From the documentary’s beginning until its closing credits, the Central American migrants who journey across Mexico are filmed accomplishing everyday yet extraordinary tasks. Most specifically, they are filmed taking part in labor processes: cutting hair, making coffee, or soldering metal. At times, Border South seems a veritable how-to guide for migrants traveling across Mexico – a type of training video meant to successfully onboard neophytes.
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Now that the curtain has been drawn on the 2022 Oscars, we can collectively lament how this year’s annual awards ceremony – heralded as a bellwether one for Latinxs – generally proved disappointing. Although Disney’s Colombian-themed Encanto (2021) was certainly deserving of the award for Best Animated Film, it is difficult not to understand this Oscar season as a lost opportunity for a more profoundly political discussion surrounding the Latinx community. This is not to say that key issues – immigration reform, the militarization of the border, and labor inequities affecting BIPOC peoples in the United States – have not been dealt with cinematically in recent years. However, not all of the films to do so have been adequately recognized.
Foremost among these is Raúl Paz Pastrana’s documentary from 2019, Border South – a film that ingeniously and subtly references a significant line of cinematic history – and thereby successfully humanizes Latinx migrants in transit to the United States. The film develops along two narrative threads, each connected by the common theme of migration from Central America to the United States. Pastrana explicitly invokes the work’s foci via a tripartite structure: “The Survivor,” “The Anthropologist,” and finally, the entity that links both – “The Trail” itself.
Border South’s first narrative revolves around Gustavo, a young Nicaraguan man traversing Mexico via the infamous La Bestia – a freight train that many Central Americans climb atop in order to reach the U.S. border from southern Mexico. During his way north, Gustavo is shot by the Mexican police, and lawyers and local politicians successfully advocate for the injured migrant being granted a humanitarian visa. While awaiting court proceeding and legal arrangements, he meets a girlfriend, Rosi, and the two travel to the northernmost borderlands in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. While viewers wonder as to the couple’s next steps, Gustavo ambiguously explains that he “lost the visa,” and the two travel back to a Guatemalan border town closer to Rosi’s children from a previous relationship. With this, both the journey and film draw to a close.
The documentary’s second narrative deals with University of Michigan anthropology professor Jason De León. De León, author of the important study The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (2015), is mostly filmed trawling the Arizona desert for objects left behind by migrants during their journey north: these artifacts would become fodder for De León’s Undocumented Migration Project, which claims the historical and humanitarian significance of migrants’ objects via various public exhibitions and fora. In Border South, the anthropologist’s frustrations are put on full display as he searches for a 15-year-old from Ecuador, José, who has recently gone missing in the Sonoran Desert. Border South keenly and artistically registers how the whole of Mexico has become militarized – in many ways in accordance with U.S. foreign policy – so as to stymie the flow of Central American migrants. The title of the film itself reflects this claim: Mexico itself is a “border” – that is, a second area of the U.S.-Mexico frontier – a “border,” but “south.”
In his article on Border South published in The Guardian, Charlie Phillips correctly signals that “documentaries about migrants have become a thriving subgenre, thanks to an abundance of subjects crossing the globe.”1 Indeed, even a perfunctory Google search yields a formidable list of films: The New Americans (2004), Crossing Arizona (2006), A Bridge Apart (2007), Made in LA (2009), Which Way Home (2009), The Other Side of Immigration (2012), Who is Dayani Cristal? (2013), Inocente (2013), Documented (2014), Underwater Dreams (2014), Llévate mis amores (2015), Immigration Battle (2015), and No le digas a nadie (2015). There are inevitably many others. Not all of these films are equally compelling; a number of them have been deemed problematic in terms of how they represent the migrant body. In recent years, various scholars have compellingly argued that migration narratives – via both writing and film – while attempting to denounce the humanitarian crisis involving migrants, oftentimes participate in an epistemological violence against those same individuals: depictions of the immigration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border may stereotypically situate those attempting to cross into the United States as victims, inherently slated for death.2 As Adrián Pérez-Melgosa claims, “migration films whose primary aim may have been to denounce the abuses and injustices suffered by migrants end up participating in a long ranging form of slow cultural violence that reduces their agency until it renders migrants exclusively into victimized subject.”3 Catherine Russell, too, is leery of migrant narratives that cannot “break away from journalistic clichés.”4 Pastrana’s film is an explicit attempt to avoid similar characterization.
Thus, Ana María Enciso characterizes Border South as “a different documentary,”5 while Kamala Madireddi sees the film as “a new take” on the migrant subgenre.6 Elizabeth Rozmanith, in turn, celebrates the film for depicting “hidden stories.”7 Finally, Melissa Gauthier explains that what sets Pastrana’s film “apart from other immigrant rights documentaries is the filmmaker’s deep sensibility for the intimacies of people’s everyday lives.”8
In interviews, Pastrana has affirmed such interpretations of Border South, claiming that the film is a reaction to “migrant porn” – films that cast migrants in an overly lurid, gruesome light: the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears of migrants.9 Alternatively, Border South is replete with examples of migrant ingenuity and humor, as we witness travelers inventing impromptu autobiographies, finding respite in the direst of situations, and generally using their street smarts to make it another day. Arantxa Ortiz writes that even while “the film shows us that migrants are both criminalized and victimized on many fronts, it also introduces us to some of the counter-tactics they rely on.”10 From the documentary’s beginning until its closing credits, the Central American migrants who journey across Mexico are filmed accomplishing everyday yet extraordinary tasks. Most specifically, they are filmed taking part in labor processes: cutting hair, making coffee, or soldering metal. At times, Border South seems a veritable how-to guide for migrants traveling across Mexico – a type of training video meant to successfully onboard neophytes.
Films depicting just such laboring practices have been theorized as pertaining to a “process genre.” Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor (2020) argues that “[p]rocessual representation often resembles a how-to”; they have “a beginning and an end and a series of successive, linearly ordered actions in between.”11 The genre “is deeply committed to skill and technique, on the one hand, and to labor as a source of value, on the other hand.”12 Aguilera Skvirsky explains that “representation is analytic: it divides, names, classifies, and reconstitutes. And in this way, it allows human beings to appropriate the world for themselves.”13 Applied to Border South, this compelling toolkit allows us to see Pastrana’s documentary alongside a long line of films, such as Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), Natalia Almada’s El Velador (2011), and Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). The film also underscores the vapidity of Hollywood’s “close-up” on the Latinx community during the 2022 Oscar season.
Consonant with Skvirsky’s theoretical frame, processes of labor pervade Pastrana’s film; a didactic tone is established from the start. With the opening shot, the camera is positioned close to the ground, directed squarely at our protagonist, Gustavo (Fig. 2). He is lying down across the train rails under the bright, midday sun. A voice off-screen asks him, “How do immigrants sleep on the tracks?” Gustavo smiles, straightens himself up, and prepares a demonstration: “They lie down.” He settles into the conversation, now fully embracing his new role as an instructor and given to a bit of gallows humor: “This re-enactment is going to cost you, Güero. I’m warning you. It’s going to cost you a few beers, because I’m thirsty.” He then put his head on the rail, as if the steel were as soft as a down feather pillow: “With your head you listen for the train. When it’s coming you hear the rails … a vibration.”
Yet other teachable moments, often having to do with labor, run throughout Border South. Thus, we see a close-up of a barber’s hands as she smooths Rosi’s hair through her fingers, snipping her client’s locks (Fig. 3). In another scene, Gustavo and Rosi chat with Gustavo’s mother via speakerphone; when the conversation turns to cooking, Rosi asks Gustavo’s mother how her son likes chicken prepared: “How to do it?” Gustavo’s mother explains: “Chop it up, add salt and fry it!” In another scene, a migrant on his way north scissors an aluminum beer can before bending the scraps into quaint, sellable sculptures: “I do this to survive and pretend that I’m not a migrant, and that I’m a street vendor instead” (Fig. 4). Migrants are seen as noble laborers, hardscrabble survivors, or self-fashioners making do in life.
When accomplishing their respective tasks, individuals even provide tips – best practices, if you will – detailing how to better accomplish their work. When night falls along the trail, we see three men gather on a shadowy street corner, where one of them has ingeniously assembled a tattoo gun using a cellphone cord, an ink cartridge, and a syringe (Fig. 5). “How are you going to clean the blood?” one of them asks. A bit later, the individual manning the gun halts his work and peers around in the darkness: “I don’t like children. I don’t like them to be around me, because then the police will say: ‘You’re teaching these kids to be criminals.’” This, too, serves as a word to the wise for those on the run. And the work never ends. In another scene, young men prepare coffee with well water poured into an empty 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, which is then heated over an open campfire. The step-by-step process lasts a whole two and a half minutes, complete with a rather show-and-tell close-up of the grains of instant coffee at the bottom of the plastic bottle (Figs. 6, 7, & 8). The film ends where Gustavo began his failed journey through Mexico – in a Guatemalan border town, where he takes a job working construction. Here, too, we learn from his labor – specifically, how best to protect ones’ eyes while welding: each time you touch a soldering kit to a metal rod, hold a gloved hand close to your eyes (Fig. 9).
Over and over again, Pastrana depicts the commonplace practices of everyday life that define the migrant journey. In this sense, and like those films studied by Aguilera Skvirsky, Border South affirms “labor as a source of value.” It proposes a “basic glorification of labor – whether factory or craft, alienated or unalienated – that we can attribute the diversity of political projects that turn to processual representation.”14 At a time when over half of the milk produced in the United States comes from farms that employ immigrant labor, when the Latinx community makes up roughly half of those working in drywall and one-third of those in the poultry processing industry, we should remember that films like Border South are infinitely more urgent than any talk of a “breakout” year for Latinxs at the Oscars.
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All images are screenshots from the film.
- Phillips, Charlie. “Border South review: slow train to US border purgatory,” The Guardian, 8 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jun/08/border-south-review-raul-pastrana-sheffield-doc-fest [↩]
- To name but a few: Emerson, R. G. Necropolitics: Living Death in Mexico. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave, 2019; Estevez, Ariadna. Necropower in North America: The Legal Spatialization of Disposability and Lucrative Death. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave, 2021; Rivera, Garza C., and Robin Myers. The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation, Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 2020; Valencia, Sayak. Gore Capitalism. Cambridge: Semiotexte/Smart Art, 2018; Zavala, Oswaldo. Los cárteles no existen: Narcotráfico y cultura en México. Barcelona: Malpaso, 2018. [↩]
- Pérez-Melgosa, Adrián. “Bottom of FormLow-Intensity Necropolitics: Slow Violence and Migrant Bodies in Latin American Films,” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies, no. 20, 2016, p. 219. [↩]
- Russell, Catherine. “Migrant Cinema: Scenes of Displacement,” Cinéaste, no. 43.1, 2017, p. 18. [↩]
- Enciso, Ana María. “Border South, A Different Documentary on Undocumented Migration,” BElatina, 22 Oct. 2020, https://belatina.com/south-border-documentary-raul-pastrana/ [↩]
- Madireddi, Kamala. “‘Border South’: A New Take on the Migrant Documentary Genre,” Student Life: The Independent Newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis, 29 Sept. 2020, https://www.studlife.com/cadenza/2020/09/29/border-south-a-new-take-on-the-migrant-documentary-genre/ [↩]
- Rozmanith, Elizabeth. “Raúl O. Paz-Pastrana Interview – the Hidden Stories of Migrants,” Picture This Post, 29 Aug. 2021, https://www.picturethispost.com/raul-o-paz-pastrana-the-hidden-stories-of-migrants-interview/ [↩]
- Gauthier, Melissa. “Border South/Frontera Sur,” Teaching and Learning Anthropology Journal, 3 (1), 2020, p. 70. https://escholarship.org/content/qt8tn3z5nd/qt8tn3z5nd_noSplash_9bd48723aabd0262ec4b0dc4d3a1be21.pdf [↩]
- “Border Criminologies Interviews Raúl Paz Pastrana on Border South.” Border Criminologies, uploaded by Border Criminologies, 12 June, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC6thzPJ6oQ. [↩]
- Ortiz, Arantxa. “Border South directed by Raúl Pastrana.” American Anthropologist, 123 (2), 2021, p. 430. [↩]
- Aguilera Skvirsky, Salomé. The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor. Durham: Duke UP, 2020, p. 17. [↩]
- Ibid., 114. [↩]
- Ibid., 236. [↩]
- Ibid., 141. [↩]