The crisis that Syrian refugees face has only intensified in the past week, since the attack in Paris sent American politicians scrambling to assert that people seeking asylum from extremists in their home would not be welcome over here. The fact that America has always been about taking in the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free has been dismissed in favor of discussion about who is and is not welcome, or who does or doesn’t pose a risk to the security of those of us who are already here. The discussion around all of this isn’t exactly new, but it certainly has changed dramatically in its tone and tenor in the wake of what happened in Paris. And it all makes the just-released short film “Ellis,” directed by street artist JR, written by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, and starring Robert De Niro so much more timely.
The film, which runs 13 minutes, was released via Facebook on Thursday. It’s constructed around a monologue delivered by De Niro, as he tells the story of the trip to Ellis Island–the gateway to the U.S. for immigrants from around the world for the years between 1892 and 1954. While the film isn’t necessarily an exercise in visual storytelling (De Niro’s monologue drives the narrative), the combination of words and images make for a compelling mix, with JR’s installations providing a potent backdrop. At the very least, offering such an in-the-zeitgeist reminder of the role of immigration in building America at a moment when immigration and people seeking the same sort of refuge that those who crossed into the country at Ellis Island did are very much part of the national mood makes “Ellis” a profound piece of art coming at just the right time.