Veteran director Lee Percy was attending a film industry dinner in 2009 when he struck up a conversation with a waiter. By the end of the evening, he recalls, the waiter said, “You’re going to make a movie about my life.”
He was right.
The waiter was Praq Rado, who is currently a Communications major at BMCC, and the movie is Dreaming American, which was released in 2011 and has since won high honors and critical acclaim at a number of major international film festivals. The compelling 24-minute feature was directed by Percy and stars Rado, an accomplished actor, as himself.
The SGA (Student Government Association) is sponsoring a free screening of the film at Tribeca Performing Arts Center, Theatre I at 7:00 pm on November 6. Rado and director Lee Percy will be on hand to discuss the movie and answer questions.
Rado’s story, beginning with his impoverished childhood in a small village in Albania, is one of grueling hardship, danger, survival and courage. And it provides a telling look into the dark realities of the immigrant experience in America today.
Growing up in the world’s most isolated society, Prado was told he would never be anything more than a shepherd. “At 16, I left Albania for Greece, where I held two and three jobs at a time in order to send money back to my parents,” he says.
Working, studying and surviving
“I couldn’t write or read and I didn’t speak English, but I was determined to get an education and make something of myself,” he says. Meanwhile, his immediate concern was survival. He juggled full-time day jobs and night classes, where he learned English, and earned his GED. He sent most of his earnings home to his parents.
Rado was determined to make life in his new country work. But the lack of legal documentation—he had no passport, visa, or Social Security card—put daunting barriers before him. More than once he was threatened by the prospect of deportation.
“I started attending Westchester Community College, and while I was there, one of my professors encouraged me to audition for a school production,” he recalls. But Rado couldn’t afford to stay in college and dropped out. “But by then I’d discovered my love of the theater and began taking acting classes at the HB Studio in Manhattan.” He also began writing a screenplay about his life.
And then he met Lee Percy.
“First my father, and later my mother, became ill and died, and it was excruciating to know that I couldn’t leave the U.S. to be with him,” he says. “I incorporated that experience in my script, and when I showed it to Lee, he was very moved by what I’d gone through—and by my refusal to give up or let my spirits sag.”
Joining forces with a celebrated director
Over the course of his 35-year film career, Percy has edited three films that won top acting Oscars—Hillary Swank for "Boys Don't Cry," Jeremy Irons for "Reversal of Fortune," and William Hurt for "Kiss of the Spiderwoman—and edited several movies for HBO Films, receiving an Emmy for “Taking Chance.”
“What caught my attention about Praq’s story was the incredible hardships he faced, the difficulty of his struggle, the indifference of the immigration bureaucracy, and how he survived by his wits,” says Percy. The opportunity to work with Rado has deepened his understanding of the immigrant’s plight in 21st-century America.
“We hope audiences will find the film entertaining,” he says. “But we also want them to make an emotional connection to the main character and the challenges he faces.”
Following the release of “Dreaming American,” Rado traveled around the country to discuss the movie and the issues it raises at film festivals and other venues. “I’d go wherever it played—theaters, colleges, film festivals,” he says. “I wanted to be there to discuss the film with other immigrants.”
His undocumented status ruled out flying, so he always traveled by rail. While on an Amtrak train en route to the Hamptons International Film Festival—and a screening of his film—he was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents and held in a federal detention center in upstate New York.
Reaching for the dream
“That memory will stay with me forever,” Rado says. “There are so many kids who actually grew up in the U.S.—it’s the only country they’ve every known, and yet they’re being deported every day, with no one to help them, no one to turn to.”
Eventually, Rado was released from his detention cell. The experience upset him, but it didn’t deter him. “I believe that if you have a dream you can definitely reach it, regardless of the obstacles that are thrown in your path,” he says. “You just have to believe in yourself and know you can do it.”
If being pulled from that train and thrown into a cell was a low point in Rado’s new life, his high point came when he received his Social Security number. The very next day, he registered as a full-time student at BMCC. He will graduate next May.
He and Percy are currently at work on a full-length feature film inspired by Rado’s story. They have also a website—dreamingamerican.com—where immigrants can upload their stories and help build a compendium of first-person narratives.
“My dream is to continue my education and earn a degree—and to reach out to people in situations similar to my mine and do everything I can to help,” Rado says. “The idea for Dreaming American began with my own struggles, but it’s not just my story. It’s the story of millions of people living in the United States today.”