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Movie Review: Immokalee, U.S.A.

By Mike Everleth ⋅ August 15, 2008

Migrant workers waiting to find work

When it comes to being a documentarian, Georg Koszulinski is a real artist. His latest film, Immokalee, U.S.A., is one of the most beautiful docs I’ve ever seen.

Immokalee is a town in southern Florida. In 2000, according to the official census, it had a population of 19,763 and 71% of that was Hispanic. And, for the record, it’s pronounced “Imm-mock-uh-lee.” (“Koszulinski” I’m still not quite sure of.) But I’m fairly certain that at the time Koszulinski made this film, those statistics must have been still pretty much the same.

The film opens completely wordlessly as we dive right into the world of the migrant farmer. We see them waiting outside in the wee hours of the morning, well before the sun has even begun thinking about rising. Black buses enter a large parking lot and those lucky enough to be chosen are let onto the buses to be taken to the local farms to plant tomato seedlings.

After we are shown the entire process of tomato farming — from planting to picking to packing to shipping — we are gradually introduced to several characters with whom we spend the rest of the movie getting to know better.

Dialogue first enters the film during a sequence where a Latina wife busily prepares her husband’s lunch. She initally does this silently, unwrapping a package of frozen burritos, microwaving a couple, then packing them up. He enters the scene and they don’t talk until he has to leave where she asks some innocuous question before he heads out into the darkness, presumably to get on one of those black buses.

We rarely get to see the husband again since he’s off working so much, but his wife is pretty open and the film spends a lot of time with her and her two very cute daughters, one of whom is old enough to start asking where Daddy is all the time.

At this, one might assume that we’re going to get a politicized doc about the difficulties of the migrant working family and how the system treats them worse than dogs, etc. There’s a tiny bit of that here, but Koszulinski goes a different route and focuses on the personal stories rather than the political ones. Instead of an angry call to arms or some such, we get an immensely moving and intimate little film. And while many of the stories we hear are hard ones, for some reason, Koszulinski is somehow able to capture the beauty in the little things.

Yes, there is some extreme sadness. The worst of it is a lonely man named Mateo Diego, who isn’t allowed on the black buses, so he’s slowly running out of money and, as we painfully witness, slowly losing his sanity. At one particularly heart-wrenching scene after Mateo has lost handfuls of change on broken payphones all day long, Koszulinski is so devastated by Mateo’s anguish he hands him his cell phone to get in touch with his family back home.

Another wife and mother, a non-Latina, is left on her own to raise her kids after her undocumented husband is returned home. She then tells the painful story of her deceased older son, whom she keeps a picture of him and his grade school graduation “diploma” on the wall. In the photo, he’s confined to a wheelchair and completely bald, having been killed by cancer most likely caused by the over-spraying of pesticides on crops.

There’s also an interesting perspective by one of the men, a gringo, who calls himself a “farmer.” I really just found it interesting that he kept calling himself a “farmer” while the actual men who are working the land are called … what? Workers, I guess. He also keeps oddly insisting that all farmers treat all their men nicely and with respect. But, he says, there are some crew bosses who are extremely ruthless who keep the workers like slaves. However, if his crew bosses are treating the workers badly, and he employs the crew bosses, why isn’t he himself responsible for the bad behavior then? I never got that.

Also, a good chunk of the film is spent with a woman, another non-Latina, who runs a food bank for the poor families. She employs the lonely wife from the earlier sequence and all their daughters seem to be good playmates in several very touching sequences.

So, the film sort of alternates between the sad stories and the bursts of happiness caught inbetween. As the lonely wife explains early on, it’s a hard life, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a bad one. Here, Koszulinski has documented several hard ones and he’s made it into something beautiful.

Watch the Immokalee, U.S.A. movie trailer: