Howard County Times
Howard County

Immigration in spotlight at college's Diversity Film Festival

Marie Westhaver, a professor of arts and humanities and director of the HCC Diversity Film Festival series, at Howard Community College's Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center.

Dedicating a weeklong film series to diversity isn’t a new concept for Howard Community College, where a diversity film festival has been a staple for more than 20 years.

But this year’s five-film lineup, which is free and open to the public, will focus on the immigrant experience at a time when U.S. immigration policy dominates the national discourse.


“There is a theme for each festival and this year it is ‘revolution,’ ” said Marie Westhaver, professor of film studies and director of the film series at the college, where 29,000 credit and noncredit students hail from 104 countries.

Illegal immigration will be highlighted in the first and last films to be offered, Westhaver said.


“A Better Life” is a 2011 film about a father protecting his son from gangs and immigration agents in east Los Angeles that is scheduled to open the festival on Feb. 26.

“El Norte,” a 1983 film about peasants escaping mindless labor and a murderous Guatemalan government, will be shown March 2.

“We wanted to end with a bang and so we saved the most powerful film for last,” Westhaver said of the movie, which depicts a harrowing journey to Mexico and on to the United States.

The three other films in the festival involve “outsiders trying to fit in and the culture clash” they experience, she said.

Westhaver, who lives in Thunder Hill, said she and fellow HCC professor Mike Giuliano, who reviews art and plays for The Baltimore Sun Media Group, selected the films.

“There’s a saying that the best thing for hate speech is more speech,” she said of the college’s intent in showing the films. “Hopefully, [filmgoers] will see something that makes them consider another point of view.”

The festival will kick off with an introduction to “A Better Life” and a presentation on the history of the nation’s immigration laws by George Clack, a Hickory Ridge resident who teaches literature and film classes at HCC and the Johns Hopkins University. A question-and-answer session will follow the showing.

“ ‘A Better Life’ is about an undocumented immigrant from Mexico that is told from his point of view and it’s hard to imagine a better film” to correlate with what’s being debated in America right now, Clack said.


Clack is also a member of Indivisible Howard County, the local chapter of a national grassroots organization formed in 2016. The local chapter’s website notes its advocacy for a “more compassionate democracy.”

Indivisible has opposed the administration of President Donald J. Trump and its policies, but Clack said his presentation at the festival will be informational, and nonpolitical. As a member of the local chapter’s immigration action team, he said he’s a frequent presenter to area organizations.

“The purpose of my talks is to get people talking about immigration issues since immigration is a very complex problem that our government needs to handle,” said Clack, who is a former head of the U.S. State Department’s Publications Office and who teaches a course in immigrant fiction, among other topics.

Clack said he expects to receive questions from the audience on the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was adopted in 2012. DACA protects certain minor children of illegal immigrants from deportation for renewable two-year periods, but is scheduled to expire March 5 unless Congress can come to terms on an agreement.

“People will ask about the fate of the ‘dreamers,’ as they’re called,” Clack said. “I’ll be interested to see if dreamers attend who are students at the college.”

Westhaver said she’s particularly looking forward to bringing the film “Mississippi Masala” to this year’s festival. She described it as a not particularly well-known 1991 film with Denzel Washington about an Indian family that is expelled from Uganda when Idi Amin comes into power.


“I’m teaching a film studies class that threads it together with ‘The Last King of Scotland,’ which is also about Idi Amin, and ‘7 Days in Entebbe,’ a new film coming out about a hijacked jet that lands in Uganda,” she said.

The professor said the college’s two annual film festivals, which are held in the spring and fall, attract “a sizable contingent of regulars” who often have seen most of the films being offered, but enjoy watching them again.

“Our sophisticated movie-buffs go to the Charles in Baltimore, the Landmark in Bethesda and the American Film Institute in Silver Spring,” Westhaver said about popular regional theaters that show independent films.

“Sometimes, we have to go to the back of the rack for our hardcore cinephiles” to find films they haven’t already viewed, she said.

Anita Criswell, a Columbia resident and self-described film buff, said she’s been attending the college’s film festival for five years and is also taking film classes at HCC.

“It’s important to be able to look at something that’s not really the norm,” said Criswell, who goes to the movies once a week “to see films on the big screen the way they were meant to be seen.”


“People have a lot of preconceived notions, and films like these can open up a different perspective on what some people have to go through,” she said.

Marilyn Dorfman, who was among the first to move into Columbia 50 years ago, is another “regular” who has attended the HCC festivals for 10 years.

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“You seldom get to see films like this on a big screen and for free,” she said. “It’s a gift from HCC to the community.”

Fern Eisner, who has also lived in Columbia since its founding, said she doesn’t understand why all seats aren’t filled during the diversity film festival, especially since Columbia was founded on the principle of racial equality.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about other cultures,” she said.

Westhaver said she advises everyone “to come through the film door” in order to better understand how to not “get hung up on the superficialities” that define the world’s races and cultures.


“Once you know this is someone’s actual story, it’s hard not to be taken in,” she said.

If you go

Howard Community College’s Diversity Film Festival will be held Feb. 26 to March 2 in Monteabaro Recital Hall on the campus, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. The first four films will be shown at noon and 7 p.m., and the final film will have a 7 p.m. showing only. George Clack’s presentation will begin at 11 a.m. Feb. 26 and a question-and-answer session will follow the noon showing. For information, go to