An award-winning Guatemalan film is about to make its US theatrical premiere – but thanks to aggressive US travel restrictions, its leading actor won’t be allowed to come.
“José,” directed by Chinese-born American filmmaker Li Cheng, won multiple awards internationally during 2018-2019 international festival circuit, including the prestigious Queer Lion award at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Made in a neorealist cinematic tradition, the film is described in press material as “a nuanced and vivid look at being gay in Central America.” It follows the title character, a closeted 19-year-old who lives an impoverished life with his street vendor mother in Guatemala City – a place dominated by conservative Catholic and Evangelical Christian religious values. When he meets an attractive migrant from the Caribbean coast, he finds himself falling in love for the first time; the blossoming relationship pushes him to rethink his closeted life, and before long he is contemplating a drastic change that will require a leap of faith he is still reluctant to take. The movie is set to open in New York City on January 31, with a rollout to theaters across the rest of the US starting in February.
The premiere should be a joyous occasion for the film’s star, a young newcomer named Enrique Salanic, but instead it has become a senseless bureaucratic nightmare, the latest demonstration on the world stage of the current US administration’s draconian stance on immigration and travel – particularly when it comes to people from Latin American countries.
According to a report in Screen Daily, Salanic – who was educated in the US and has travelled extensively with the film to many of its international screenings – has twice been denied a non-immigrant travel visa by the US embassy in Guatemala.
The first application was made in November by Paul Hudson,
head of the film’s US distributor, Los Angeles-based Outsider Pictures; the
embassy rejected it, arguing that Salanic could be a flight risk if he were to
enter the US.
Hudson then sought the aid of Congressman Ted Lieu, who wrote a personal letter on behalf of the young actor which was submitted with a second application. That request was also denied, with no apparent consideration of the congressman’s letter.
According to the publication, a copy of the embassy’s original rejection letter states that a requirement of a successful visa application is a residence in a foreign country which the applicant “has no intention of abandoning,” before going on to pronounce, “You have not demonstrated that you have the ties that will compel you to return to your home country after your travel to the United States.”
Salanic was educated in the US; he won a scholarship to study at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, which he did from August 2011-May 2015. He now lives with his parents in Guatemala, but does not have a residence of his own – meaning he does not meet the necessary criteria according to the letter of US policy.
Salanic has garnered much praise from critics for his performance in “José” – but with less than a week before the New York opening, and no indication from the US government that it is likely to make an exception to its hardline stance, it looks like he’ll be denied the opportunity to take a richly-deserved American victory lap with the movie that may well make him a star.
With or without Salanic, “José” will open at New York’s Quad Cinema on January 31, with a Los Angeles run to begin one week later, on February 7.