The beginning shots of French artist JR's haunting new short film Ellis feel a lot like a scene out of Shutter Island. But then the voice of the wondrous Robert De Niro comes on, and the story becomes about immigration, and our humanity.
JR is an artist who first came on my radar with the film Inside Out: The People's Art Project, where he shoots a portrait of the world we live in, through his series of oversized photographic portrayals, posted in iconic locations. The moment that has stayed with me more than a year later is when a group of Tunisians tear down their own photographs pasted on a building where former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's portrait used to be, reigning over the city of Tunis. There is so much to analyze in that communal gesture, so much that explains the complexities of the world we live in and refuse to completely understand.
Ellis is the cinematic counterpart of JR's exhibit "Unframed" which, since August of 2014, the artist has been working on. This exhibit is currently featured throughout the south side of Ellis Island, inside the abandoned hospital where so many immigrants spent their first days, even months after arriving on American soil.
I'll admit as I was watching JR's short film, which he's distributing for free first on social media and then on iTunes, I thought more than once that the archival images pasted on the walls were actually photos of current refugees, arriving in Europe. And perhaps that's exactly the point of this cultural event happening now. It's the perfect time to show the human face of immigration, of those who defy death to reach our shores these days, even if those shores are no longer on US soil but halfway across the oceans.
We don't know, nor may never ask ourselves what these fellow humans may be carrying, along with their hopes and dreams, inside their suitcases... Robert De Niro, reciting the words of one immigrant written by Eric Roth, has that answer. But you'll have to watch the film to find out!
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