Not to take away from the other films at SXSW 2019, but The River and the Wall, which opens in wider distribution on 3 May, is the most vital film to come out of the festival this year. Especially if you are an American citizen from a Red State far from the southern border, the film is a must-see for its beauty, its authenticity, and its thrill-ride entertainment, along with first-hand information about the Rio Grande River ecosystem and the flora and fauna there that are unlike any in the world. As the wall is going up in certain areas, already ecosystems are being destroyed.
With almost uncanny foresight, director Ben Masters and his team set out on a 1,200-mile journey along the border between Texas and Mexico from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico over two years ago, before Trump became president. They decided to chronicle the territory on film, and research the various flora and fauna that lived along the Rio Grande River, because there was not a lot of information available about the area’s varied ecosystems.
Masters, a wildlife photographer, came up with the idea based on his work photographing big cats and their water sources in Texas around the Rio Grande. He pulled together a team including a Rio Grande river guide (Austin Alvarado), a National Geographic explorer and wildlife photographer (Filipe DeAndrade), an ornithologist and conservationist of wildlife populations (Heather Mackey), and conservationist and Associate Director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation Jay Kleberg.
Together they braved the wilds, camping out for weeks, where few have gone before because the the area is often inaccessible by foot or land vehicle. They traveled every mile of the Texas-Mexico border on bikes, horses, and canoes and came across poetic landscapes of wonder, the dangers of rapids, and exotic species of animals, birds and plants that make the Rio Grande their water source.
Masters’ panoramic filming is mind-blowing. The segments are beautifully and seamlessly edited for clarity and simplicity. Indeed the subject is so immense that unless one travels to the area to see for himself/herself, words fall short of description. Masters has done the “heavy lifting” for us and with his team’s efforts and cinematography, we begin to understand what is at stake in this incredible area of Texas.
Masters’ stunning visuals capture the excitement of the journey and the stupendous gorgeousness of this little-traversed section of our nation which most of us have no knowledge of. Neither did the team until they actually went there and recorded their experiences.
Interlaced with their physical journey’s perils (e.g. messing up at the rapids), there are humorous pratfalls and light banter. For example, Masters is an expert on his Mustang horses, which are sure-footed on the difficult and rocky terrain. Yet he is a veritable bumbler on a mountain bike.
Thanks to Austin Alvarado’s, guidance most of them got through the rapids. Alvarado glides through with flying colors, though Filipe’s negotiation of the rocks is seriously haphazard. We identify with their love of adventure, bravery, enthusiasm, passion for wildlife and for the river as a source of life, and their hope to make a difference by bringing this information to the world. Each is featured for particular expertise on the journey. Their personal backstories make us understand why this adventure is crucial not only for them but for providing a fount of information to show us that the situation at the border is much more complex than has been characterized.
Altogether Masters lays out a world where we understand the impossibility of a concrete wall traversing stone cliffs and mountain canyons in Big Bend National Park. The film raises questions about the efficacy of a “big, beautiful wall from sea to shining sea.” What is the logic of having a wall built miles away from the Rio Grande blocking off the water source from ranchers who use the water to irrigate their crops? What is the logic of extensively dividing ranchers’ property using eminent domain which in effect create a “no man’s land” that no one has access to or can use, behind the wall before one reaches Mexico?
The irony is that Masters and the others had no idea when they began filming The River and the Wall (which was finalized right before its World Premiere at SXSW 2019), that “the issue would blow up into a government shutdown and one of the most controversial topics in the world,” according to Masters. A further irony is that this is research that no one has done before. And what we see in the film becomes non-partisan, human, and very, very real in its impact on the lives of American citizens on the border.
The greatness of this film, and the reason it should garner numerous awards, is that these experts provide eyewitness accounts. We are fortunate to see the film and become eyewitnesses, as well.
Furthermore, the team met with “dozens of people on both sides of the Rio Grande,” and we are privy to some of the interviews. With the chronicle of their journey, we have the opportunity to see what the borderlands look like. Indeed, we note if and how a wall will or will not work. Also, as a result of their monumental efforts, we further understand how such a concrete structure would “impact immigration, landowners (2,000 individuals are along the border and 1 million acres are in question), water access, wildlife and border culture.”
Watching video clips of interviews with border patrol agents, immigrants, ranchers, wildlife biologists, Republican and Democratic congressmen, Mexicans, and Americans, we learn things few city dwellers know anything about. Wisely, Masters leaves the rhetoric far behind by emphasizing the visual research; it is as if we go along on their journey and see and hear for ourselves what we need to know to decide whether such a wall is credible or ridiculous.
Masters and his team document with what appears to be assiduous precision. The result is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. Their cameras captured areas of land that by now have been bulldozed. Land was leveled and ranchers lost acreage to eminent domain. Thus, as Heather Mackey comments in the film, we have seen for the last time a landscape along parts of the border, a landscape that no longer exists. The birds and animals have lost their habitats. And the building continues.
If a majority of Americans who see the film are OK with this destruction of a unique ecosystem and ranching lands, then fine. But if they see the film and realize what is at stake, then they must speak out. Masters and the team have accomplished what no one else has done and it speaks volumes about what American citizens should do.
The River and the Wall is beyond magnificent. It screens widely on 3 May. Look for it. It is too good to miss.