[EDITORS’ NOTE: If you missed our screenings of Ellis on the NYUAD campus or would like to see it again, you can download a copy for free from iTunes.]
The short film Ellis directed by the artist JR and starring Robert De Niro pays homage to all of the immigrants who entered the United States by passing through the immigration station at Ellis Island outside New York City.
Ellis Island is the stuff of American history and mythology. From 1892 to 1954, it was the threshold through which millions of would-be immigrants were required to pass in order to realize their American. Located in Upper New York Bay near the Statue of Liberty, it was the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States, and in its peak years — between 1905 and 1914 — an average of 5,000 immigrants per day were processed by immigration officials on the island.
If you were lucky, you spent just a few hours at the island, before receiving permission to proceed to the mainland. You would have had to answer twenty-nine questions, including your name, your occupation, and how much money you were carrying. (You generally needed around $20 to gain approval — about $430 in today’s money — because the US government wanted new immigrants to have funds to support themselves as they tried to start their new lives.)
Some never made it past that threshold, turned away because they had contagious disease, or criminal records, or seemed to be insane. Some of those who seemed to be sick were sent to the island’s hospital facilities. Many stayed there for quite a while. Some died there.
Today Ellis Island is a museum, but the hospital facilities are still abandoned and in disrepair. The visual artist JR recently mounted an exhibition of contemporary photographies pasted onto the walls of the abandoned building. “Walking around the abandoned hospital on Ellis Island, I could feel the presence of the hundreds of thousands of people who passed through, and of the countless ones who didn’t make it and got turned back.” The exhibition and the short film that it inspired are the artist’s attempt to “to ﬁnd the story behind each person who left his or her country. I want to know what made them leave everything and everyone behind, even when they knew they’d never be able to come back. It takes so much courage.”
This moving short film looks back to the American past but prompts us to think about todays refugee and migrant crises around the world. As JR puts it, “There were immigrants in Ellis a hundred years ago, there are migrants now, and there will be some in a hundred years, so we have to do what we can to try to relate to each individual story.”
[If you’ve seen the film and have thoughts about it, please share them in the comments section below.]