"And the Pursuit of Happiness" - Louis Malle (1986)

Louise Malle was a commercially and artistically successful feature filmmaker with a career that spanned three decades and two cultures: France and the US. But I feel that it was in the area of documentary filmmaking where he did his best work, in both cultures. Rather than attempt to record “objective” reality, Malle largely embodied the more subtle documentary style of cinéma vérité originally championed by the French. In this mode of filmmaking, the observer is an acknowledged part of the story being told – it is the storyteller’s journey towards a more enlightened view of his or her interactive environment that the viewer experiences. Note, however, that a cinéma vérité film does not dwell on the observer – what is presented is the world “out there”, as seen from the observer’s perspective.  This picture of the external world, out there, may be subtly influenced by the observer’s presence, as authentically acknowledged by the cinéma vérité filmmaker.

Among Malle’s great documentaries are the magnificent Phantom India (1969) and Calcutta (1969), which revealed a cultured Frenchman’s appreciative attempts to understand the wonder of India.  After moving to the US in the late 1970s, Malle’s documentary fascination turned to a contemplation of just what it is that constitutes American culture, with God’s Country (1986) and then And the Pursuit of Happiness (1986), his last documentary effort.  In all these cases, Malle demonstrates a sympathetic attempt to arrive a critical understanding of his subject.  And this he shared with his audience.

And the Pursuit of Happiness was one of Malle’s most personal films, since he examines the various facets and multiple experiences of being an immigrant to the US, as he himself had once been.  Indeed, the film seems to be very much a personal effort on the part of Malle, since he is credited as being the photographer, narrator, producer, and director of the film.  Just as he had done years earlier in India, Malle evidently travelled around the US and recorded what he saw. And following the cinéma vérité tradition, he lets those he see tell their own stories. 

Although the film, of course, is edited, and only the choice footage survived that process, I felt when watching the film that the interactions with the various people Malle encountered were authentic and unrehearsed. The behaviour of the people before the camera might have been influenced by the knowledge that they were on film, but their actions and words were generally spontaneous.

The title of the film, “And the Pursuit of Happiness”, is drawn from a line in the US Declaration of Independence, which refers to what it considers the “inalienable rights” of man, which necessarily include, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.  To be able to pursue happiness in one’s own fashion, that is with the largest compass to one’s activities that does not harm others – it is this that is held to be a basic human right.  And that is precisely what draws so many people from all around the world to America.

For the most part, the people that Malle encounters and films are ordinary, everyday people who are just looking for a new life.  But Malle does interview a few not so ordinary people, too.  These include

  • Boris Leskin, a prominent Russian stage actor who came to the US in 1979 at the age of 56 knowing almost no English and having to start over from scratch.  By the time of this film, he is teaching acting classes and has restarted his acting career in America.
  • Franklin Chang Diaz was born in Costa Rica of a Chinese father and a Costa Rican mother. Like President Barak Obama, he is an example success story of America’s ethnic melting pot. After coming to the US during his high school years, he was graduated from MIT with a PhD in physics and then went to become the first immigrant to be a NASA astronaut in the US space program.
  • Derek Walcott, from the Carribean island of Saint Lucia, became a famous poet and playwright in the US.  A few years after his appearance in this film, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature (1992).
  • General José R. Somoza was the son of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, and had lived a life of privilege in Nicaragua during the long, corrupt rule of the Somoza family.  He evidently brought a considerable amount of his wealth with him to the US when the Somozas were forced from power, because he is shown in this film living in luxury.
But Malle’s film covers people of many stripes and lots of themes, and there are roughly four general topic areas that come under focus along the way:
  1. Freedom to start a new life
  2. Educational opportunities
  3. Acceptance of immigrants
  4. The Problem of illegal immigration

1.  Freedom to start a new life
In this section Malle shows refugees from Cambodia arriving at US customs and happy to escape the genocidal conditions in their native country that led to the deaths of about one-quarter of the population (~ 2 million people).  These people are pursuing the dream that many people contemplate: to start a new life. Also shown is a Kurdish taxi driver, who has managed to join a worker’s cooperative that owns and operates its own taxi service. Here Boris Leskin is shown celebrating his own new life in the new world. 

Many new arrivals find their way to communities of their own people.  Malle shows people in “Little Saigon”, an area of Orange County, California, where 100,000 Vietnamese people have settled.  Cuban immigrants have almost come to dominate the city of Miami, where 65% of the population was said to be Hispanic.  Almost none of these people want to go back to their home countries, ever.

2.  Educational Opportunities
In this section Malle shows how the American system of universal education benefits many immigrant schoolchildren.  Some of the children shown in this segment include Chinese students, an Indian Sikh prodigy, and the aforementioned Franklin Chang Diaz

3.  Acceptance
Malle travels to Nebraska, in the American heartland, and shows a small town with an immigrant Vietnamese doctor – apparently the only non-native resident in the town.  As is generally true with the unassuming American Midwestern people, the doctor is readily accepted and included in the local society.  However, this acceptance doesn’t prevail throughout the US.  Malle also shows American blacks in Houston, Texas, who are at odds with the local Vietnamese immigrants. The blacks feel that the Vietnamese are being used as tools by corrupt landlords to force them out of their own, traditional neighbourhoods. In addition the film also shows a number of Arab immigrants, who although they have achieved comfortable middle-class status, feel the effects of social discrimination (for being Muslims) and discomfort with the “corrupt” American lifestyle.

The famous writer Derek Walcott is shown in this segment expressing what seems to me to be an eccentric view, perhaps what you might expect from an intellectual.  He argues that America’s “aggressive democracy” enforces too much conformity.  He thinks immigrants feel the pressure to conform to social mainstream standards and are reluctant to express their true feelings.  Malle lets Walcott speak his piece and says nothing.  But the rest of the film portrays the falsity of Walcott’s claims and just how happy the immigrant newcomers are to be in a country where they can express themselves – especially the various young girls and women who are interviewed in the film.

4.  Illegal Immigration
The last segment covers the somewhat intractable problem of illegal immigration in America. Malle shows scenes of the American border crossing near Tijuana, where vast numbers of people seek to cross into the US every night illegally.  Many Americans see the source of this problem to be the practice of American landowners and factory owners hiring cheap fruit pickers and running “sweatshops” filled with exploited illegal immigrants paid a wages well below the government-specified minimum wage. They believe that if the US would rigorously outlaw such practice, then the illegal immigration flow would subside.  An extreme proponent of this perspective is FAIR – the Federation for American Immigration Reform, who seek to (1) drastically reduce legal immigration, (2) eliminate political asylum and illegal-immigrant legalization, and (3) repeal the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which grants citizenship to people born in the US. I don’t think the issue of illegal immigration can be solved this way, and furthermore, the FAIR organization is itself suspect – the widely respected Southern Poverty Law Center (famous for legally opposing racism in the US South), has claimed that FAIR is a hate group. Managing the immigration flow into the US will remain a complex problem for some time, and no simple solutions are at hand. As Malle shows, there are many people who are desperate to come to the US, whether there are low-paying jobs waiting for them or not.  Besides the people from relatively distant Cambodia, there are eager people closer to home, such as those from El Salvador, who are shown fleeing that country’s violence and famine. 

In ironic contrast to these desperate people at the bottom are wealthy immigrants like General Somoza, who after having plundered their native country, brought much of their wealth with them.  But even here, Malle doesn’t express any personal condemnation; he always lets these people speak for themselves.  Perhaps the ultimate expression here is that of General Somoza’s son, who appears to be a thirty-ish householder living in more modest circumstances in the US than he did in Nicaragua.  When he is asked by Malle which place he likes better, he says it is the US.  His life here is more natural, better.  He is free.

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