A still from the Seattle Asian American Film Festival’s opening night film, ‘unseen’ • Courtesy

A new documentary, unseen (2023), follows the journey of Pedro, a blind undocumented immigrant building toward a career in social work and mental healthcare.

Pedro and his family came to the United States from Mexico, and like many immigrant families, they had great hopes for creating a new life in America. As Pedro grew older, he began to experience progressive vision loss. He had to learn how to live with his disability. This has taken a toll on his own mental health.

However, he is driven by a sense of duty to the community and to other undocumented immigrants. Pedro’s story is just as much about how the neglected of the United States persevere in a society that does not want them, as it is about Pedro’s own journey of care, recovery, and healing.

unseen was filmed over the course of six years by documentarian and friend of Pedro, Set Hernandez, who interviews Pedro and also provides commentary and perspective for the audience. Hernandez, in dialogue with Pedro, reflects on when the two met as undocumented immigrant rights activists.

At the time, there was little coverage of the experiences of immigrants with disabilities. This was one of the main interests that drove Hernandez and Pedro to create this film. Shots are mixed with blurred and in-focus frames, offering us a way to experience the world from Pedro’s perspective.

The documentary begins just after the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. Pedro is attending school at this time. Permeating the atmosphere is the heightened fear of impending attacks on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. These fears do not stop Pedro’s dedication to his work.

A still from the Seattle Asian American Film Festival’s opening night film, ‘unseen’ • Courtesy

Pedro undergoes his own struggles with self-doubt, a common thread throughout the documentary. He expresses guilt that his mentors, parents, and friends sacrifice so much for him. Such guilt is debilitating, and giving up and surrender is always looming over Pedro’s shoulder.

But as he grows through the course of the documentary, Pedro finds new forms of purpose, joy, love, and inspiration that keep him moving forward. Through this, he becomes many things: a student, a mentor, and a teacher. Pedro hopes to return the sacrifices and hard work of others who helped him.

I was hoping the film would spend additional time examining the wider situation of undocumented immigrants living with disabilities and their struggles. If the film devoted more time to these subjects, I feel unseen would provide a more complete picture, especially in its later half.

Hernandez discusses how the intentions of the documentary shifted throughout the process. At first, it would be about immigration and disability, then it evolved to focus on Pedro’s healing and recovery from shame and guilt.

unseen overall reveals a greatly underappreciated subject. I appreciated the sincerity and compassion shown toward Pedro. This empathy is reflected in the detail put into the film, as well as in the strong bond between Pedro and Hernandez formed over the course of the film.

It reminds us how people who show resilience also struggle to find self acceptance. Hernandez, through this film, honors Pedro’s struggle as any true friend would, as well as the struggle of undocumented immigrants across the United States.

‘unseen’ will play at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival in person at the Northwest Film Forum on February 22 and virtually February 26 – March 3.   

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