Well-Founded Fear: A Case Study

Well-Founded Fear: A Case Study

By Barbara Abrash

The Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, and all of a sudden, it wasn’t just information and money and images that were zooming around the globe. Real people were on the move like never before, and too often not for happy reasons. … We wanted to make a film about all this. Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson, producers, Well Founded Fear.

Introduction Well-Founded Fear- A Case Study (Resources - Case study)

In 1993, documentary filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini decided to make a series of films exploring the global movements of people across borders in the post-Cold War world. Noted for their well-crafted, densely researched films on political and social themes, the filmmakers obtained seed funding from two foundations, and set out to establish the feasibility of such a series. By 1995, in the absence of interest from PBS or other broadcasters, they reluctantly concluded that the series they envisioned was unlikely to attract funders. But a chance meeting early in 1996 drew their attention to the asylum offices of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), where the fate of applicants for political asylum depends on a single interview, in which they have an opportunity to convince an asylum officer that they have a “well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” if they return to their home country. “We had been struggling with how to get Americans to think about the world,” said Camerini. “And suddenly it was clear that here was the place where the world collided with America. We simply turned our original idea inside-out.” (NY Times, June 4, 2000).

On June 5, 2000, Well-Founded Fear, a two-hour film set in the offices of the INS and centered on dramatic interviews between INS officers and applicants for political asylum, was broadcast on the PBS documentary series, POV. “It’s a docusoap maker’s dream,” said one reviewer. “But extraordinary access has led to extraordinary filmmaking.” The well-orchestrated broadcast rollout included a national press campaign, a website, and strategic outreach plans to engage educational, advocacy, and community organizations. The buzz had begun the preceding January at the Sundance Film Festival; CNN would later broadcast a 49-minute international version. By putting a human face on abstract policies, the film succeeded in opening the subject of immigration to a new kind of public discussion.

The process by which Well-Founded Fear moved from idea to broadcast and beyond is a story of skill and serendipity that highlights the crucial network of individuals and institutions that made it possible. This report traces this process, with special attention to:

Making the film

Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini are veteran documentarians who, separately and together, have made films on subjects ranging from the education of girls in sub-Saharan Africa to the American drug wars in Peru. In 1994, they began research on Tempest Tossed, a proposed series on the post-Cold War world of collapsed states, economic globalization, and vast movements of economic and political migrants and refugees. Camerini and Robertson customarily start a project by seeking out the community of experts in the subject, including, says Camerini, foundation program officers who are “plugged into the front lines, who can be helpful in working with filmmakers, suggesting who to learn from.” Mary McClymont, then Ford Foundation program officer for Migrant and Refugee Rights (now Senior Director of Peace and Social Justice at Ford), was such a person. She connected them with Demetrios Papademetriou, Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and research began.

Seed funding from the Ford Foundation ($75,000) and the Spunk Fund ($75,000), enabled the filmmakers to assemble an advisory group of twelve senior policy specialists, and to travel abroad to research this complex and highly charged subject. Late in 1995, they delivered treatments and work plans for a $3,000,000 multi-part series. The missing element was broadcast (PBS turned away the project, on the grounds that their viewers are not interested in international subjects), which made foundation funding unlikely. The project seemed to be dead.

In January 1996, they rediscovered an old friend, a longtime activist in refugee settlement (“a guerilla fighter against the INS”), who, it turned out, had joined the Asylum Corps of the INS at a time when the newly-reformed asylum program was recruiting advocates. [Note: In 1989, a formal system was established by the INS for dealing with asylum. The program was removed from the district INS offices, to be directed from Washington; with input from advocates, the system was restructured. Reforms were instituted in 1995.] It was, she said, both interesting and surprising. Suddenly, the filmmakers realized that the whole series they had envisioned was encapsulated there in the asylum office. But how to gain access to INS offices, where confidential asylum interviews take place behind closed doors?

With the help of Demetrios Papademetriou and others, they submitted a letter to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, requesting unprecedented permission to film asylum interviews. In October, Meissner ordered her staff to cooperate with the filmmakers: they would be allowed into asylum offices and had full control of filming, but they had to guarantee releases from whomever they filmed, and no one was required to agree to be filmed. Soon after, they began visiting the Lyndhurst, New Jersey asylum office. Their timing was fortunate. Late in 1996, Congress passed restrictive laws, narrowing the asylum process. Camerini and Robertson began filming after these laws were passed, but before they were implemented.

Armed with a proposal for a revamped project, the filmmakers returned to the Ford Foundation, where they met with Taryn Higashi, who had replaced McClymont as program officer for Migrant and Refugee Rights. They were awarded a $320,000 grant. Between October 1996 and June 1997, as they waited for their grant money to come through, Camerini and Robertson (without cameras) made daily visits to the asylum office, absorbing the tensions and dynamics of the terrain, getting to know asylum officers, translators, and immigration lawyers, and searching for likely subjects. Shari Robertson, a trained anthropologist, likens it to a classic ethnographic film shoot. “We entered a world in which there were several quasi tribal groups (asylum officers, asylum seekers, lawyers and advocates) that had their own internal politics and strong kinds of projections about the other groups. We had to gain the trust of all the sets.” The challenge was finding applicants (who only appear once for the interview, and return to hear the results) and asylum officers who would agree to be filmed. They were working in a bubble of time.

The filmmakers also returned to two other early supporters, Marianne Gerschel at the Spunk Fund (which ultimately provided $200,000), and Antonio Maciel at the Open Society Institute (OSI). Back in the days of Tempest Tossed, Maciel (then at the Joyce Mertz Gilmore Foundation) had been drawn to the project. His foundation didn’t fund film, but Maciel volunteered to help in other ways, including co-convening an advisory board meeting. When he reconnected with the filmmakers in early 1997, he was heading the Emma Lazarus Fund at OSI. [Note: The Emma Lazarus Fund was a one-time $50 million initiative to help immigrants affected by welfare reform.] To Maciel, this was a rare opportunity to actually see the process by which asylum decisions are made. Both the final film and the outtakes, he felt, would constitute an important policy research archive. They could also be used to train pro bono lawyers, by providing a literal “inside look” into the asylum process. In June 1997, the project received a $350,000 grant from the Emma Lazarus Fund.

In July 1997, 16mm filming began, with a small crew. (The crew consisted of Camerini (camera), the associate producer, a sound recordist, a film loader, and Robertson. Offices were so small, Robertson often stood outside the interview office, listening on a headset and communicating questions to Camerini by microphone.) By September, Camerini and Robertson felt the need to know whether a general audience would be interested in their material. They cut a teaser for the International Feature Film Market (IFFM), which was seen by Lisa Heller, then executive producer of POV. She immediately wanted the film for POV. Heller welcomed the fact that it pushed the boundaries of POV programming (which tends to feature smaller, more personal stories), and she saw a chance to start the project early enough to lobby effectively within the PBS system–a rare opportunity for POV. It was too early to tell exactly what the final form of the film would be, but there was potential for a special broadcast. Although it was far from complete, she took the unusual step of bringing it to the POV editorial committee for consideration.

In April 1998, having filmed 50 cases in 26 languages, with 85 hours of footage and 15 additional hours of audio in hand, the filmmakers began editing. They approached this as an American story, one that could make viewers think about immigration as a human experience, deeply embedded in the ethos of the United States as a nation of immigrants. They meant to be even-handed, and to put viewers in the shoes of both asylum officers and asylum seekers and ask, “What would you do in this situation?” The film was intended to reach general audiences, including those with anti-immigrant sentiments. The goal was to raise consciousness about immigration policies in a complicated world.

By mid-summer, rough edits were ready to show to foundation officers and advisors. The filmmakers welcomed tough criticism. They knew that their film would not please all parties invested in the subject. “It was important,” says Camerini, “to make the film bullet-proof. Mistakes can divert attention. We didn’t just want to please insiders. We wanted to serve their possible audiences, too.” Roger Winter, Executive Director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, Frank Sharry, Director of the National Immigration Forum, and Marianne Gerschel, Director of the Spunk Fund, as well as Taryn Higashi, Antonio Maciel, and Demetrios Papademetriou were among those who viewed rough cuts. Their responses began to frame the discussions that would emerge around the film, and engaged key individuals who introduced the film to opinion-shapers. They would later be helpful in garnering national press coverage and arranging screenings for advocates and policy-makers in foundations, government, and human rights organizations. It stimulated the process by which the film circulated to many viewers and venues, which would come to include lawyers, judges, libraries, schools, civic groups, advocacy organizations, and the INS itself.

Strategizing the launch

“POV has a mobilizing mission, to place film in a larger set of ancillary anchors, before, during and after broadcast. Independent work requires this. To present a good social issue film without this apparatus is irresponsible.” Lisa Heller, HBO, Director, Original Programming, Documentaries

In response to Heller’s presentation, the POV editorial committee committed $90,000 toward completion and acquisition of Well-Founded Fear. (Heller also suggested that the filmmakers send a tape to Alyce Myatt at the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation. After meeting with Camerini and Robertson, and viewing a four-hour assembly, Myatt recommended a grant of $148,000, although it is unusual for the foundation, which is a major funder of POV, to fund POV films. Regret to Inform was another POV film that received funding.) In 1998, Heller began to lobby Well-Founded Fear at PBS national meetings. According to Heller, this film gave POV a new presence at PBS: in 1999, for the first time, POV was asked to make a presentation at a national PBS meeting. With the luxury of an unusually long lead time, she was able to negotiate a 9:00 pm PBS broadcast slot, a hard feed on June 5, 2000.

POV’s mission as a broadcaster is to use independent media to build audiences and jump-start public conversation about social issues. Plans in this direction were being prepared, with somewhat different emphases, by POV and the Television Race Initiative (TRI)–two related projects of The American Documentary, Inc., the umbrella organization for both. On a parallel track, Camerini and Robertson were planning active promotion and outreach, with their national network of experts. The filmmakers joined together with Ellen Schneider (Executive Director of both The American Documentary and TRI) and Lisa Heller, both of whom Camerini describes as “vital strategists” in project planning overall. In a crucial move, Schneider agreed to hire a publicist specifically for Well-Founded Fear (POV’s new Director of Communication had not yet come on board), and plans were jointly made for broadcast, publicity, sneak previews, festival showings, insider screenings, a website, viewer guides, and community outreach.

Camerini and Robertson locked picture in June 1999, and with the help of their “insider” network, began to preview the film for members of the legal profession, government agencies, and immigration advocacy organizations. The first showing, in Chicago, was a benefit sponsored by the Midwest Immigration Rights Center for victims of torture. Frank Sharry arranged a screening in Washington, D.C. for the national convention of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which funds refugee programs throughout the country, including NGOs, non-profit organizations, and government agencies. Sharry also organized a workshop at the the National Immigration Forum meeting, which brings together community leaders from around the country for training in public speaking. Participants were asked, “What if you were to show this film in your community, to talk about the issues?” (Many took cassettes to use in their training programs.) Through Demetrios Papademetriou, the Carnegie Endowment hosted a screening for policy-makers and press in Washington, D.C. TRI project director, Yvette Martinez, arranged with Senators Kennedy and Abraham to show the film to Senate Subcommittee on Immigration staffers and PBS representatives. Longtime supporters of the project, including foundation program officers and project advisors showed the film to their boards of directors and professional colleagues. On December 19, 1999, “Cracks in the Facade of Refuge,” a feature article by Susan Sachs, appeared in the Sunday New York Times. (Frank Sharry had helped to place this opening salvo in the press campaign for Well-Founded Fear.) The article describes a film “that reveals for the first time a process that is based on law and on instinct and that operates, as one asylum officer puts it, like Russian roulette.” The article presents a detailed summation of the asylum process, anticipating the tone and substance of widespread press coverage to come.

In January 2000, Well-Founded Fear came sharply into public view, with six highly-praised screenings at the Sundance film festival. The period between Sundance and national broadcast in June, was crucial for establishing the film. While Camerini and Robinson worked closely with TRI and POV to organize station and community campaigns, they also independently hired festival publicist Susan Norget, who orchestrated festival screenings and worked with press to bank articles for later release. Connections made at Sundance led to a 49-minute version of the film, for satellite broadcast on CNN International (which was aired at least six times in each global time zone, each time to a potential 151 million viewers). PBS has given permission for CNN broadcast of a shorter version domestically, next year. In January, too, they joined the PBS press tour. It was the first time POV had been included in the tour.

In March, POV hired publicist Tim Fisher, who teamed up with the filmmakers on the press campaign. Well-Founded Fear had been positioned by Lisa Heller for broadcast a few weeks earlier than the usual start of POV’s summer season, which meant it could be highlighted as a two-hour special event, while also anchoring the series. Tim Fisher’s campaign produced outstanding results: from Esquire and People magazines, to the Los Angeles Times, the Austin Statesman and the Miami Herald, over 100 articles appeared in national, regional and local papers, in specialty press, weekly and monthly publications. The filmmakers were interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air by Terry Gross and on Morning Edition by Alex Chadwick. On the night of the broadcast, PBS newscaster Jim Lehrer plugged the film on The News Hour.

One of the notable aspects of press coverage was the way in which the stories were framed. Following a dramatic lead-in (“Imagine you were….”) about a life-or-death encounter in the INS office, most articles went straight to content, giving background on asylum policy and providing statistics and other hard information. They discussed what asylum policies reveal about the gap between American ideals and tough realities. And many keyed into the film’s basic dramatic trope: what would you do if you were in the asylum officer’s shoes? in the asylum applicant’s? What would you, as an American, bring to this fateful interview? This press focus can be attributed in large part to an exceptionally well-prepared press kit, which introduced those questions. The reporting echoes the way the film itself works: it skillfully uses television’s storytelling strategies to move the viewer directly into the dramas of people in jeopardy, while introducing substantial information about what’s at stake and why. It is the issues embedded in the film that rise to the top, gently moving the focus from entertainment to content, while still delivering a gripping story.

Broadcast and reception

The long lead time that allowed for ample promotion, combined with the 9:00 pm hard feed (instead of POV’s usual 10:00 pm time slot) and a strong press campaign, contributed to good ratings for the broadcast. It was carried by 254 stations, with 96.5% U.S. geographical coverage. The average rating in the top 50 markets during the week of the premiere was 1.3; in Portland, OR, Greensboro, NC, Louisville, and Las Vegas ratings reached 2 and over. (Each rating point is equivalent to 1.1 million households.) Press coverage was exceptional. Articles ranged from a feature in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times (the Times carried three different stories on Well-Founded Fear, remarkable for a documentary film) to local coverage that connected the film to issues close to home.

But, partly because the broadcast coincided with June PBS membership drives, in 22 of the top 40 markets the program was either moved or did not air at all. Miami station WPBT, for instance, programmed Well-Founded Fear on June 24 at midnight. Frank Davies, the Miami Herald Washington correspondent, had attended the press screening organized by the Carnegie Endowment. He wrote a paean to the film, which he said was “riveting drama with a special interest to South Florida, where asylum disputes about Cubans, Haitians and others make this film particularly relevant.” Following complaints from angry viewers about the scheduling, and a newspaper editorial that said, “If WPBT didn’t wait till midnight to air quality programming, it wouldn’t need to spend so much prime time fund raising,” the program was rebroadcast, with apologies from the station, at 10:00 pm on a Friday night. It preempted Antiques Roadshow and Evening at The Pops.

Davies praised the film, saying, “The mysterious process in which a refugee is granted or denied asylum…is never seen–until now.” The single most frequent comment about the film was that it made a hidden process visible, and opened it up for discussion. Many viewers and journalists commented on how “putting a human face” on immigration stimulated people to think beyond media stereotypes. Others said that having some context helped them understand the realities more clearly. One human rights advocate said, “Just having the subject shown on national television was a huge boost for us.”


In January 2000, Cara Mertes became Executive Producer of POV. Picking up on plans begun by Lisa Heller, she applied for PBS Online funds to create a special Well-Founded Fear website linked to the POV Interactive site. POV Interactive is a portal to information about TRI and POV, and to its High-Impact Television (HITV) activities. One special feature is “Talking Back: Video Letters to POV,” that invites viewers to weigh in with their opinions. Some stations open their doors to viewers who want to videotape their responses, which may later appear in a nationally broadcast “Talking Back” segment on POV. (POV Interactive is expected to receive over 10 million hits during the year 2000.)

After delays and disappointingly modest funding from PBS Online, Camerini and Robertson produced a handsome and innovative site. It features a “serial”, in which asylum cases appear, and are described from the point of view of various players. It is designed as a game, in which the viewer-player can play an asylum officer, with information about immigration laws, INS procedures, and other things that might influence the final decision. There are also local and global maps that link to legal services, refugee/immigration organizations, and ways to become involved. It offers opportunities to post opinions or to talk with the filmmakers. (As of October 27, 2000 Well-Founded Fear drew 463 “Talking Back” responses, and 45 video letters.) This is an effective and and intelligently designed website, but in the opinion of some people close to the project, delayed and sparse funding from PBS Online ($30,000), has prevented it from achieving its full potential.

Outreach: POV and TRI

Public television, with its public interest mission, its relationship to independently-produced, sometimes diverse programming, and the unique infrastructure of local stations, seems an ideal platform from which to convene and engage the community around hard-to-discuss issues… Ellen Schneider, Executive Director, TRI

POV and TRI devise self-replicating programs that can maximize the impact of broadcast and continue after broadcast. In the case of Well-Founded Fear, their outreach was enhanced by the participation of strong and well-placed advocates. Through its HITV initiative, POV conducts “Tune-In” and “Tie-In” campaigns to stimulate active viewership. HITV publicized the broadcast of Well-Founded Fear through the publications and listservs of national and local non-profit organizations, encouraging viewers to log onto websites or call 800 numbers for more information and to express their opinions. HITV forms partnerships specific to each broadcast, but also has ongoing partners like the American Library Association (ALA), which tells local libraries how to create events around broadcast, and encourages people to use library computers for access to POV Interactive. The ALA prepared a facilitators’ guide along with a list of related books, websites, and videos.

There was outreach to schools: PBS TeacherSource alerted over 2,000 educators to the broadcast and lesson plans, which were prepared in collaboration with PBS Educational Services and the National Council of Social Studies Teachers, with the assistance of Amnesty International. (K-12 teachers could tape the broadcast and use it for up to one year.) The American Bar Association Program in Education sent 30-minute videotapes to 30 colleges and universities, where they were screened and discussed by 600 students. The faith-based community was also important. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops sent immigration fact sheets and the facilitators’s guide to 100 local groups.

POV event-driven activities are designed to work both for POV and its host organizations. Stations use them to build audience and connect with local communities. For example, in San Antonio, public station KLRN partnered with the public library and the local Documentary Film Project, for a sneak preview of the 30-minute tape and a panel discussion with INS officers from Dallas and two immigration defense attorneys. The event was videotaped for POV’s “Talking Back” segment, and videostreamed. In San Diego, the public library, in partnership with Amnesty International, hosted a panel moderated by a local immigration lawyer and professor. The San Diego public television station partnered with the San Diego Human Rights Festival for a similar panel, which was videotaped for “Talking Back.” These are examples of how television broadcast can foster social networks and create spaces for the discussion of public issues, and how multiple technologies–radio, television, web, and e-mail–can be used to amplify the effects and possibilities of broadcast.

TRI, which grew out of POV’s HITV project, is spearheaded by Ellen Schneider, Heller’s predecessor as executive producer of POV. It was launched in 1998 with Ford Foundation funding (later funding was provided by the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, and The James Irvine Foundation), to develop a national media strategy to enable local public television stations to “use provocative programming to engage communities around critical social issues.” According to Schneider, TRI’s job is to create an infrastructure that “opens media as a site for public exchange and information, and creates off-broadcast opportunities for screenings and conversations.” TRI is currently working with six public television stations: Austin, Boston, Minneapolis, Norfolk/Hampton Roads, Raleigh/Durham, and San Francisco. In its first seasons, TRI bundled a strand of programs dealing with issues of racial injustice, and established links with national partner organizations, public television stations and, through them, to community organizations. (1998-1999 films included Family Name; Africans in America; Beyond Black and White: Affirmative Action in America, a Fred Friendly seminar; and Facing the Truth with Bill Moyers.) In Well-Founded Fear, Schneider saw a challenging opportunity to introduce immigration as a natural extension of TRI’s focus on race.

The Bay Area, TRI’s home base, is a center of human rights and immigration activism. In light of Proposition 187, as well as conflicting priorities among activists, it was clear that Well-Founded Fear was moving into controversial territory. Camerini and Robertson and their network of advisors had given considerable attention to this potential problem. In Camerini’s words, “If you look at a field in a new way, it is important to be sensitive to the issues and place it carefully.” TRI set out to position the film by holding two “braintrust” meetings, bringing together funders, community leaders, advocates, academics and the filmmakers, to launch discussion to drive national broadcast. It was a contentious meeting, in which the film became a lightning rod for criticism. Braintrusters raised questions that inevitably came up in other contexts as well (questions, Antonio Maciel points out, that are not altogether unreasonable to anticipate from activists who sometimes feel beleaguered): Is the film, with its even-handed approach, too soft on the INS? Isn’t it damaging to suggest that some asylum applicants don’t tell the truth? Why show the relatively rational asylum process when extreme situations, like expedited removal, need to be addressed? (The simple answer to the last question is that Camerini and Robertson tried and failed to get access to detention centers.) In the opinion of the filmmakers, while the TRI team is very knowledgeable about public television and its own networks, they would have done well to tap into the knowledge and advice of the film’s advisors, to better frame open discussion, especially in the advocacy community. But, despite the bumpy start, many groups that were cranky at the outset have nonetheless ended up using the film.

TRI’s flagship station is KQED. For Well-Founded Fear, TRI staff worked with the station to create a context for the broadcast and to respond to some of the hot debate that had been aroused in the advocacy community. Forum, an FM-radio public affairs show, highlighted issues raised by the film; Bay Window, a TV program that “localizes” national programs, produced a half-hour segment, “No Turning Back,” to follow the national broadcast (attracting 14,400 viewers); and Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini appeared on the local show, Independent View. In other typical ventures, TRI project director Yvette Martinez set up sneak previews for KQED staff, advocacy and faith-based groups. TRI teamed with the World Affairs Council for a screening at the San Francisco Public Library attended by 50 people. A panel discussion at the San Francisco International Film Festival screening of Well-Founded Fear, organized with Amnesty International (AI) for three school groups, as well as the general public, drew 200 people. AI used the 30-minute version, the facilitators’ ‘s guide, and informational tool kits prepared by TRI in other programs it sponsored in the Bay Area. (The tool kit includes easy-to-use factual information, and suggests ways to get involved.) There was a ripple effect. According to the local AI coordinator, “Amnesty [national office] didn’t have time or money to promote the film as much as they would have liked. So we sent them copies of the guide and tool kit. They sent out toolkits to six regional offices and encouraged them to do screenings.”

In North Carolina, TRI partner station UNC-TV, arranged a mini-braintrust of local Hispanic leaders, to explore ways to use the film in their communities. There was a sneak preview for 100 people at the Davie Street Church Sunday School in Raleigh (an all-black church). The station arranged a panel discussion (attended by 80 people) after the film was shown at the Double Take Documentary Festival in Durham, which stimulated interest in pro bono legal work. In Minneapolis, KTCA/Twin Cities partnered with the main St. Paul newspaper, Pioneer Press, on a series of articles about immigrant issues. The station held sneak previews of Well-Founded Fear for the editorial board of the paper and the League of Women Voters; and there was a special screening for a group of 135 community figures including lawyers, INS staff, representatives of advocacy programs, funders and others serving immigrants and refugees.

Camerini and Robertson were impressed with the high level of local involvement and cross-community conversation they observed during their visit to Norfolk/Hampton Roads. They were featured on a live public radio broadcast, in which they were joined by an asylum expert. At the Old Dominion Film Festival, a panel discussion sponsored by the Mexican-American Club, Multicultural Alliance, and local chapter of the National Federation of Filipino American Association was attended by 50 people, who participated in a lively cross-cultural discussion. Austin was another high point. The Austin Film Society screening, co-sponsored with the Asian American Alliance and The Austin Chronicle, drew 275 participants, including immigration/asylum service providers, some of whom rose with personal testimonials. An interview with the filmmakers on public radio, articles in the Texas Observer and Austin Chronicle, and videostreaming by local station KLRU-TV contributed to high visibility in the community.

During this period, while Camerini and Robertson were visiting TRI and POV sites, they were also travelling with the film to INS offices, universities and colleges, and film festivals. The advocacy and professional networks through which they were circulating complemented and intersected with the network of public interest and educational organizations that TRI and POV were linking with. Both efforts were designed to use broadcast as a springboard for introducing immigration issues into public discourse and creating opportunities for face-to-face exchange between filmmakers, advocates, specialists, INS, and community groups.


Well-Founded Fear is a stunning example of documentary filmmaking, beautifully crafted and brilliantly structured to allow viewers to enter into a realm of human experiences and political facts as witnesses, citizens, family members, decision-makers. It is as art, not propaganda, that it finds its great power, entering the social imagination which is so heavily informed by television. It reached three principal groups: the INS, the advocacy community, and general audiences.

The INS. Camerini and Robertson screened the film at six INS offices. It was also seen by Commissioner Meissner. Officers had varying reactions to the film–some were pleased to see their difficult work represented so respectfully, a few felt disappointed that their stories had ended up on the cutting room floor. But it was generally agreed that the film had captured the culture of INS offices in a way it had never before been seen, and that it foregrounded the threat of “officer burnout” in this high-stress environment. The film is being used in staff training, and steps are being taken to counter burnout. In response to the translation problems that the film showed to be so damaging to some applicants, INS now offers translation services. Anecdotal reports abound about idiosyncratic changes: i.e., an immigration judge in Boston has made Well-Founded Fear required viewing for his entire court, from judges to clerks to secretaries; another immigration judge, after seeing the film, ordered that his hearings of rejected applicants be conducted on a true de novo basis (as required by the law), rather than accepting an asylum officer’s notes, as had become customary. Finally, the INS has asked Camerini and Robertson to produce training films. While the filmmakers are unwilling to accept payment from INS, at least one foundation has expressed interest in funding these films.

Legal and Advocacy Communities. Well-Founded Fear gave national visibility to immigration and asylum issues that are rarely seen on television, except in cases that are politically dramatic (Elian Gonzalez) or extreme (smuggled Chinese workers stranded at sea). It provided legitimacy and support to the work of advocates, like the San Francisco Amnesty worker who said the film would help her organization’s efforts, saying, “The refugee experience is so complicated and hard to convey to the public.” Broadcast and local events have produced pro bono volunteers among law students and lawyers, and the film is used in training asylum workers. Amnesty International, the American Bar Association, and refugee rights organizations are among those who have incorporated the film into their programs. Foundation officers like Marianne Gerschel have shown it to groups in Turkey, Israel, and Denmark, who find resonance in the political and ethical issues raised by the film. Antonio Maciel applauds the film for giving the subject visibility and providing materials for advocacy. In his opinion, however, the single most important contribution the film has made is in showing immigration advocates how to most effectively advance their cause, demonstrating how persuasive an even-handed approach can be.

General audiences. The PBS broadcast of Well-Founded Fear was seen in over a million households in the U.S., bringing serious asylum and refugee issues into public view. This was compelling television: by drawing viewers into intimate stories of personal crisis, it put a human face on abstract issues, and countered familiar media stereotypes with a range of lived experiences. Invited to become participants in these life-and-death dramas, viewers were offered many paths for connecting emotionally, or for tapping into more information, expressing opinions, or becoming involved. In a significant but less measurable way, the film introduced political asylum into public discourse, providing images and language that enable conversation and debate.

Impact was enhanced by a sophisticated pre-broadcast rollout strategy which was timed to engage movers and shakers first, followed by press, and then civic groups and advocacy organizations. In addition to television broadcast, the film reached general audiences through well-planned events at festivals, libraries, schools, and churches, often with the filmmakers and subject experts present. The synergistic convergence of radio, television, print press, websites, listservs, screenings, and word of mouth produced a vibrant public presence for the film, which is continuing. This is a clear example of how technologies can be used to enhance broadcast and promote on-the-ground activities.

In terms of potential long-term impact, this project has succeeded in opening new public spaces and pathways for civic dialogue; forging relationships between groups willing and able to use and sustain those spaces; and providing language, information, and opportunities for conversation around public issues. Thanks to strategic planning the film has been the subject of informed (often heated) discussion in libraries, schools, foundation offices, television stations, film festivals, living rooms, community meetings, and cyberspace. Links have been established between television stations and their communities, between advocacy organizations and civic groups, and among viewers. Taken together, these spaces and relationships suggest the outlines of that public space for civic life that is said to be disappearing in a market-driven society.

While the dissemination and impact of Well-Founded Fear is impressive, some impediments deserve mention. Despite generous support from major foundations (the final budget was just under $1,000,000), the project was considerably undercapitalized (it was frequently the filmmakers’ credit card debt that substituted for cash flow.) And there was pitifully small funding for outreach. Commenting on a lost opportunity, Frank Sharry says, “Putting wheels under the film before and after broadcast could be to immigration policy what The Burning Bed was to domestic violence.” Sharry used resources available to him: he and other advocates organized screenings, encouraged activists to use the film, and shared press contacts. But, he says, “It’s nothing compared with what we could and would have done with a little money.” With limited time, staff and money, Camerini and Robertson worked with TRI and POV to produce an extensive data base, effective educational packets, a website, and press materials. But it was impossible to realize the detailed plans they had prepared, which reflected the experience, networks, and organizational strength that had been mobilized. (One relatively inexpensive idea, for which they never found funding, was to place ads in, for instance, the Chinese-language press, on Latino radio, and on Rush Limbaugh’s show.)


Well-Founded Fear should not be considered as a “stand-alone” documentary, but rather as part of a carefully constructed package of plans and relationships designed around the linchpin of broadcast. The group of institutions, organizations, and individuals assembled by the filmmakers as they went about their work, came to constitute an effective, if improvised, infrastructure that sustained the production and circulation of the film, and catalyzed its many uses. This might be regarded as a serendipitous and transient grouping, but the foundations, associations, local television stations, community groups, POV, TRI, and others who came together have substantial resources and long-term goals. In this project they have formed a nascent alternative network for the production and circulation of public interest media, which has enormous possibilities in an otherwise heavily commercialized media landscape. [Note: Public broadcasting was key, but also problematic. Until Lisa Heller’s intervention, PBS was consistently negative, and there is no evidence that, without POV, it would have accepted or promoted the broadcast.]

This infrastructure supported the film, and the film contributed to strengthening the infrastructure. For instance, while POV offered the film crucial broadcast access, Lisa Heller was able to use it to establish a stronger presence for POV within PBS. Audiences drawn to this broadcast were introduced to the larger array of POV programming and outreach. It provided an opportunity for experimenting with ways to link electronic, print, and face-to-face relationships. Foundation funders and “insiders” have used the film to inform professional communities about immigration and refugee issues, and the film circulated in multiple venues, nationally and internationally, in ways that fulfill the confidence of funders and suggests how future films might benefit from this model. Through Camerini and Robertson’s extensive network of specialists, TRI and HITV have established relationships with new national and community partners and audiences, who see ways that television can be adapted locally. The press campaign provides a model for future documentaries, acknowledging the need to work with television’s entertainment genres, while nudging viewers to information and discussion. The viewer guides, facilitators’ guides, educational packets and tool kits provide content for library and school programs, supporting and enriching public institutions.

The nascent network of institutions and programs that formed the infrastructure for the production and circulation of Well-Founded Fear can be seen as a model for public interest media, one that positions media as a spring board for public discourse, community organizing, coalition-building, and the creation of spaces for vigorous public life. It gives PBS a genuine public mission, and contributes to building a constituency for public television.