New immigration and identity film festival launches in Des Moines

Jose Antonio Vargas' 'Documented'
Still from Jose Antonio Vargas’ film ‘Documented. Vargas will be a panelist for his film screening on Jan. 23.

Define American Film Festival

Des Moines Art Center — Thursday, Jan. 21–Saturday, Jan. 23

A new film festival kicks off in Iowa on Thursday, courtesy of the non-profit Define American, an organization dedicated to using stories and narrative to take the national conversation about immigration to the next level. Filmmaker and Define American founder Jose Antonio Vargas (who’s own film, Documented, screens on Saturday) says of the festival that it “is a way to celebrate all immigrants in Iowa (documented and undocumented) and our allies. Just days leading up to the all-important caucuses, we cannot think of a better place to inaugurate our festival festival and humanize the very political and partisan issue of immigration.”

The three day event includes six feature-length films, each accompanied by a short and each followed by a panel discussion. Some of the shorts will be premiering at the festival. Luminaries among the panelists include director Chris Weitz, whose 2011 film A Better Life will be the first feature, on Thursday, and Janet Yang, who will be discussing Friday afternoon’s showing of The Joy Luck Club (1993), which she produced. (See the full schedule below.)

The festival is free, but tickets are required, and can be reserved online (for inquiries into group tickets, please email. The Des Moines Art Center is located at 4700 Grand Ave., Des Moines.

Festival field manager Rachel Peller hopes that the festival will “give voice to the lived experiences of human beings, rather than the focus on political policies without consideration to the people that those policies affect.” She notes that, “[a]s Iowans, we have an enormous amount of power to shape the direction of politics in the next several years – and my hope personally is that when we are walking into gymnasiums and libraries across the state to caucus, we are making a vote not only for ourselves, but for our communities.”


Thursday, January 21–7 p.m.
Featured Film: A Better Life (PG-13)
Short: Undocumented Iowa
Panelists: Demian Bichir (actor), Chris Weitz (director), Rekha Basu (moderator), Monica Reyes (activist)

Friday, January 22–3:30 p.m.
Featured Film: The Joy Luck Club (R)
Short: Sarahi
Panelists: Erika Lee (author), Janet Yang (producer)

Friday, January 22–7:30 p.m.
Featured Film: Mother of George (R)
Short: Good Immigrant
Panelist: Dan-El Padilla Peralta (historian)

Saturday, January 23–12 p.m.
Featured Film: Don’t Tell Anyone / No Le Digas A Nadie (NR)
Short: The Legalities of Being
Panelists: Angy Rivera (film subject/activist), Mikaela Shwer (director/editor)

Saturday, January 23–3 p.m.
Featured Film: The Muslims are Coming! (NR)
Short: (undecided)
Panelist: Maeve Higgins (comedian)

Saturday, January 23–6 p.m.
Featured Film: Documented (NR)
Short: Ellis
Panelists: Jose Antonio Vargas (journalist/filmmaker/activist), Arturo Castro (actor), Joa LaVille (activist)