Review: ‘Unseen’ Documents an Undocumented Immigrant with Sight Disability ⭐️⭐️⭐️

According to the Firelight Media website, filmmaker Set Hernandez (Rongkilyo) is from Bicol, Philippines and an undocumented immigrant. As such you can imagine the plight of Pedro, the focus of the documentary “Unseen,” is close to Hernandez’s heart.  Pedro is the kind of undocumented immigrant who isn’t seen or discussed in the media and Pedro is the kind of person who can’t see well either.

In the website photo, Hernandez is be speckled. I don’t know to what degree Hernandez’s eyesight is limited. My own eyesight is very poor. Without glasses, I see the world like a watercolor painting in a puddle of rain, with all the forms softened into blobs unless objects are nearly touching my nose.  As such some of Hernandez’s choices of soft focus and blurred subjects is familiar but also disturbing. Who doesn’t want to see clear images. What we first see in this film are the overexposed images of the city, Pedro and his black Labrador retriever, Tyler. The stark white images that are barely defined by the movement of other colors forces us to listen to the sounds. Slowly the images take shape. Pedro is waiting for a bus on the sidewalk of a busy city street. Someone requests the handicap seat be vacated for Pedro. Pedro allows his dog to be touched after a fellow passenger asks. We can’t see the faces behind the voices and neither can Pedro. Pedro lost his eyesight when he was a teen.

Hernandez notes they met because Pedro was in the same undocumented immigrant program. Hernandez noted the stories of disabled immigrants haven’t really been “uplifted,” and so the filming began. Pedro said, “It’s very tricky. It’s very difficult because of the intersectionality between being undocumented and having disability.”

Hernandez followed Pedro for six years. For Pedro, it was a seven year journey to his master’s degree in social work. Every term began with him searching for classrooms. The classrooms aren’t necessarily marked in Braille and Pedro has limited ability in reading Braille. His first language is Spanish and his second English. Pedro came to the US at age 16 and five weeks so his transition into learning and studying in English is remarkable, but that age is problematic in someways. To qualify for DACA, the minor must have entered before the age of 16.

We’re soon allowed a glimpse of Pedro, but that soon fades to patches of colors. Sometimes the images can be distinguished despite the disguise of super soft edges such as a cake. There are points when only half of the screen is blurred as when Pedro is shown “playing” pool.  Pedro says, “I know my limitations and pool is one of my limitations.”

There are also some limitations to the blurred images: some are technical and others are artistic, especially when streaming a preview film at home. With better technology, such an attempt to force the viewer into a world of seeing disability could work better. Think of the sound systems that can make something sound like it comes from one side of the room and then shifts it. Imagine what such a sensory experience would be like in the  South Korean innovative 4DX cinematic technology or even an expanded screen of ScreenX.

Artistically, there is no clear capturing of classic composition or motion in the video and sometimes blurry images we can see. After a while, the blurred images seem more an affectation and even tedious.

Still, access to good eye care has long been an issue. Some US optometrists have recycling bins for old eyeglasses and the Lions Club has an international eyeglass recycling program. My optometrist has reminded me that there’s a special need for eyeglasses with particularly strong prescriptions (since my own eyesight is notably bad). The horror of existing without glasses was expressed in the first season of the original “The Twilight Zone,” in “Time Enough at Last” when the bookish survivor of a nuclear disaster finds joy in finally having time to read books. That 1959 episode was before the internet and wonders of technology that can read for you and, Pedro, who needs more than just strong eyeglasses, makes use of such devices. Yet such devices and technology are not available everywhere.

Hernandez is part of this documentary as more friend than distanced or objective observer. Thus, “Unseen” is also about Hernandez’s emotional journey as an undocumented resident and about the precarious position it places them both.  As one can imagine, the film is acutely aware of the limitations of others and to turn up the accessibility, it screens with open captions and audio description available.

“Unseen” had its US premiere on 6 May 2023 at the Japanese American National Museum as part of the 39th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. The film is Hernandez’s feature film directorial debut.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.