A lifetime prison hidden in the center of the free world

HUMAN RIGHTS: The struggles of 2.5 million people growing up in a country that does not recognize them as its own.

2.5 Million «Dreamers» live in the United States. «Dreamers» refers to people coming to the country without authorization. A considerable part of them are children arriving with their parents. Their lives will be marked by permanent hiding and ongoing fear because one time captured, they will immediately be expelled to their origin countries. Meanwhile, they can go to school, succeed, work, be awarded, and pay taxes, but this will not change their situation.

Dreamers Stéphanie Barbey, Luc Peter
Dreamers, a film by Stéphanie Barbey, Luc Peter

Stay out

Most of them choose a lifestyle to «stay out», just going to work and coming back, avoiding parties, bars or even restaurants. Every place outside is a risk. Being involved in an accident, even without any culpability, can bring them to the immigration office to be expelled to a country which isn’t anymore their home.

Dreamers have to accept small jobs, primarily badly paid. There is no refusal for them. They have to work two or three times harder, so nobody will ask for their papers. With nearly no chance to be integrated into proper housing, they only can stay on the street, in quarters dominated by gangs and drug business. Some will get involved here, the beginning of the end. Young Dreamers will often be confronted with violence inside schools because they can’t defend themselves, also in their own families, which are often marked by tensions and depression.

They have to work two or three times harder, so nobody will ask for their papers.


Carlos is a kid from Mexico who goes to Chicago in 1993 at nine years old. In the Swiss-German co-production Dreamers by Stéphanie Barbey (*1972 Geneva) and Luc Peter (*1963 Lausanne), he tells his and his family’s life story. Only sometimes, a melancholic, soft soundtrack accompanies the film sequences. The black and white reduction gives the film an even more realistic touch as there aren’t many colours in the lives of Dreamers. We follow Carlos into these daily events, meetings and reflections. His comments, step by step, reconstruct his story.

He is one of the kids suffering first from his father’s violence and then his complete absence after the parent’s divorce. With his three brothers, he found himself mainly depending on each other. Their mother had to carry out a 14 hour a day job for survival. Of course, no social help can be requested officially. It is a life in a no-future scenario, a standstill without possibilities of self-recognition and respecting relationships. Worse, Carlos often is the victim of attacks in school and on his way home. When his brother Jorge brings drugs into their house, the conflict starts. Soon later, Jorge was accused of having crossed a red streetlight. He went to jail for two years and hereupon was expelled. Once, he tried to return to the States, crossing the desert alone, but was captured again. The next try would cost him 30 years of prison. Carlos, now 38 years old, saw Jorge last time 15 years ago.

But Carlos is not one of the most unlucky. Fourteen years old, a football coach saw him playing in the street and offered him the possibility of joining his team. A professional career opened up for him. As a paid player, he even could help out his mother and brothers. He gets invited to study at a top university but is asked to deliver his security card number. He immediately saw all his hopes smashed and fled. Again he got another chance from a University director offering him a grant. This was possible without bureaucracy. One time on the track, he also could motivate his brothers to find a way out and come into respectful positions. Still, only his marriage with a US-American woman allowed him to get his permanent residency permission and overcome the day-by-day fear. All the years before, even a broken car light could have been a reason to be captured and expelled.

Carlos invites us to participate in a strong family life. They all stick together and help out wherever possible. During the realization of the documentary, it becomes a four-generation family. The first generation was already established in the States. Carlos’ mother wanted to join her parents and came undocumented with her children. At the end of Dreamers, Carlos awaits a child, so the four generations are accomplished. Unspoken, it gets clear that a much larger disaster could have been expected without such a strong family community. Now it is on Carlos and his brothers to take care of Freddy, the son of the expelled Jorge. He was just two months old when he was separated from his father forever. Still, the family calls Jorge regularly not to let him fall into depression, relatively isolated in a small Mexican town.

Living life on mercy, the risk of losing all efforts in a second every day, without having made any decision or having a possibility of defence, living in separation from other family members, as from parents living on the other side, with no chance to join them, even in moments when they are dying, staying consistently in the shadow… in short, living a tortured life in the centre of a wealthy country, to which they contribute, is an unacceptable paradox, which Dreamers points out in the clearest way.

Dreamers Stéphanie Barbey, Luc Peter
Dreamers, a film by Stéphanie Barbey, Luc Peter

Facts to tears

The panoramic documentary, screened in the «Burning Lights» competition of Nyon’s Vision du Reel, represents a well-researched work. Stéphanie Barbey, master in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science already, in her last film, Border Land (2014), focused on the atrocities and absurdities of the Mexican-American border, bringing together statements from all kind of social and political backgrounds, in her ongoing collaboration with Luc Peter, himself holding a master title in political science at the University of Geneva.

In Dreamers, this team hold an impactful balance between offering all necessary facts through Carlos’ controlled and clear mind and the invitation to participate in a quite intimate family situation, where facts get transformed in tears.

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Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorekhttp://www.signesdenuit.com
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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