When American Filmmakers Try to Cross the Border

When American Filmmakers Try to Cross the Border

The Hollywood remake of “Miss Bala” comes crashing into theaters Friday, bringing a slam-bang, action-movie aesthetic to the 2011 Mexican-American film about a teen girl who witnesses a gangland shooting in Tijuana and becomes an unwilling accomplice to very bad things. Like many high-profile borderland stories in American pop culture — the “Sicario” movies and the Netflix series “Narcos,” for example — the new film wrings thrills from the epidemic of narco-violence that claims lives on a daily basis.

Based on these movies and shows, which coincide with the current political debate over a wall between Mexico and the United States, Americans might think nothing but death unfolds on the border. Violence, after all, sells, much as sex does. It’s hard to find the vitality and color of life on the border amid all the onscreen gunfire and despair. It takes some digging to find alternatives to Hollywood’s view.

Ruiz sees “Sleep Dealer” as an example of how modern border movies can push beyond the routine.

“The older vision of the border was almost like a classic western with cowboys and Indians, but in a different framing,” he said. “Now we’re beginning to understand the border as a place of electronic surveillance and drones. Understanding it in that context is really important, and it also goes beyond the current rhetoric around the border, which is pretty unsophisticated.”

Some of the most resonant border movies, however, are westerns, particularly the cycle of Mexico westerns popular in the late ’60s and early ’70s. These ranged from the condescending (“The Professionals”) to the surreal (“El Topo”). The gold standard of the Mexico western remains “The Wild Bunch,” Sam Peckinpah’s blood opera that sends a band of rogues across the border as they flee from bounty hunters at the beginning of the 20th century. Once in Mexico they’re hired by a tyrannical, counterrevolutionary general at war with Pancho Villa’s troops. Mexico, a lawless land on the other side of America’s rapidly closing frontier, is the end of the line for the mercenary Bunch. As this film makes clear, movies were indulging in borderland bloodshed long before the reign of the narco-kings. Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” from 1958, also fits this mold, depicting the border as a land of dirty cops covering up murderous deeds.

Indeed, border movies have been around just about as long as cinema. “We have a long tradition of border films since the Mexican revolution early in the last century,” said Adriana Trujillo, the co-founder and former artistic director of the BorDocs Documentary Forum, which focuses on films depicting life on the border. That long tradition includes Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez, who played General Mapache in “The Wild Bunch.” In a career stretching back to the 1920s that covered both performing and directing, he acted in films on both sides of the border.

Regardless of tone, scope or format, one thing is certain: There are a million stories on the border still to be told. As in most cases, bloodshed is what sells, and it’s what usually gets converted into mass entertainment for Americans. If you look hard enough, however, you’ll find work that transcends sensationalism and locates essential ideas about life and death that apply to either side of any border.

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