I’ve spoken highly of all the films I’ve been fortunate enough to see over the course of the last five days at SXSW, and The River and the Wall was definitely among them. It has — repeat, has — to be seen on the big screen. It’s cinematic in the truest sense of the word, being filmed in 4K, but also the sheer scale of the landscape it portrays is vast beyond belief. With an Appalachian score reminiscent of Copland, it seems to be the American heartland in its purest form, and the stark contrast between the heartlessness of a border wall severing the link between people groups, even between man and nature, is clear for all to see.
The River and the Wall
Director: Ben Masters
Release Date: March 9, 2019 (SXSW World Premiere)
This is the story of the US/Mexican border wall told in a way that nobody has attempted before. Taking a holistic approach to the infrastructure — that includes ecology, anthropology, and history — five friends make a journey 1,200 miles south-east through Texas and across the divide. Using canoes, bikes and even traveling on horseback, they traverse the Rio Grande and undertake an epic, sometimes heartbreaking journey through the country.
There’s no doubt that the border wall is a red-hot topic. Even just this week at SXSW, Running with Beto has been a smash-hit and footage of the vocal anti-wall Congressman himself appeared in The River and the Wall. And some of the stats are heartbreaking. As one interviewee says, “folks don’t choose to be undocumented.” There’s also an ecological look at the situation, with experts in the field coming along. As they say, “it’s like the land is alive.” Indeed, the presence of the wall seems to go against the natural order of things and to physically and spiritually harm the earth. It makes me wonder — how can people be so irresponsible? How can greed, aggression, and violence lead to such a violation of the fundamentals of humanity and nature?
The editing is used to brilliant effect and the thing that most surprised me about this documentary was how funny it could be, despite the heavy subject matter. We could have a dramatic shot of the five amigos on horseback, riding through the distance, when the music will be cut without warning and we whip to one of the friends complaining about how uncomfortable the saddle is. Or director Ben Masters will be in front of the camera interviewing when one of the gang races behind him in his underwear, leaping with childish abandon into the river. “I’m sorry,” laughs Masters, breaking out into a massive grin. “I can’t concentrate with this going on behind me!” Or the piece de resistance of the whole film: “The weather’s awful… but we’re gonna make lemonade out of these weather-lemons!” A pause. Then, cue the entire team falling around in stitches.
The hallmark of a truly brilliant filmmaker is his ability to switch fluidly between tones, leading from heavy to light-hearted with minimal disruption. Masters often incorporates talking heads and individuals’ family histories and gives enough weight to the real reason why they’re making the journey. Divisive politics may be overshadowing the conflict at a macro level, but the documentary gets to the heart of the people’s stories beneath all this.
One interviewee tells the incredibly moving story of his family, who were unauthorized immigrants in the late 1980s, chasing the American dream and the promise of a better life. His mother was imprisoned with her eldest son, an infant at the time, and she even had to ask to work during her imprisonment for a few hours a week so that she could support her child. When they were eventually set free and the family reunited, they fell victim to a fake radio transmission aimed at immigrants and were almost forced to leave the country. By sheer good fortune, their application to remain was approved — although thousands more were not. “Growing up,” he says, “status was always in my mind.” But he thinks about it: “I’m no longer embarrassed of who I am and where I come from — I’m very proud of my parents.”
I thought Masters and his production team were very competent in putting across a balanced argument — including interviews with Will Hurd and Beto O’Rourke, archive news footage of the two of them traveling and discussing politics together. Though the topic of a border wall is perhaps the most divisive topic in US legislature in recent months, the team have shown their maturity in tackling the situation from both perspectives. Indeed, what their feature seems to unearth is the complexity of the issue: the wall is being used as a one-size-fits-all approach to geopolitics but the reality is that, with over 2,000 landowners being displaced or disrupted across the 1,200 mile divide, with scores of people still seeking refuge in the States and being denied access, it’s a far more complex issue, being exposed as a humanitarian crisis.
The journey is at times perilous. In choppy parts of the Rio Grande, some of the crew are thrown out of their canoes, leaping for safety and making it out of powerful undercurrents in the nick of time. We see footage as a camera is inevitably submerged deep underwater. Traveling at night against their better judgment, they come across figures hauling bags over the fence and across the border. Yet the danger is weaved in with elements of serenity: traveling on horseback, the crew forms an intimate bond with the creatures and it’s so reminiscent of a Western that it seems surreal.
If there’s one message to be taken from Masters’ feature, it’s that life is so much more rich, diverse, and complex than we could hope to understand. In order to really experience nature and life in other cultures, we have to physically take steps to get there, traveling in order to broaden our perceptions and fully open our eyes to what’s going on in the world rather than reducing people to statistics. I’m so pleased to hear that The River and the Wall was awarded the Lone Star Award at SXSW’s ceremony this year and received standing ovations at its screenings — a documentary among some of the highest caliber that I’ve seen.