by Jared Margulies, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield
On Monday June 10th, The Migration Research Group (MRG) hosted a special screening of the new documentary Border South with filmmaker Raúl O. Paz Pastrana. Border South had its world premiere days earlier at Sheffield Doc/Fest on June 8th, and the MRG special screening was a unique opportunity for extended conversation with Pastrana, the film’s director, producer, and cinematographer.
Border South tacks back and forth across the US/Mexico border, focusing on two characters—Gustavo, a young Nicaraguan man attempting to make his way through Mexico to the United States, and Jason, a professor of Anthropology now based at UCLA (and co-producer of Border South). Jason de Leon is Director of the Undocumented Migration Project, “a long-term study of clandestine border crossing that combines ethnographic, archaeological, and forensic approaches.” Jason and his research team are engaged in the difficult forensic work of documenting and attempting to discover those lives lost in efforts to cross the dangerous and harsh terrain of the desert on their way into the United States.
Pastrana explained to MRG that working with Anthropologists such as Jason throughout the creating of Border South was critical to the film’s formulation and attention to the nuance and complexity of what the border has become for those attempting to traverse it. What Border South does best is push viewers to understand the border as a geographic space far greater than its material demarcation between the United States and Mexico.
Employing a sensitive and creative sound design (Odín Acosta) that blurs the genres of documentary sound and subconscious analysis, Border South intimately details the arduous and anxiety-inducing journey of migration. As viewers, we ‘travel’ with Gustavo, whom we are first introduced to as he recovers at a migrant refugee center in Mexico after his near-fatal shooting by Mexican police. Gustavo was shot while travelling on the infamous La Bestia, or The Beast, a trainline that cuts across Mexico and is a favored transport route for migrants attempting to reach the United States from Central America. While always risky, we learn from Gustavo and his companions that the trains in recent years have become increasingly more securitized, dangerous, and violent. Gustavo is hoping to be offered refugee status in Mexico given this unlawful shooting by the police that nearly takes his life.
Meanwhile on the other side of the border, we meet Jason, who is working to help families locate missing relatives who attempted crossing into the United States. It is gruesome work, which we learn is more about attempting to help families find closure through the discovery of loved ones’ remains than holding out hope that they are in fact still alive. Through Jason we come to understand the power of the desert’s harsh ecology—most evocatively captured in a scene in which a dead pig, dressed as a human, is left in the desert in order to study the speed of the body’s decomposition rate. Observed through a camera trap, we watch as the body of the dressed pig disappears in a matter of days, its clothes ripped apart and flesh devoured by a group of vultures who quickly consume the pig, leaving little behind. What does remain will soon disintegrate from exposure to the extreme sun and blazing heat of the desert.
The magnitude of Jason and his team’s task feels impossibly daunting—how to track those who have been lost with practically no information through an environment that so successfully consumes those left behind? The psychological effects of doing this work day after day is sensitively captured in the film, which serves as an uncomfortable—though clearly intentional—contrast with the more immediate trauma of those trying to safely make passage through Mexico. In an especially affective sequence, we see Jason and his team meticulously collecting and recording the traces of migratory remains: abandoned jackets, backpacks, hats, and water bottles, a scene that later cuts to Jason at home, caring for his children. We are left with the sound of Jason alone in a room with his drum kit. In the explosion of ensuing drumming, it is hard to not feel overwhelmed by Jason’s task. Yet at the same time, we are left wondering about where Gustavo is in this moment.
But coming to understand the everyday intimacies the Border forges between Gustavo, his fellow migrating companions, and later, Gustavo’s girlfriend, is what makes Border South such essential watching for those wishing to better understand the violence and trauma of the border experience. Pastrana effectively captures the necessity of comradery to survive the journey. In one of the film’s most successful scenes, we watch a group of young men making a batch of instant coffee in the morning along the railroad tracks as they debate whether to try to walk or hop a train car. As they discuss, they build a small fire out of kindling and ask to take water from a woman’s well, which they boil in a plastic bottle whose bottom is browned and contorted from repeated exposure to flame. The film makes clear the act of attempting to cross the border is a communal struggle of many.
During our Q+A following the film, Pastrana summarized this perspective best by clarifying that one of the aims of his film was to demonstrate that “all of Mexico has become a border.” Border South does just that, detailing the extraordinary challenge of making one’s way across an increasingly hostile and securitized terrain. The border is an embodied, traumatic experience undertaken as an absolute last resort by those seeking the most basic desires of safety and security for themselves, their families, and loved ones increasingly distanced out of economic necessity. Through Gustavo’s eyes, the ‘border’ is a material and existential space of danger, threat, and uncertainty without clear beginning or end.
While the film’s focus is on the small and personal, Border South also ensures that the broader political economy that underpins the necessity of migration remains squarely on the horizon. In one of the most poignant (and poignantly brief) sequences of the film, we watch as Gustavo and his girlfriend gaze across the border wall between Mexico and the United States. Gazing at the other side, she asks Gustavo, “Is that where you get paid in Dollars?” He replies that it is, as the American flag flutters in the wind, fractured into ribbons by the walls’ metal slats.