If there was one dominant contentious geopolitical phenomenon that has dominated headlines in 2015, it is that of international borders. Donald Trump is obsessed with Mexicans in the USA; David Cameron et al are obsessed with Syrians in Europe; Colombians are fleeing Venezuela; North Korea is goading the South again; and Israel’s encroaching of Palestine is ongoing.
The news media is abundant with ‘experts’ explaining the ‘facts’ and social media is abundant with opinions and anecdotes that have gone viral, yet much rarer are conversations with people who actually live on the border and how this physical division affects them psychically. Documentarians Stephanie Barbey and Luc Peter have decided to focus on this underreported group, the citizens who live ‘on-the-edge’ between Mexico and Arizona.
The structure of Broken Land gives a whole host of characters time to explain their relationship with the border fences and the people trying to cross. First up is some Vietnam-vet militias and ex-Border Patrolmen who spend their days on “operations”, armed to the teeth and walking the fences with the FBI and NSA on emergency speed dial. The kind of people who see no irony in saying that they “don’t live in fear” followed immediately by “we seldom go outside without weapons”.
Then there are some cattle ranchers who acknowledge that the border has become a problem with smuggling and trafficking, but find the vigilantes as disruptive as the migrants. And finally the minority opinion from peaceful humanitarians who hate the surveillance from the government and the border patrol and sympathise with the plight of the travellers.
After the emotional testimony of the zealous citizens, the film concludes with the most harrowing evidence: morgue workers who have to collect and attempt to identify the victims of crossing the hostile desert. In terms of onscreen time for each character, the sympathetic voices are overshadowed with the irrational xenophobes at a scale of about 5:1 – which feels about right given the nature of the debate about borders online and in print journalism.
The obvious missing voice from the film is that of the migrants themselves – yet this omission highlights the paranoia and rage that an invisible problem can provoke. The Americans are left with only fingerprints, footprints and other debris of the people moving through the shadows.
Anyone who looks at the facts knows that American migrants arrive by plane, and mostly from Asia and not Mexico, but the vitriol from politicians and Fox News pundits still love to focus on the mythical frontier of the Southern border. Broken Land is an examination of the consequences of this dangerous rhetoric, and the fear that it stokes into peoples lives. It is a timely reminder that words speak louder than actions…
Broken Land is playing at Raindance this year – more info here