New offerings from Netflix are coming at a faster rate than ever these days, as more and more filmmakers take advantage of the streaming option to get their pictures out to viewing public. Chief among the beneficiaries of this option seem to be documentarians whose investigative or exploratory endeavours, unable to get into theatres, find a willing home on the internet. I caught up with two of them recently, both on a similar topic, and offer a shorter-than-usual review of the first today, from Bill and Turner Ross.
On opposite sides of the US/Mexican border, straddling the Rio Grande, are the towns of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, who have co-existed peacefully for generations. But the effects of Mexico’s ongoing drug war and calls for tighter border controls in the American political arena are making things more and more difficult, especially for the likes of Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster.
At first, I can’t say that I was too mad about Western, which seemed to be an aimless beast, jumping from POV to POV without much effort at making a salient point, and taking a very long time to do anything (this one really feels every inch of its 93 minutes). But upon reflection, I find that Western might actually be due more praise than I initially was willing to give it.
One of the key reasons for that is its refreshingly personal look at border issues in a time of seemingly endless hyperbole: the ongoing primary season in the United States has largely pivoted around a candidate who described Mexicans as “rapists” in a criminally general sense, and talk of border walls indicates immigration in states like Texas will be a key issue in this election year. For an outside observer, it all makes the US/Mexican border seem like something akin to a powder keg. But Western showcases, intimately, a situation that is incredibly different, as the two towns live, work and play right beside each other without any hint of enmity, tension or recrimination.
They have the same problems as any other small town in an otherwise rural area: the price of cattle, finding decent schools for their kids, inheritance uncertainty. Away from the spouting of politicians and alarmist headlines, Western wants to show us the people in these areas go about their lives when confronted with those just across the border. The end product is painfully normal, and even uplifting: common festivals are held, politicians on one side meet easily with others, and everyone just seems to want to get along.
The twin problems of drug violence and border clampdowns take a while to really enter the narrative, and they creep on the people of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. The fighting in Mexico is a seemingly distant problem, seen only in newspaper headlines, until it no longer is: Chad Foster, the ever calm but ever pressured Mayor, belies the seriousness of the situation as he gentry inquires of his Mexican equivalent as to how bad things are getting, before he himself comes face to face with the issue.
But since Western focuses primarily on the American side of the border – to a fault, with the citizens and politicians of Piedras Negras painfully under-represented in terms of screen time – it is the border clampdown that gets more attention. Western really outlines the complex knock-on effects that such things can have, as local ranchers suddenly find their business cut off during a border shutdown, and just have to sit around waiting for it to re-open, losing money every second. It contrasts sharply with the traditional view of the border-living American, exemplified in a foul mothed letter that Foster is unlucky enough to receive, from a Free Republic type foaming at the mouth at Foster’s genial approach to Mexico and Mexicans.
In line with this look at the personal are lingering looks at the surrounding area. As with the bigger theme of upsetting traditional views of the area, Western wants us to see Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras as bountiful lands that are more than just sand and scrub. The Rio Grande brings green-coloured life, and local fields and plain provide breath-taking views by day or night. The festivals, of that unique Tex-Mex variety, are symphonies of sound and colour in a confluence of cultures. The Ross’ cinematography has a nice flow to it, imbuing so many shots with an almost musical quality. The world of Eagle Pass, like the genre of films referenced in the title, might be slowly dying out in the face of oncoming consumerism and increasing racial tensions, but it isn’t going quietly into the night.
But the negatives are there with that too, as the film’s insistence on hitting the 90-minute mark, often the death knell of an otherwise good production in my eyes, means that things linger a bit too much with all of the environmental shots, and in the over-played sections that focus on cattle-sellers like Martin Wall, who contrasts his tough-as-nails occupation with indulgences towards his young daughter. There is something fascinating in Wall’s insistence that his daughter go to a largely Spanish-speaking school, and his hesitance in proclaiming that she will one day inherit his business – because he knows she probably won’t want it – but Western goes a bit too much into it, Wall’s daughter someone that the Ross brothers just couldn’t seem to take the camera off.
In the end, Western leaves things on an optimistic note, despite the relative darkness that pervades: the Piedras Negras mayor is killed in a mysterious plane crash during filming, and Foster died of cancer before the film’s release. But their work, endowed with all of the most positive traits of the human spirit, provides a sanguine and very welcome insight into a region that too many are willing to dismiss as a den of illegal immigrants and racist yokels. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).