I had heard that the monarch butterfly which migrates across the border by the millions was being threatened by Trump's border wall, and so was intrigued to catch this documentary at Mountainfilm 2019. The premise of the film is a fascinating concept. The filmmaker and a team of characters (literally and cinematically) will travel along the 1200 miles of the Colorado River that forms the border between Texas and Mexico from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. Canoes or kayaks, sure. I fully admit that I didn't expect before immersing myself in the film that this would involve bikes and horses. Bikes for the first stretch from El Paso because the river is fairly dried up, and horses through the amazing wildlands of Big Bend National Park.
Check out this beautiful imagery from The River and the Wall webpage and read more after the jump.
Each of the team featured in the film have particular strengths along the journey that that undertake together, and add a richness to the conversations around the impact the wall will have on these areas. The conservationist Jay Kleberg has expertise as a bike rider, which doesn't prove quite enough for the team to get through the slogging, muddy conditions heading from El Paso. There's much comic relief from Filipe Deandrade throughout, softened by some tender moments of his own story of immigration and a moment that moved me to tears when they show his backstory of winning a National Geographic award and thanking his mother who sacrificed everything for him and believed in him. A heart-felt story of the importance in the midst of "the wall", to remind me that I do cherish the stories of immigrants strengthening the fabric of this country like my great-grandparents did for me.
Then as the team gets to the wilderness of Big Bend National Park, the ruggedness of the terrain causes them to switch to horses. They ride horses that filmmaker Ben Masters had trained from mustangs for a previous documentary, but even horses seem to be not quite enough to overcome the steep, rocky cliffs and box canyons they run into. Here is where my favorite character, the ecologist and field biologist Heather McKay comes into the foreground. She has been doing bird surveys along the route and had done one of her first field studies in Big Bend National Park.
The terrain is breathtaking as the team moves through it, and there's a moment of (at least for me) record scratch. It comes around the time they go into a town on the Mexico side for the first real meal in a while. Then the concept is discussed of how there is more protected acres across the Mexican border for this area, and there has been some discussion over the years to create an international park. Having personally been to the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the northern border with Canada - where the U.S. has protected significantly more than the Canadian side, but who's competitive and counting anyways (right?!) - I was shocked to discover that basically all of the pieces have already been created and put next to each other for an international peace park in this area and essentially just need a new label. Learning through research after the film that this idea dates back to 1934, I think it's an idea who's time has come.
Having grown up in a border community and caring as much as I do about conservation, this is a no-brainer. It speaks to the reality and power of working together across borders. It's not too surprising to find out that President Obama and President Calderon signaled interest for joint protection for this area. It did surprise me that President Reagan did with his counterpart back in 1983.
Photo from naturalresourcespolicy.org site:
Watching this film brings forth an awe for nature in a pure and raw form. We see canyons cut away by the river where the idea of a wall is laughable because no human could cross it. And the fifth character, Austin Alvarado, who is an expert river guide becomes front and center as the team canoes through rapids (no joke, rapids) and some calm waters too. We are always reminded of the powerful forces of nature, and how far away the team is from any support systems such as re-supplies.
And as lofty and high as the idealism brings you when going through this awe-inspiring national park, I came crashing back down to the ground for the remaining section.
Here's where the border wall is more actively being built. And here's where the economic impact is being felt most acutely. I hinted at it before, but let's be direct at this point...what it means to build a border wall is shown in crystal clarity: 1 million acres will be in a "no man's land" between the wall and the river. It means our government will essentially use eminent domain to cede land to Mexico. This means that not only is land being taken away from farmers and ranchers along the border, but their access points to the river which is the source of water for their agriculture is being taken away too.
The film interviews landowners - just a small handful of the 3000 people being impacted by this Trump Administration move. The visuals they show you in this part of the film...places where the characters are standing three-quarters of a mile away from the river to demonstrate where the wall will go make it flatly absurd.
Given the folks on screen in this moment, the warped politics of the border wall becomes clear too. How did the Republican Party get so far away from itself that it's taking land from people who would be stable constituents? Isn't protection of property rights one of the central tenets of conservative ideology? Coming from a border community, I already knew this doesn't make much sense, and here we are in the film, immersed in conversation with people who vote for Trump and are severely impacted by this increasingly ludicrous idea.
My conservationist heart was broken to see exploration of a wildlife refuge right along the river that will be bulldozed and cut through to build the wall. Later, after the film, the producer discussed how they had made connections with that particular wildlife refuge and stayed in touch. I was shocked to find out that construction and surveyors are going through these areas, often without even notifying the landowners. This border wall is being built through a waiver of 28 laws that generally guide such a large construction project. They did it under the guise of a "threat" at the border, but I still to this day can't wrap my head around why we have processes we have decided are important elsewhere under eminent domain only sometimes applicable.
This section of the film continues to have powerful moments, one including a choice the characters have to make for fear of their safety going through an area with known drug trafficking at night. It's heart-wrenching to see the two characters with direct immigration stories - Filipe and Austin - process that moment.
Then as with all journeys, they get to the end and arrive at the Gulf of Mexico in between gorgeous sand beaches where people are clearly hanging out and having a good time. And it brings into sharp focus the fact that by creating this wall, and cutting ourselves off...to put it bluntly...from fun. We are choosing to cut ourselves off from this river that gives life and generates economic value and provides recreation for the people who live by it...and we will be the ones who will suffer. The only way I can think to characterize it is a small child having a tantrum in a public place and saying "I don't need you" to their parents...when clearly they need them to do just about everything especially getting home. Except in this case, that tantrum is a permanent building of a fixture - a border wall - that will change the landscape. The next Administration won't be easily able to remove it. This absurdity will go on staining these areas for years and decades.
I will be keeping this movie in the short stack to come back to, and grateful that I saw it. I now have added Big Bend National Park to the list of places I want to visit, and an international peace park down there to the list of things I will support for the rest of my life. So at least there's that?
More reflections on documentaries to come y'all. Stay tuned.