THE RIVER AND THE WALL Documentary Is a Travel Film With a Clear Political Leaning

May 10, 2019
2:59 PM

From The River and the Wall (Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Mainstream media coverage of the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t that deep: it gives airtime to Donald Trump’s gross generalizations about people crossing the border and then gives the mic to leaders in Washington to weigh in on the President’s comments. The suits in Washington then either claim outrage or completely downplay the hateful language. Cameras stop rolling and then everybody goes home. There’s no direct follow up with politicians—and don’t even think about any of them rolling out a policy advocating for immigration reform.

Needless to say, mainstream media could do better when reporting about “the wall” by starting to humanize immigrants, and that’s just a start. But they also need to realize that they need to amplify the voices of those living along the border, both on the U.S. and Mexico side. Perhaps they should also stop picturing the border as a war zone?

In the documentary The River and the Wall, director Ben Masters, known for tackling conservation issues, and four of his friends travel 1,200 miles along the U.S.-Mexico border on horses, mountain bikes and canoes. Capturing the tough terrain, stunning vistas, and magnificent biodiversity particular to the Rio Grande Valley, Masters observes the wall debate from a different angle: what will be lost, both literally and metaphorically, if the wall is built?

The film features interviews with two prominent local politicians: now Democratic Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke and Republican Congressman Will Hurd. Despite belonging to different parties, they both agree that the current rhetoric about the border isn’t a faithful representation of the location and its people. According to the documentary, since 2007, the unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S. has grown more through visa overstays than by unlawful border crossings. During his campaign for Senate last year, O’Rourke was vocal about his objection for a wall, and he’s no different here. Off the 2,000 miles of the border, 600 miles has fences, walls, and some type of physical barrier. But what’s even more outstanding is that the city of El Paso is ranked as one of the safest cities in America, which is at complete odds with what Trump wants people to believe.

Interviews with industry experts highlight that there’s only five main ways a person can enter the country legally. There’s family reunification (a mother trying to visit or permanently live with her son or daughter), employment (visa sponsorship through employer), refugee and asylee (a person fleeing war and violence in their home country), diversity lottery, and “other.” Cases are meticulously considered and often times rejected. Victoria De Francisco Soto of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin said, “When someone says ‘get in line,’ many times there aren’t lines.” Nobody considers the slow and difficult immigration process currently in place.

From The River and the Wall (Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Staying true to his essence, Masters decides to also shine a light on a factor rarely discussed in the wall discourse: preserving the life wildlife and the Big Bend National Park at the border. The film documents farmers’ and conservationists’ disbelief with politicians in Washington who talk without ever considering a visit to the borderland and see first-hand the potential damage a wall would do to the land, natural resources, and vibrant animal life. It will cause a horrific chain reaction and disrupt the ecosystem. Mammals cross the border everyday—they need to move freely to be able to survive. And to put matters worse, in most cases, animals on both sides of the border depend on the Rio Grande for water source. Depending where the line is drawn, a wall would cut that source and the outcome would be catastrophic.

Then comes the argument of how feasible the construction of a wall actually is. Some of the landscape on the border is too harsh that it would be impossible to build a wall. As the film stresses, unauthorized border crossings are measured by the amount of border apprehensions. Numbers don’t lie. There were 1,640,000 apprehensions in 2002 in the U.S. Southwest border compared to the 304,000 in 2017. As it stands, the numbers are decreasing dramatically, so is a wall really necessary?

The documentary makes it a point to inform that if a contiguous border wall is built, the federal government would seize land from over 2,000 land owners under eminent domain. If that’s the case, an estimated one million acres of Texas would be stranded between the river and the wall.

Interesting how that is not really covered, right?

Masters realizes that because the border wall is such a sensitive subject, there needed to be a more personal touch to the film, subjects with whom the audience could connect to. Two of his friends who accompanied him on the journey have immigrant experiences. Filipe DeAndrade, National Geographic Explorer and wildlife photographer, tells the story of his mother fleeing from domestic violence at home while he was a baby. She got a work visa to come to the U.S., but eventually it expired and she had to make a tough choice of whether to overstay her visa and keep her kids safe or go back to Brazil and risk living in a dysfunctional home. She opted for the former

But perhaps the most touching story is that of Austin Alvarado, the Rio Grande river guide.

Austin Alvarado (Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

He grew up as a child of undocumented immigrants, but status was always at the forefront for him. Austin definitely appreciated the values his parents instilled in him: working hard and not asking but earning everything you have. Yet, as he explains, anger boiled inside him. He wished his parents learn English or learn how his school system worked. He felt a disconnect from his parents.

The disconnect has its roots. Austin’s parents fled a civil war in Guatemala and crossed the border without any documentation. Their living condition reflects the lives of many newly immigrants; they lived with a significant number of family members in a very small home. Shortly after, they fell prey to a radio announcement claiming to help people get legal status. However, it was all a trap intended to gather undocumented immigrants and deport them. They filed for asylum and their case was accepted. The Rio Grande makes Austin reflect about the injustice some face just on trying to find new and better opportunities for themselves and their children.

That reflection is important because during their journey, the group encounters a group of people seemingly trying to cross the border at night. Conflicted by the outcome because they don’t know if the group could be dangerous drug smugglers, in a consensus, the group decides to report them to border patrol. The group appears a little shaken, but nobody is as taken aback as Austin. He talks about a phone conversation he had with his mom about the incident and how her response was “that could’ve been us many years ago.” Unlike the others, Austin’s story is the one that closely resembles the immigrant experience, and the conflicting emotions many first-generation adults face day-to-day.

From The River and the Wall (Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Of course, this documentary has some faulty choices. When the group reaches almost the end of their journey, Filipe decides to climb the border fence in front him, like a giddy boy. It’s almost like he was unaware of the symbolism behind it. As he mentioned earlier, he’s now an American citizen, so perhaps his vantage point has narrowed significantly? The privilege, am I right? It was a bad call for him to do that and for it to be included in the film.

We also have to address the big elephant in the room: the film is directed by Ben Masters, a white man. So how differently is he shaping the conversation against the existing rhetoric on the border wall? Despite Masters’ effort to present opinions from farmers on both sides of the border and industry experts, one can’t stop to think how this movie would have been differently had it been conceived by a person of color. Maybe Austin himself? After all, his “river guide title” would’ve brought it home.

So what will be lost if the wall is built? The identity of the borderland would be gone forever to give way for a symbol of divide and racism. But also, life. Plain and simple. Animal life. Plant life. And an immigrant’s ability to see the U.S. as a land where life is possible.

The River and the Wall is available for rental or purchase at the film’s site.


Luis Luna is Latino Rebels’ arts writer and associate producer of Latino Rebels Radio. He tweets from @luarmanyc.