Review: No Data Plan (2018)

No Data Plan feels like a dream. No. It feels like a series of consecutive dreams. It immerses you in the journey depicted and each time a new voice speaks, it feels like you are recalling this from a friend or an acquaintance from the past and your subconscious is bringing their voice and their story up as you sleep on the train you're on, travelling from LA to New York, across America. Their stories conjure up images of places you used to know, of faraway lands, and of hopes and dreams which may or may not have been achieved. 

And constantly, you are moving.

No Data Plan, in its essence, is a story about migration. It is about travelling from one place to another and the social, mental, and emotional implications this can have on the traveler.

The most interesting part about No Data Plan is the narration. Mainstream movies often contain a disembodied voice which explains the backstory of the plot and speaks directly to the audience. No Data Plan has one of these.

Sort of.

Because the voice over in the movie is, well, voiceless. There is detachment and unrecognizability in the narration, yet there is intimacy and a sense of companionship. In No Data Plan, the voiceover, or the device which serves the same purpose, is presented just as subtitles. The lack of auditory stimulation within in the story can be seen to add or take away from the story. It seems to be shrouded in a sense of secrecy, that the revealing of the narrator’s voice might lead them into trouble, or be an invasion of privacy.
This adds to the story he is telling because it helps the audience understand what might be at stake. Simultaneously, it takes away from the story because it prohibits the reader to fully connect to the narrator. If we were able to hear the inflection, the emotion, and the pauses within the narrator’s speech, it would be easier to pick apart his character.

The voiceless narrator recounts his discovery of his mother’s affair and the aftermath. Throughout the narrator’s silent voice over, it is difficult to uncover what his true feelings towards their mother’s affair are. Early on, it is possible that the narrator is understanding and civil, but after awhile it becomes clear that this might not be entirely the case. Both the narrator’s father and mother have been having affairs and when the subtitles reveal that the man his mother had been sleeping with might even be younger than the man himself he wants to “punch him in the face.''

No Data Plan get’s its title from the narration. Early on, the narrator tells us that “Mama has two phones. We do not talk about immigration on her Obama phone. For that we use the other number with no data plan.” This quote shows the need for a dual identity. To hide away part of who we are and what we do because of who might be watching.

No Data Plan takes you on a journey. Director Miko Revereza often chooses to shoot from the back of the train he is travelling in, and lets you feel as if you are on the train yourself, immersing you in the sounds of motion and the train tracks and the silence within the dead of night. For minutes on end, Revereza lets you watch the lights disappear into the distance or watch the end of a tunnel grow smaller and smaller until it is barely visible. And then you exit and ride back into the light.
Honestly, it was incredibly therapeutic to watch. There’s something about letting yourself become submerged in the feeling of travelling that is fiercely soothing.

However, No Data Plan also serves another purpose. Throughout the movie, Revereza includes monologues from various unseen characters who speak about seemingly unrelated topics. One girl recounts her younger sibling’s plan to become famous, while another character describes a conversation they had with their mother about why their family left the Philippines. But there is one idea which each of the characters’ stories contain: hope. People are sharing close thoughts, dreams, and histories reminding of the outside world which is not contained within the confines of the train.

We hear from so many characters about so many different things, but all are reminiscent of that all too human feeling of retrospect. These are the some of the only voices we hear in the movie. They are a break from the soothing, but ultimately lonely ride that we are on. The multitude of voices tell stories of the American dream, overlayed with imagery of the changing landscape as we go from city to city. Some are happy, some are melancholy, some bittersweet. All are powerful.

Near the end, Revereza films himself as he suspects ICE agents are looking for him. He is as much a part of this story as the disembodied voices and the silent narration.
He takes shots of his phone and his Instagram stories, where he marks out in large print the cars he thinks the agents are using. One is a plain clothes agent while the other is uniformed. He speaks closely to the camera, as if telling he is telling you an intimate secret. His voice slightly panicked, his expression haunted.
It makes you wonder how he made this film, but also shows that technology and social media have such high influence on immigration. Revereza shares his fears which his Instagram followers, which helps to show them what the ICE vehicles might look like and the fact that they will come from all places.

But it is difficult to connect the stories to each other. They are beautiful and moving, but string together sparingly. It takes some effort to digest No Data Plan. Obviously, it is not very often that a movie asks you to read. To actively watch No Data Plan, you need to tap into senses which you are often not asked to tap into when watching a movie in a language you are familiar with. If you are willing to put in the effort, it is worth it.

But that is not to say that it is easy to get through.

Immigration has become a growing issue for our world. We see people being driven out of their homes, away from their loved ones and towards uncertainties at an increasing rate. We see countries locking up their borders from those refugees in fear that they will suck up resources and are unable to aid the country. We see people turn a blind eye to these issues, pretending that they do not exist because they are not a part of it.

Revereza chooses to shine a bright light on not just one, but many stories which take a snapshot of the lives of these people. He shows that they have worries and fears and, most importantly, a life and character beyond just being “an immigrant” or “a refugee”. He is documenting the undocumented and with it powerfully portraying the fragile state of migration within America.

No Data Plan is a polarizing movie. Where some will wonder what it is trying to say and lose interest, others will be able to take something away from it. An honest and brutal, if restricted, depiction of what it is like to be undocumented in America. Is there space in the grand narrative for them?

Review by Valerie Tan

The film has been screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival. It will be screening at the QCinema International Film Festival currently held in Quezon City, Philippines.

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