Undocumented but no longer Unseen: An Interview with Filmmaker Set Hernandez

Undocumented but no longer Unseen: An Interview with Filmmaker Set Hernandez

Set Hernandez is the Director and Producer of Unseen

Why did you make this film?

Set Hernandez: In the beginning, it was all advocacy-oriented. I have been a community organizer in the immigrant rights movement since I was 18 years old. When I met Pedro, I came to realize that immigrants with disabilities were often disregarded in the advocacy work we did. I approached Pedro about filming his story, hoping to contribute towards a more inclusive immigrant rights movement.

As time went on (7 years to be exact), I realized that confining Pedro’s story only within the parameters of his disability and immigration status missed the opportunity to uplift his full humanity. Pedro might have struggles in life, but he’s more than just the sum of his hardships: He’s also funny, quirky, athletic, great at cooking, and everything in-between. Beyond that, I learned how similar Pedro and I were when it came to our emotional journeys, and eventually, I found myself resonating a lot with the things he would share with me during filming. While UNSEEN started off as an advocacy film, it ended up being a personal film about healing and vulnerability. Hopefully, audiences find that for themselves too when they watch our film.

Tell us about how audiences have been responding to your film. Whose perspectives does your film feature?

Set Hernandez: There have been so many films about undocumented immigrants and people with vision loss. But rarely (if ever) have these films been made to cater to the sensibilities of the people they represent onscreen. They tend to focus only on the traumas around deportation or the anatomy of disability, missing the fullness of our complex humanity. Often, they don't even have access features like audio descriptions or language translation. Since Day 1, UNSEEN was made with one specific audience member in mind: Pedro. By extension, I hoped to reach people who share his experiences who have rarely been regarded as primary audiences for cinema.

For our sold-out opening night in NYC, we made available various access features, including simultaneous Spanish interpretation for older immigrants, ASL interpretation, and audio description headsets. For our DC Premiere, we screened with Open Audio Descriptions transmitted through the auditorium’s main speakers, allowing us to attract blind audiences and introduce non-AD users to the craft of audio description. In a landmark year for indie film distribution, I’ve heard countless times that buyers are only looking for films about true crime, celebrities, and pop culture. Our film is a testament to the desire of audiences to experience films beyond these genres. The most meaningful audience reaction I have ever received for our film was: "I wanted to watch your film to learn about someone else's experience. Instead, I learned more about myself."

Why did you become a filmmaker?

Set Hernandez: A big reason why it took 7 years to make UNSEEN was because there were so many systemic restrictions I've had to overcome as an undocumented filmmaker. While so many grantmakers have funded films *about* undocumented immigrants, almost all of their grants required a filmmaker to be a US citizen to apply, barring people like myself. In many ways, UNSEEN is breaking barriers, being the first film to be led by a team of not only undocumented immigrants but also disabled filmmakers together. Dare I say that we are also the first film by an undocumented immigrant to be recognized for the industry awards we have received. We are claiming ownership over the ways our own community's story has been told historically.

Beyond the desire to make this art form more inclusive, I also feel a deep yearning to unleash the stories that have been planted in my heart. As a queer, undocumented immigrant originally from the Philippines, I rarely (if ever) have seen representation of my lived experience in film. Sure, I’ve seen films about queerness, and about immigration, and about being Filipino, but I have yet to watch a film that brings all of these realities together. All this to say, I’m choosing filmmaking as a path because I want to share with others my unique vantage point of the world. At the end of the day, filmmaking is an act of remembering. What that means for me can be summarized by this quote from Decolonizing Methodologies: "The remembering of a people relates not so much to the remembering of an idealized, golden past, but rather a painful past. And importantly, people's responses to that pain."

Bring the documentary UNSEEN and Set Hernandez to your campus.