<i>Well-Founded Fear</i> is a stirring, evocative, and utterly unforgettable documentary about the American political asylum system: Who is deemed worthy and who decides. Marking the first and probably only time a film crew has ever been privy to these proceedings, the camera steals us behind the bulletproof windows of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), where bureaucrats ponder the sometimes life-or-death fate of immigrants seeking asylum.
A compassionate but shocking portrait of the way a nation of immigrants defines its human-rights obligations, the film records confidential conversations between asylum officers, lawyers, translators, and refugees. It is the task of the asylum officer to identify where there exists a “well-founded fear” that an applicant’s life may be placed in jeopardy by deportation. But with thousands of applicants, as many fraudulent as legitimate, the officers acknowledge that truth and justice are elusive and that subjectivity plays a decisive hand in their evaluations. Including horrific testimonials of torture and grievous accounts of loss, the film also implies that personality and prejudice, an officer’s level of experience (cynicism or naïveté), the applicant’s credibility, and even the translator’s interpretation of a testimony can also bear on the outcome.
In a film marked by exquisite production values and striking intelligence, the filmmakers have dedicated themselves to an evenhanded empathy and critique of officials and refugees alike. What they argue is that any process where life becomes a story, a man becomes a God, and justice becomes a lottery is an imperfect one.