portraying conflict and trauma. Guest speaker Renée Contreras, a photojournalist with the organization Peace in Focus, discussed the importance of ethical foresight to respectfully telling a story that is not your own. 

The course culminated in a lm festival, cosponsored by the Ethics Center and the Brandeis Pluralism Alliance, to raise awareness about the narratives of immigrants in Waltham, Mass. and celebrate the shared humanity of participants, creators and audience members alike. 

“The work of my students and the generosity of the people who participated as subjects created greater visibility at Brandeis and in Waltham for Waltham immigrant experiences,” says Perdomo. “But I think the greatest impact of the course was in the classroom. These students embarked on a journey to uplift the stories of high school immigrants, and along the way they learned a lot about themselves, their capacity for activism, and what social transformation can look like.” 

(Contributing writer: Sarah Terrazano ’19)

You can view the documentary "Brazilian American: The Story of Matthew Basílio" on YouTube.

The students of “Documenting the Immigrant Experience” thank Amy Merrill ’69 for her generous support of the CAST minor’s inquiry into municipalities and violence prevention, which made the development and teaching of this class possible.