Think about everything you’ve worked for in your life. How far you’ve come in your career, the memories that have made your house a home, your connections and friendships in both business and in your personal life. Now imagine packing it all up, saying goodbye to everyone you know and being forced to start your life from scratch.
This is exactly what we witness in Wes Culwell’s new documentary, (In)voluntary Departure. The film, which screened at the Human Rights Campaign Headquarters in Washington, D.C. in June 2013 is about two gay immigrants forced to leave their American dream and the United States itself as an effect of the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8.
Beginning before the Supreme Court had even agreed to hear the two monumental cases, the film highlights Alon Rosenfeld and Alessandro Tomassetti, two successful Los Angeles immigrants from Israel and Canada. Having been together for 13 years, the two accomplished a great deal since coming to the United States. Not only did they both have successful careers working for companies like Microsoft, Sony and Disney, they also started their own L.A. boutique, Filius that was met with remarkable fanfare and even a spread in the New York Times. Not to mention, their boutique was specifically tailored to create and keep jobs in the U.S.
They had created a truly beautiful life together through hard work and determination and at Rosenfeld’s 40th birthday party, in October 2008, Tamasetti popped the question. In a surprise twist, director of the film and personal friend, Wes Culwell got up and married the couple right on the spot.
“It was a truly magical and memorable night and one that we spent the next couple of weeks glowing over. Given the surprise nature of the wedding, I could not ask Alon to sign paperwork related to our marriage before the ceremony,” says Tomassetti. “I left for a business trip at the start of November and watched, from Canada, as Prop 8 passed and stole our chance to register our marriage with the city.”
Even though Rosenfeld’s job at Microsoft recognized same-sex marriage partners, the couple was now forbidden to legalize their marriage in the state of California and because the Defense of Marriage Act was still in tact, the U.S refused to recognize the marriage at the federal level. Rosenfeld had worked for Microsoft for seven years and was ultimately able to gain his citizenship. However, Tomassetti worked for multiple companies on smaller visas, which in the end caused his time to run out before the laws were able to change. With his looming visa expiration, the idea of having to leave the country became more and more real.
“When you are here and you’re on an annual visa. You have no negotiating power for your contract, for raises, for job security, says Culwell. “If you try to negotiate that contract they can just say, ‘Ok. Go back to Canada. Thank you so much.’”
“You really have to tow the line and deal with the salary you’re given, deal with the hours that you’re given and deal with the title that you’re given while most corporate Americans are climbing that ladder, you’re stuck on a treadmill,” adds Culwell. “They know they have the advantage so you do have to go from company to company in order to move up.”
It was this reason that the couple decided to open the boutique and take matters into their own hands.
“We really thought we could just work hard and create something that would allow us to stay here. Maybe that was naive but that was the thinking,” says Rosenfeld.
With the only choices being leaving voluntarily, deportation, a fake marriage which they were too honest for or being split up after 13 years, the couple made the heartbreaking decision to say goodbye and move across the Atlantic Ocean, but not before making almost 500 hours of home footage that would later go into the film.
“For so long people would say, ‘Oh, it will work out. America wants people like you’ and I said that and Alon said that and we started to believe it,” says Tomassetti. “But once we had to accept that we didn’t have a choice, we were surrounded by so much disbelief that it was even harder for us to move forward with the decision.”
The film uses home footage, recent interviews from the couple, and even friends and other immigrant stories to examine what it truly means to be forced to leave your life behind due to political policy. Cameras roll as the couple packs up their home, sells their belongings, says goodbye to their friends, and ultimately closes the door on a 13-year chapter of their lives.
“When I closed the door for the last time and turned on the alarm, I was crying like I haven’t cried in 20 years,” says Tomassetti.
During the live Q & A Skype session with the couple that took place directly after screening, we found out that another reason for those tears was due to them having to leave their family pet. Their cat, Fang, had sensed something was amiss and ran away before they got to say goodbye and give him to the wonderful home they spent so much effort finding for him. We were also updated during the session that Fang was later found, adopted and is happy in his new home.
After much research involving criteria such as where gay marriage was legal, where gay adoption was legal, and even where the sun was out most of the year, the couple decided they wanted a place where they could best recreate their lives as close to what they had in Los Angeles. Not wanting to return to their home countries due to feelings of failure and retreat, the couple decided on a beautiful new home in Barcelona, Spain.
“We came here not knowing a single person, not knowing the language and not having a job or a home. It’s really starting your life from scratch and not when you’re 18 or 21. Once you’re older it’s not that easy. I’m really proud of where we are,” says Rosenfeld.
Though they are adjusting to the lifestyle, learning the language, and finding new career opportunities, creating successful iPhone apps like Instagranny and taking advantage of the easy access to so many countries, they naturally still feel as though they have been exiled from the country they worked so hard to please.
Tagg was able to catch up with the couple after the SCOTUS rulings and hear what they had to say:
“We are absolutely stunned, in the most exciting way, by the SCOTUS decision. We had resigned ourselves to the idea that marriage and immigration equality in the U.S. would take a very long time to come around). That said we are unsure what our next step should be. We are overwhelmed by the friends and family who are calling and messaging to know when we are coming “home”. As we mentioned before, we moved to Spain with the intention of making a new start and are well on our way to building a network of friends and business contacts, immersing ourselves in the culture and learning how to be here. That said, the temptation to return immediately to the U.S. to plug back into the life that we left behind two and half years ago is very attractive. We’ve decided to take some time, the rest of the summer at least, to decide what to do; we want to make sure to choose what is right for the next stage in our lives and not just what is easiest.”
Rosenfeld and Tomassetti are just one of the many stories of hardworking and honest people that have been affected by the constant fight for gay rights. Though this is just one couple, the film looks to open the eyes of policy makers and U.S. citizens and help put a face to the decisions and laws that are being implemented around the world.