Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Prodigal Uncle: Lost Souls (Animas Perdidas)

“I’m their father, but I’m not their dad right now.” Such is the compelling confession a young filmmaker hears from her long absent uncle. While her resulting documentary seemingly begins as an issue-driven examination of immigration law, it quickly becomes a real life drama about one man compulsively avoiding personal responsibility for the mistakes of his life. Just twenty-one years of age when she began the film, Monika Navarro discovers some very personal family history in Lost Souls (Animas Perdidas), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens (trailer here).

Navarro’s Uncles Augie and Gino were not naturalized American citizens, but they served honorably in the U.S. military. Unfortunately, after their service, both got deeply involved in the drug scene as users and dealers. Despite their family ties and veteran status, both uncles were eventually deported, with Gino dying in Mexico shortly thereafter.

Filmmaker Navarro and her mother Gaby, an immigration attorney, both clearly believe Augie’s expulsion was overly severe. However, they seem to place the blame squarely on his shoulders. Wanting answers from the uncle she hardly knew, Navarro tracked him down in Mexico for a series of dramatic confrontations, which of course, she captured on film.

Brutally honest to a fault, Lost often feels downright intrusive. It is hard not to wince when we see Augie “borrow” twenty dollars from his niece. To her credit though, Navarro does not let her prodigal uncle off the hook, forcefully grilling him on the terrible choices he made, which continue to have an impact not just on him, but also on his entire family. Indeed, Lost is the sort of documentary that approaches reality television terrain. Yet, it seriously presents themes of personal responsibility and redemption.

There is a glut of immigration themed documentaries currently on the festival circuit, but Lost is far more compelling than most of its competition. Focusing on its distinct family dramas rather than topical issues, it is a film that fully understands actions have consequences. Despite its uncomfortably voyeuristic elements, Lost has merit, particularly as a debut feature. It airs this coming Tuesday (3/23) on most PBS stations.