Last Sunday many of us gathered in our living rooms with friends to tune in to an American cultural event: the Oscars. Some of us like to watch it because it seems to be nostalgic in some way, reminiscent of old Hollywood glamour, starlets dressed in the height of fashion with well-coiffed hair, red lipstick, and plunging necklines. Others watch it because of the artistry of the industry itself. Perhaps they have seen all the nominated films and are earnestly curious to see whether the Academy’s lofty opinions match up with their own predictions. Many of us have our favorite stars or films that we are rooting for, others of us may have only seen one of the many nominated pieces. Sometimes we watch simply for the company, others watch in order to scoff at what they see as an inauthentic and overhyped parade of vapid celebrities.
One of the reasons I have always enjoyed watching the Oscars is the power of the stories behind the scenes. Whether it is the profound historical impact of Lincoln and his band of anti-slavery lawmakers pursuing the prohibition of slavery, or the haunting wails of Fantine, a woman who represents the many women who have been crushed by the weight of inequality and have found themselves being used and abused in the oldest profession in history. This past Sunday, it wasn’t just the narratives of the films that had profound meaning, but it was also the narratives of the documentaries, for they show the lives of real people with whom we share earth and air with at this very moment.
Inocente. Many of those who watched the Oscars may not remember this documentary film or the girl whose name it bears. They may also not remember that it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. Inocente was 19 when she appeared on the stage to receive the Oscar statuette with the producers of the documentary , but she was only 15 years old when they met her in San Diego and decided that her unique and beautiful story was something that the world should witness. Usually most of the attention at the Oscars is directed towards the big names that win the coveted top spots for acting and directing. Perhaps we should also remember the names of the real people whose lives were legitimately changed by their portrayals in films.
The film opens with a young girl creating ethereal designs on her face with a paintbrush before she goes to school. This girl is Inocente, and she is a talented artist. She is also the homeless child of parents who have no legal status in the United States. Her father forcibly brought her mother and their children to the United States when Inocente was no more than a toddler. Years later when her abusive father was caught beating her, he was deported, causing the family to be homeless for years to come. They have never lived in one place for more than three months, her mother doing odd jobs in order to get by. Inocente has lived through extraordinary hardship, but through art she has found a place where she can find joy and light in a world that for her has always been full of unspeakable darkness. She paints with brilliantly bold colors that seem to contrast with her somewhat timid nature. She paints from her heart and her imagination, revealing the deeply colorful spirit that lives within her.
What struck me about Inocente was the raw humanity it portrayed. I often feel a sort of disconnect from the world of film, for no matter how accurately portrayed or emotionally vulnerable a character is, there is still simply an actor behind the façade. Inocente is no actor, she is a young woman who truly exists at this very moment, and she deals with hardship that is very real. She is homeless, fatherless, and undocumented; yet she is also tenacious, creative, resilient, and compassionate, with an unquenchable imagination.
How often do we reduce those whom we do not know to titles that strip them of their value? How often do we refer to someone by their economic or legal status, as “poor”, “illegal”, “homeless?” How very wrong we are. Inocente is a woman who is indeed poor for she lacks money, undocumented because she lacks documents, and homeless because she lacks a home. But that is far from who she is. She is profoundly rich with talent and creativity, brimming with the promise of an incredible future, full of hope and vision, and optimistic in the face of disaster. To reduce to her to a label would be a crime in itself, and so would it be to reduce anyone else in her situation to the same labels. Inocente is an amazing woman, but she is also not the only one of her kind. Each and every person with her background has a unique story that should never be reduced to empty epithets.
The Oscars may seem to many to be a meaningless parade of vanity, but there are beautiful stories that grace that scarlet walkway – stories like those of Inocente, and many more, that defy the labels that people give them. Stories that prove to be bigger than the political polemic, stories that deserve even more than an Oscar.
If you want to watch the documentary online, it can be found here
Abbi Watkins hails from Kiev, Ukraine and is a junior at Wheaton College where she is studying International Relations. She is currently interning with World Relief, working with the issue of immigration reform.
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