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Fall Arts Guide 2010: Ruth Leitman 

Best Bet: Movies

Oak Park documentarian Ruth Leitman has always trained her camera on women: Wildwood, NJ (1994) looked at teenage girls, Alma (1998) chronicled a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, and her best known project, Lipstick & Dynamite (2004), explored the postwar heyday of "lady wrestlers." Her forthcoming documentary Tony & Janina's American Wedding, screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center twice in October, is her first ever about a man, and it wasn't a film she ever foresaw making.

Leitman met the Wasilewski family of Schiller Park—Tony, Janina, and their young son, Brian—in June 2007, when the immigration-reform group Dreams Across America hired her to make a short piece about them. "I basically met them on the worst day of their lives, when they found out she was being deported," Leitman says. The resulting short, Losing Janina, has logged more than 10,000 views on YouTube, and it inspired her to pursue the Wasilewskis' story in a full-length documentary. "I felt I had the responsibility to see through what had just happened to them, to some logical, or illogical, conclusion." She began shooting, fund-raising as she went along, and enlisted her husband, Steve Dixon, as coproducer and composer. She also pulled in two Kartemquin Films vets, Gordon Quinn and Leslie Simmer, as story consultant and editor, respectively.

Both immigrants from Poland, Tony and Janina came to Chicago in 1989, married four years later, opened a small business, and eventually had a child. But their situation in the U.S. began to fall apart after Janina's immigration status changed. She'd entered the U.S. on a six-month visitor's visa, expecting her status as a Solidarity activist back home to win her political asylum. But by 1995, when her hearing came up, Poland was no longer communist. Janina agreed to leave the U.S. but never did—the Wasilewskis say they misunderstood the ruling. "There was no one there to translate the proceedings, and the judge never addressed her directly or explained the consequences of not going through [with] the voluntary departure," Tony explained in September 2007, when, at the invitation of Congressman Luis Gutierrez, he testified before a subcommittee hearing on the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act (STRIVE). "Not knowing what happened, or what would happen, we decided that Janina would stay with me."

For this violation Janina was deported and banned from returning to the U.S. for ten years; though the couple's son, Brian, is an American citizen, he accompanied his mother to Poland. In a May 2007 story on WBEZ, Carl Rusnok of Immigration and Customs Enforcement defended the deportation, citing Janina's "extraordinary access to legal due process." But Leitman decided not to interview him or any other immigration officials about her case. "They have the party line," she explains. "I wanted this to be a personal story . . . and I didn't want to get mired into everyone protecting their backs." Instead Leitman follows the Wasilewskis' current attorney, Royal Berg, as he tries to get Janina readmitted to the U.S., arguing that Tony, now an American citizen, has suffered extreme hardship during his wife and son's absence.

Tony also lobbied Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel, then his congressional representatives, though in the film Leitman suggests that their support waned as the 2008 elections approached. "I think I do give Obama a little bit of a hard time," she admits, "because he didn't deal with immigration reform until he really got pressed to the wall." But Tony found common cause with Gutierrez, who Leitman portrays as a tireless fighter for immigrant rights.

He found another champion in Leitman. Tony & Janina's American Wedding reveals that after Janina was deported, his business declined by 70 percent and he contemplated suicide. An onscreen title reports that he's spent more than $100,000 on legal fees, dual household expenses, and trips to Poland. The couple's Schiller Park home is in foreclosure. "If they were middle class, they're not now," says Leitman. "The deportation has, one day at a time, just chipped away at them. Forget all the other stuff for a second—the American dream, which is attached to an American financial dream, is gone. It's been replaced by debt."   

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