THE SHORT OF LIFE OF JOSÉ ANTONIO GUTIÉRREZNR
Filmmaker Heidi Specogna mixes documentary with re-enactments to tell the story of José Antonio Gutiérrez, a Guatemalan orphan who grows up to cross the border into the United States, only to make a Faustian bargain: In return for citizenship, he must fight with the U.S. Marines. By age 23, Gutiérrez is shot and killed in a firefight, the U.S. government uses him as a propaganda tool (as the first American soldier to die in Iraq), and Specogna tries to make sense of it all.
In The Short Life of José Antonio Gutiérrez, Specogna traces Gutiérrez's life back to his childhood in Guatemala City in the early 1980s, during a bloody civil war that killed his parents and forced him into an orphanage. After moving from foster home to foster home, and never giving up searching for his long-lost sister, Gutiérrez begins dreaming of a better life in America. Just before he plans to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S., he finds his sister and becomes even more motivated to discover a new life.
But while Gutiérrez survives the journey, the main reason the U.S. authorities do not return him home is that he pretends to be a Mexican juvenile. He finds a new foster family in Los Angeles and even receives a green card, but the only way he can earn a living (and the prospect of full citizenship) is by signing up with the military.
With some ambivalence, Gutiérrez toils through basic training, then becomes a U.S. Marine, shipped out to Iraq during the first weeks of the war in March 2003. That same month, he gets separated from his unit during a fight with Iraqi soldiers and is shot. He dies a few hours later.
If nothing else, Specogna's documentary dispels any remaining myth about the "compassionate" side of that supposed compassionate conservative, George W. Bush. It is clear from her research (and her minutely focused attention to Gutiérrez's wasted life) that the Bush administration has never cared about the lives of illegal aliens, despite the fact its plan for amnesty seems much more liberal and benign than those plans proposed by other Republicans in the current debate. According to the film, approximately 32,000 non-U.S. citizens (aka "green-card soldiers") fill the ranks of the U.S. armed forces, thanks primarily to the tantalizing promise of citizenship at the end of their tenures. The release of The Short Life of José Antonio Gutiérrez is all the more timely because of recent revelations about the military lying and covering up the real incidents behind the rescue of Jessica Lynch and the death of Pat Tillman.
Specogna makes great use of interviews with those who knew Gutiérrez: his sister, friends from the streets of Guatemala and Los Angeles, social workers, foster family members, and his Marine comrades, who were the last to see him alive. She also films in all the locations where Gutiérrez lived and traveled and finds haunting photos of her subject a different ages.
The only drawback here is Specogna’s choice to include so many scenes of other young men immigrating to America. They are not re-enactments per se, but they are supposed to give the viewer an idea of what Gutiérrez experienced on his journey. Unfortunately, the scenes represent an unnecessary and redundant element, given the power and symbolism of the late protagonist’s single story. It is true The Short Life... would have been shorter without all this, but it also would have been an even greater film.
The Short Life of José Antonio Gutiérrez plays at New York's Anthology Film Archives through May 3.