Well-Founded Fear

2000, 119 minutes
Directors/Producers: Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini
Distributed by The Epidavros Project Inc.

Asylum Officer Gerald. Photo: Michael Camerini



This documentary, produced for the PBS POV television series, provides a rare glimpse of the U.S. asylum granting process through the perspective of the Immigration and Naturalization (INS) asylum officers responsible for reviewing asylum applications.

Well-Founded Fear - Huang Xiang, from China. Photo: Leo Hsu
The odds of a refugee receiving asylum are about 1 in 200 and, the viewer soon realizes, depend as much on the personal perspective of the officer assigned to the case as the circumstances involved in each application. According to INS guidelines, the applicant must possess an immediate and "well founded fear" of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. However, asylum granting is subject to individual biases and inclinations, as officers grapple with discerning the truth in each claim presented to them. One officer named Kevin admits that "the cases that are real, that aren't fabricated, often have more inconsistencies…sometimes a rehearsed story is tighter, that's the irony." And sometimes the officers make mistakes, as we see in the story of Ana Maria, a Romanian woman seeking asylum for religious persecution. Though she states the correct name of the leader of the Anglican Church, she is doubted and thus not granted asylum. She is later granted asylum in court, but for many others there is no recourse.

The translation process also affects the outcome because cases are often presented through interpreters. Officers must rely on what the interpreter tells them, which is sometimes just the bare bones of the applicant's story. The viewer, on the other hand, is often privy to information that the officer is not, because the filmmakers have translated and subtitled testimony not given in English. This feature of the film reveals how the translation process adds an additional, complex variable, making the pursuit of receiving asylum that much more precarious.

Well-Founded Fear - Post-Card.
Interviews with asylum seekers reveal the emphasis put on gaining entry into the United States and their disappointment with the process. Christian, a refugee from Romania, reflects "How can you express a life experience in a few minutes…it's really impossible to comprehend." Through individual stories of torture, persecution and struggle the viewer becomes acquainted with the diverse personal narratives that comprise the immigrant experience in the U.S.

Since the movie was made, Congress passed legislation to reduce the number of people who can apply for asylum and limit the right to appeal decisions made about asylum. Well Founded Fear is a riveting documentary on U.S immigration policy, and will appeal to a wide audience due to the multiplicity of ethnicities, religions and nationalities that are represented by those seeking asylum. Due to some descriptions of torture, it may not be suitable for younger audiences.


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