Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 05, 2015 6:16 pm 
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Life along the border gone tragically wrong

The Ross brothers, Bill and Turner, have focused in their third documentary feature on something very important and terribly sad -- the decline of life along the U.S.-Mexican border. Eagle Pass, Texas is across from Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, and the two towns' friendly relations and peaceful existences go back many generations. No border necessary, apparently. And during the course of the tragic and elegiac film, we see this go gradually and undeniably wrong, the narco-trafficking violence of Mexico finally penetrating Piedras Negras, and a directive from Washington to temporarily cut off cattle trading across the border disrupting livelihoods, the whole shared way of life apparently disappearing, criminals and haters winning out over peaceful life and honest work.

The Ross brothers' film has a classic look and a natural, organic flow. It begins with patriotic celebrations between the two towns and social gatherings to move on to more intimate looks at its two key personalities, 3rd-term mayor and fluent Spanish-speaker Chad Foster of Eagle Pass, and cattle rancher Martín Wall, who knows some Spanish himself, though he's more fluent in F-words, especially when the USDA cuts off his lifeline over imagined danger to cattle inspectors that he and his cohorts consider just a product of DC politics. As is the multi-billion-dollar border fence that is under constant construction. Such things were never needed between Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass. Time and again the film, which focuses on community through individuals, shows dances, celebrations, even a bullfight, that illustrate how intermingled the two cultures are here.

Silver-haired, mustachioed, and elegant, Chad Foster has constant friendly interchange, always in Spanish, with Piedras Negras mayor Jose Manuel Maldonado and other Mexican colleagues. But in a key scene Foster reads in his office from a rabid Meican-haters website that has attacked him as a traitor. The wall, the shutdowns, and the strengthening of borders and deportations are the darlings of a rabid rightwing element that will do whatever it can to end the kind of peace that exists between these two cities, this film hints.

There is no doubt about the drug cartel violence in Mexico, with its bribing or threatening police and murdering and disfiguring citizens and marking their bodies with admonitory signs. Both Foster and Wall pooh-pooh worries about such things in their region. But then stories of violence in Piedras Negras come, and Foster himself has been caught in the crossfire in a Piedras Negras restaurant -- though he has survived. After a violent wave of rainstorms causing wide damage, Maldonado is then killed in a plane crash that some hint might be a narco killing. Again Wall scoffs, but the fear is there. And finally, Foster retires.

Just as it shows the barrel-chested, usually gruff and foul-mouthed Wall playing joyfully with his feisty little daughter Brylyn, the film also repeatedly returns to show the usually immaculate Mayor Foster in beat-up, torn cowboy hat driving his little pickup along the river border, looking out over open country in all directions. The implication is that the border is still safe, despite the rumors, news stories, USDA, and rightwing determination to ramp up security and cut off interchange. But there are many signs that the drug violence has infected everything, and is growing.

On the surface the Rosses' film seems a conventional documentary. But it has an intimacy and a passion to it that set it apart and make it matter. It's a fine piece of work about important issues.

Western, 93 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2015 in competition. It was reviewed at IFC Center, NYC 14 January by Scott Foundas in Variety; Foundas sets this film in the context of the Rosses' two other ones. Screened for this review March 2015 as part of New Directors/New Films (Lincoln Center, MoMA). US theatrical release begins 25 September 2015.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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