Saturday, November 2, 2013

Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border

Mexico  USA  (80 mi)  2013  d:  Rodrigo Reyes           Website            Trailer

Close your eyes. Try to imagine what the world was like many, many years ago, when borders did not exist. And then we arrived. We lost our very first language that connected us all. We tore it apart into a thousand pieces. And in the madness that followed, we discovered violence, hate, and finally, separation.          —opening narration

Let me be clear about one thing: America needs to secure our borders and reform our immigration laws, but immigration reform must—and I mean, must—be grounded in real border security.
John Boehner, 20 June 2013, from ABC News

I was so excited for her to call me her baby, she would always call me her baby. The whole time I was there I held her hand. We had chairs, one chair on her side one on mine and we talked about everything families do over the dinner table.
Carlos Padilla, on seeing his mother through a US-Mexican border fence, 12 June 2013, from NBC Latino

For a kid who grew up in Mexico City but moved to Merced, California at the age of 6, returning back to Mexico years later where a part of him was “solidly American and did not fit in back home,” he spent many of his years “trying to sort out my own identity in different ways.”  So for director Reyes, his idea of exploring the border region between the United States and Mexico was through anonymous and unidentified stories rather than some arbitrary talking points.  Finding cinematographer Justin Chin from Oakland, who purposefully spoke no Spanish, creating the effect of a stranger in a strange land, and José Inerzia as the sound man living in Tijuana, the three of them spent a month together driving around in the director’s old, beat-up van exploring the 750 mile border regions from Tijuana to Juarez, just at the tip of Texas, featuring the expanse of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, spending plenty of days running around in the scorching desert heat searching for stories to tell.  “I tended to skimp a lot on good hotels, but never on good food.  Because psychologically, a great meal goes a lot further than a nice room.”  Reyes was also committed to avoiding the use of handheld camera, as cinéma vérité creates an immediacy of the moment, almost crying out to be real, while he wanted to create a certain distance, a slower paced film offering momentary reflection, where “Sometimes you have to pull away to actually get closer.”  Living today in Merced, Reyes asserts “I think it just came from being in between both cultures.  I realized I had a connection to that space because my identity was connected to the border.  The point of the film is that there’s a deeper reality that goes beyond numbers.  I knew I didn’t want to pick good guys and bad guys.  I wasn’t interested in picking a story about victims or people fighting adversity.  I saw it almost as a stage for humanity, because, when you think of it, the border only exists because we imagined it.”

Creating an impressionistic mosaic of border images, we find migrants, young and old, standing next to the 20-foot fences talking about their dreams, “I come from a beautiful country.  They only show the landscapes, never the people,” expressing how the media all but ignores how people are forced to survive in dire poverty, or an American “border angel,” a minister invoking scripture as he leaves water and supplies scattered around the endlessly vast desert hoping they may save lives, spending time with border patrollers, and with mourners who have lost relatives.  A decrepit motel, the El Dorado, is a fading remnant of its glory days, with its abandoned swimming pool and pool chairs, but palm trees and welcoming billboard still intact, now a lost relic of a forgotten dream.  Mostly shot from the Mexican side, the sense of desolation couldn’t be more pronounced, as there are completely abandoned neighborhoods built for families, now empty and deserted, block by block, or junkyards, burned out houses and cars, ominous shots of the desert, including a boat left behind in the middle of the desert, protest rallies, a missile silo, a re-enactment of a 19th century wild west shootout, and always the camera returns to the endless expanse of the massive wall that divides the two countries, with desperate poverty and violence on one side, and protectionism and paranoia on the other.  A U.S. coroner is asked to identify the remains of hundreds of migrants that die in the attempted journey across the desert, opening a John Doe body bag and discovering nothing but human bones, or there is footage of a candlelight prayer service for drug war victims, but off to the side are giggling kids pointing out the makes and models of their favorite assault weapons.  A member of the Minutemen, a far extreme of an existing extreme, according to Reyes, as he was the only one that would talk to him, spends his time cleaning up all the random litter left behind from previous crossings, not because it’s a valuable service, but because he believes they leave behind secret markings and indicators that show others the way. 

Easily the most wrenching imagery is watching a team round up stray dogs, which is an abusively controlling process that is difficult to watch, made even harsher and more bleak when we see their ultimate destination, a pathetically squalid animal shelter that was built specifically to euthanize these unwanted animals, almost all of which are eventually killed, where Reyes gets the man in charge to explain what he does for a living, as in his eyes, he is performing a needed service, as you can’t have all these stray animals starving to death and spreading diseases.  He is but one of a cast of seemingly doomed characters living in this macabre human void, along with drug addicts (surprisingly speaking before a camera), or a dilapidated home for the mentally challenged, where Reyes recalls an undocumented man from Somalia who believed he was stuck in Kazakhstan and couldn’t get out.  It is in cases like these that the border takes on a metaphysical concept, as it largely exists only in his head, where he carries it around with him, like a cross to bear.  Without ever identifying the locations or the interview subjects, the film becomes more of an extended essay on the meaning of tragedy, an attempt to pay respect for those families that have suffered losses, where this massive wall, as was pointed out by Andrew Barker in Variety, “has no real anthropological or topographical reason to be there,” yet historically remains one of the bloodiest border regions anywhere in the world.  The overriding desperation and devastation on one side speaks volumes, often expressed in a quiet silence, or a look into the darkness, becoming a poetic meditation on death.  The question we have to ask ourselves is why?  For all the suffering resulting from the border, the history of lost lives, there is also a haunting stillness, a tranquil beauty in the endless expanse, where this film offers the viewer an opportunity to refamiliarize themselves with the subject from perhaps a different angle.  According to the director, “Mexico and the United States are a dysfunctional marriage, like most, only here there is no possibility of divorce.  But there is a difference between a dignified struggle and a petty, soul-crushing one.  In America, we have to ask ourselves: Do we believe in the spirit of freedom in our constitution or don’t we?  Are we a capitalist economy within a democracy or not?”

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