By Brittany Rostron
Filmmakers create great stories every day. But once in a while, a truly great story will create a filmmaker. Such was the case with Patricia Shih and her debut film, Undocumented. The inspiring documentary, which was screened on March 16th at the Queens World Film Festival as part of NYWIFT’s Women Filmmakers: Immigrant Stories series, showcases the realization of the American Dream through the unique story of undocumented-immigrant-turned-successful-cardiac surgeon, Dr. Harold Fernandez.
Prior to meeting Dr. Fernandez when her husband gave his children guitar lessons, Shih was enjoying a career as a professional musician and had never thought of making a feature film. “It never even occurred to me,” she admitted. However, after reading Dr. Fernandez’s book, she had a change of heart.
Shih remembers, “It was the story that grabbed me…It had all the elements of a great film – loss, suspense, fear, love, death, struggle, and ultimately triumph. [It] virtually demanded to be made into a film.”
As the subject of the documentary, it was critical that Harold Fernandez trusted her to tell his story. He did so, despite being fully aware of her limited filmmaking experience. During a Q&A after the film screening that he and his family attended, Fernandez explained why he opted to trust Patricia Shih with his story. “[I wanted] to bring that element of compassion and that element of humanity which is what I think is lacking from the debate right now on immigration. And I know how [Patricia] feels about this issue from her own personal story, and I knew she was the person to do it.”
Dr. Harold Fernandez and filmmaker Patricia Shih at the NYWIFT Women Filmmakers: Immigrant Stories screening of Undocumented at the Queens World Film Festival (photo by Brittany Rostron)
Being a self-proclaimed “newbie filmmaker” was clearly not without its challenges. What’s more, Shih and her team endeavored to release the film before the 2016 presidential election “in the hope that we could touch some hearts and minds and votes.” With a start date in May 2016, this left them with less than six months to complete the entire film and have it ready for distribution, a harrowing task for even the most experienced filmmaker.
Shih credits the help and support of all those involved (even those not directly so) for making the shoot possible under such a tight deadline. “Dr. Fernandez made himself totally available to us, and some of his patients, colleagues, his entire family, and others were only too happy to be a part of it because he is so respected and beloved. People offered their professional services at huge discounts…Total strangers even volunteered to help because they believed in the project so much,” she recalls. She especially credits her collaborator Greg Blank, whom she jokingly refers to as “The Butcher” for being critical to the interview and editing processes.
Shih also recognizes her years of experience and skills in audio, visual art, and storytelling have aided in her success, while still admitting that producing Undocumented was the biggest challenge of her life.
Shih muses, “I guess I was pretty brazen to think I could do it.” Luckily for all of us in the Zukor Theatre that cold Thursday night, and all of those who will continue to benefit from learning about Dr. Fernandez’s inspirational story, she did.
The next installment of the Women Filmmakers: Immigrant Stories series is the “Shorts from Central Europe” program on April 24th. Seating is free and the screening will be followed by a Q&A and reception. See details and register.