The waiting room from immigration hell awaits “Upon Entry.” [SXSW]

Nobody enjoys a waiting room. In a world accustomed to instant gratification, the experience feels intolerable, even if you have an appointment or assurances that your stay in that space is only temporary. Co-directors Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vásquez channel the horrors of that experience to craft a concise, taut, and psychologically uncomfortable immigration story.

Diego (Alberto Ammann) and Elena (Bruna Cusí) settle in for a long day of travel as they journey from Spain to Miami with their immigration visas to start a new life, but upon their arrival on American soil in Newark, they get sent to a secondary inspection area for additional interrogation. Confused at the delay and eager to continue, they try their best to comply, but the experience unveils buried secrets and tests their faith in one another. They are questioned by two unnamed officers played by Laura Gómez (Sambá) and Ben Temple ([REC]).

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Alberto Ammann, Laura Gómez and Bruna Cusí in UPON ENTRY. Photo Credit: © Óscar Fernández Orengo.

Rojas and Vasquez waste no time on backstories. Everything we need to know about this couple occurs on screen or through facts dropped during the interrogation scenes. The tight focus puts viewers in the room with our couple. What transpires in this waiting room becomes monumental and all-encompassing. Nothing else exists.

And the camera manipulates us from being on the side of both Diego and Elena to being unsure where our allegiances lie. When the film begins, the camera stands back respectfully with medium shots. We see them going through the motions of airline travel and try to piece together what is happening. We observe this from a distance. In the next section, the officer, played by Laura Gómez, questions the two of them together. During the interrogation, the direction changes subtly from Diego and Elena’s side of the table to the immigration officer’s side of the table. This change puts us in the perspective of the officer, with the couple in the hot seat. This understated but effective shift allows us to distance ourselves from our main characters.

The movements become even wilder as the delay changes from minor inconvenience to something more anxiety-inducing. The camera moves nearer still into close-up shots, offering a stark view of our characters’ wildly swinging emotions. In the final act, the camera again shifts to over Diego and Elena’s shoulders. Our view of them is eradicated. They cease to become people of interest and instead become mere objects in the room. We can no longer stand back and observe this scene from a comfortable distance. We are left alone, with only our own preconceived notions of immigrants trying to enter America. Everything is up for questioning.

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UPON ENTRY co-director Alejandro Rojas. Photo Credit: Alejandro Rojas.

The directors also imbue tension into the setting with occasional changes in sound and lighting. In the hallway outside the interrogation room, maintenance workers perform routine repairs. As poor Diego tries to pull his thoughts together, the sounds of electrical tools invade the quiet, turning the already tense situation into a torture chamber for the sensory sensitive. And, of course, the lighting in the room occasionally burns too bright or goes out completely. Upon Entry could have made an effective horror movie if the directors had chosen to lean any further in that direction.

The fate of Diego and Elena rests all inside what happens in this waiting room, but the directors also continue to remind us that theirs isn’t the only story of note. Other people wait in the same purgatory. Each will have a turn to walk down the same fluorescent-lit hallway and face a nameless officer. With no food, no water, no kindness, and no idea how long they will stay in this space, the secondary inspection area becomes an exercise in endurance and a holding cell for the hopeful.

With Upon Entry, Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vásquez officer a sliver of what many people go through in hopes of entering America. This ripped-from-the-headlines story serves as a call for empathy, an outlet for the directors to tell their stories, and a window into a world and a waiting room some of us can’t fathom.

Screened during SXSW 2023.

For more information, head to the official SXSW Upon Entry webpage.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

SXSW 2023

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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