“Soy Nero,” directed and co-written by Iranian-born filmmaker Rafi Pitts, depicts Nero (Johnny Ortiz), a “Green Card” soldier (a non-citizen who serves in the military to fast-track citizenship). According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website, since Oct. 1, 2001, USCIS has naturalized 109,321 members of the military through Fiscal Year 2015.
Pitts’ film, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2016, is getting a release now — rather timely given President Trump’s recent decisions about DACA. In the opening scenes of this absorbing drama, Nero is caught trying to cross into America. Questioned by border patrolmen, he explains that he is 17 and grew up in Los Angeles. He says his family was evicted and deported. The officers do not believe him and he is returned to Mexico.
Nero, however, is determined to cross back into the United States to take advantage of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors). He decides to sneak back in to America and enlist in the military to gain access to citizenship.
The first half of “Soy Nero” charts Nero’s journey to and in America. There is a poetic scene of Nero playing volleyball over the U.S.-Mexican border wall. Successfully crossing into the U.S., he hitches a ride with Seymour (Michael Harney), who gives him an unfiltered perspective about boundaries. Nero seeks out his brother, Jesus (Ian Casselberry), who is living in a posh Beverly Hills mansion — the embodiment of the American Dream. However, Nero is stopped and harassed by the cops in his brother’s neighborhood.
The second half of the film is set in the Middle East, where Nero, now a soldier, has adopted his brother’s name. On patrol with Bronx (Aml Ameen) and Compton (Darrell Britt-Gibson), he and his squad make it back to safety after an ambush.
Wisely, “Soy Nero” does not show the process of becoming a Green Card soldier. Instead, Pitts uses Nero’s observations and experiences to draw parallels about identity and citizenship and how these individuals are treated.
The filmmaker chatted via Skype with Salon about “Soy Nero.”
You were born in Iran, educated in England and now live in Los Angeles. Can you discuss your thoughts on citizenship and identity — key themes in the film?
It’s ironic, but I have an Iranian mother, an English father and a French stepfather. The French think I come from England, and the English think I come from Iran. It’s fascinating that these people close to me think I come from one country.
As a filmmaker, I make films I relate to, so I can understand myself and the behavior of others. The world is becoming more radical in its extremes and in its simplification of who people are. When you make a film about immigration, America is the best country because everyone is represented from all over the world. You have your personal story, but the cinema is bigger. You want to talk to the world and to people in the larger sense, so you have to go beyond yourself. You start from the heart and work your way out.
What prompted you to make a film about the Green Card Soldier?
I wrote this story pre-Trump. I wanted to find an extreme angle. I was familiar with the wall in Tijuana. There is a wall that Bush, after 9/11, wanted constructed along the border. What is Trump going to do with the current wall? What I find fascinating is that these walls are symbolic borders in people’s heads. Being in a democratic country, like America — a country that depends on Latinos for its economy — that is as obscene as you can get.
There have been documentaries about immigrating to the U.S., so I wanted to find something that I could relate to further. I researched and came across the Green Card solider. This story hasn’t been told. I met Green Card soldiers in Tijuana who talked about being deported. They were shattered, as they believe themselves to be American, and they are rejected by Mexico for serving the U.S.
You dedicated the film to all the deported soldiers who served America. Can you talk statistics?
My source is the Green Card soldiers themselves. They say there have been 100,000 Green Card soldiers, and 8,000 have been deported over time, since [the] Vietnam War until today. Ironically, if you die [in service], you become a U.S. citizen. These soldiers are not just deported randomly. They don’t think of filing citizenship papers. If they don’t apply immediately for citizenship and do something wrong, like getting a DUI, they are deported.
The person fighting most on their behalf is Senator John McCain, R-Ariz. The supporters, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, want to bring these deported Green Card soldiers back. They feel that if they serve in the Army for two years, they should be considered Americans. Some feel if they committed a crime, [they] should serve their time. Others say if you have committed a crime, they should be deported. No one seems to agree, because the number of the deported soldiers isn’t high enough.
The film is certainly timely now with the Dreamers and DACA in the news, but your film is more allegorical than political or procedural. Can you discuss your approach to the topic?
A Green Card soldier is important, since America is a country of immigrants. Addressing immigration and identity and how humans behave, you are addressing the world. It concerns not just America, but Europe. They simplify their politics and blame immigrants for what’s wrong with their country. For me, the film concerns Europe as much as America.
Why does Nero want to be a citizen of a country that treats him so badly?
You’d think that. The Cartels in Tijuana want these [returned] soldiers because they are trained military. If the soldiers refuse, their lives are in danger. They want to come home because they feel America is their home. I find it fascinating that people become soldiers, whether they are immigrants or not. Why would anyone want to be a soldier? The idea of killing is already a question mark to me. They are Dreamers, and 19, and believe they can be heroes.
What is happening to a young man with a machine gun in the desert? My goal as a filmmaker is to ask questions, or hold up a mirror on society and tell me what you think. I don’t have the answers. What audiences see and feel is important to me. They may understand it better than I do. Why does a young man or woman get to a point in their life, that in order to be loved, they join the Army and fight to prove they are part of that flag?
What can you say about the role of police or authority figures in the film? Nero is often made to feel powerless.
The police are as close as I can get to authority, the governing body. The average man on the street sees the police as a representation of the country. I’ve always been concerned by the average guy on the street and how powerless an individual is when faced with authority and how little authority cares about that individual. I’ve always had a problem with authority. I think the governing body doesn’t look at the single average man on the street. They don’t like the marginal. I make films to defend the guy who is in the margin, the one the system doesn’t allow in. Not being part of any single country, I relate to the marginal guy.
How did you develop the film’s tension and sense of danger? The scenes in America were as intense as the ones in the Middle East.
The idea of danger is the red line, the thread of the film. It’s the point of view of this man in constant danger of the rejection of his life. When I use wide-angle shots, I show he’s free. All the rest of the film is boxing him in — subconsciously making the audience feel that there is no escape from the situation he’s in.
That’s the danger Nero’s living in: He can’t be. He assumes his brother’s name. Seymour can’t be. His brother can't be either. The two soldiers, Bronx and Compton can’t be themselves. The sergeant [Rory Cochrane] is suicidal and disillusioned. I talk about the others through the story of this immigrant. Do we have the right to be ourselves in the world that we’re given? That’s what makes one feel the danger. That’s the first right any human should have: just to be.
In the event that Trump would see this film, what do you want him to take away from it?
I don’t think would Trump would care for this film or have the attention for it. But I’d like Trump supporters to see the film. If they knew immigrants fought for this country, they might look at them differently. That could create a debate that helps things move forward. I don’t judge them; I just think they are misinformed. I’d love them to see the film and hear what they think about Green Card soldiers.