120 Days screens on April 25 at 1 p.m. at UNCSA Main and on April 26 at 1 p.m. at A/perture as part of RiverRun Film Festival in Winston-Salem. Director Ted Roach will be in attendance for both screenings.

by Jordan Green



As a dramatic device for creating suspense in a documentary, it would be hard to improve on this: A Raleigh man who illegally brought his family from Mexico and quietly established himself as a hardworking, upstanding member of the community is stopped by a police officer without apparent cause. As a result, he is forced to go before an immigration judge, and ordered to self-deport within 120 days.

The clock is ticking. Should he obey the law, or become a fugitive and disappear into the fabric of another city? Or will an executive order from President Obama or action by Congress lift the order? As viewers, we know there’s little chance of any outcome but the one stamped on the order, and yet we want to hope against hope for a second chance or a crack in the wall.

Miguel Cortes is a compelling protagonist. No vaquero machismo here: He’s a soft-spoken family man who dotes on his wife and two daughters while working at a nursing home. While mild-mannered, Cortes wears a sombrero and teaches music and dance through the Raleigh Parks & Recreation Department, winning an award from the city for his voluntarism.

Some of the narrative approaches employed by this documentary are a bit stilted. For example, director Ted Roach basically explains how he was approached by a friend of a friend and offered the opportunity to follow Cortes as his deadline for departure approaches. Cortes himself comes across as somewhat naïve, professing to be surprised that he could get in trouble for being in the United States without documents. And Roach’s expression of surprise about the existence of the 287(g) program, which allows local sheriff’s offices to partner with the federal government to carry out immigration enforcement, is a bit hard to believe; it’s been widely reported on since 2007.

Still, the narration becomes more natural as the film proceeds along with the heightened tension of the built-in drama. And it’s hard to think of another recent documentary that resolves to such a devastating conclusion.

120 Days, dir. Ted Roach, 79 min., 2014

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