Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Bordertown": sensational indie thriller about the politics of NAFTA


When I first saw “Bordertown” on Netflix, I thought it would be a smallish docudrama made on a shoestring, about immigration issues. It comes from a small Canadian distributor, Thinkfilm, and is directed by Gregory Nava (Capitol is the production company). The film could be compared to “Traffic” from Steven Soderbergh and USA Films (another larger indie company in the past) Roadside Attractions and “Trade” from Marco Kruezpainter and Roadside Attractions; maybe even Orson Welles and “Touch of Evil”. Another comparison is the Starz/CameraPlanet documentary short “Reporters Killed in the Line of Duty”, narrated by Anderson Cooper, on my “challenges to freedom films” blog March 3, 2009. This is a good place also to re-mention Paramount Vantage and "A Mighty Heart" as well as well as Adam Shepard's book "Scratch Beginnings" about a young man who enters the low-wage and homeless life to prove himself and write about it (books blog on March 18).

What I found was an exciting “international” thriller about social justice, shot mostly on location in Ciudad Juarez (also in New Mexico), with big super stars, and yet with a realism uncommon from more conventional Hollywood. Such is the best of independent film. Today we expect such work from companies like Summit, Overture, and Lionsgate. This movie is much more ambitious than the Canadian formulas we see on Lifetime, although it fits the theme of that channel and would be a logical film to show on it. As it develops, the film puts forward a basic moral problem about journalism today: the corporate world, for all its formal standards of objectivity in journalism, can become corrupt, leaving the amateurs to hold them accountable, or else professionals willing to sacrifice for the truth.

Lauren Adrian is an American journalist played by Jennifer Lopez, who takes an assignment to investigate the murders of women in Juarez. It’s to be expected that the film will fall into political territory: not only government corruption, but also the apparent effect of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) which led to the setup of maquildoras south of the border to perform the labor intensive steps of manufacture cheaply. (Wikipedia has a good picture of a typical maquila here). A woman, Eva (Maya Zapata) has crawled out of the grave and survived. Soon Lauren is trying to help her identify and testify the attackers, and she manipulates (perhaps doomed) Mexican reporter Alfonso Diaz (Antonio Banderas) into helping her with a disguise as a Mexican “prole” worker. (The assembly line training scene is interesting—“accelerate production”.) From there on, the plot gets complicated. George Morgan, her editor in the US (played by veteran Martin Sheen) indirectly calls her home (the paper (The Sentinel) doesn’t want to run her story because of the politics of NAFTA – and the “slave trade” accusations in her story), leaving Eva to fend for herself. When Lauren returns (out of her own sense of moral duty, giving up her conventional reporting job) she becomes the mark, for real this time. (There is the conversation about “corporate reporting” v. the “truth” and that investigative reporting is over. The “Sentinel” owns her; no wonder we have independent bloggers!) The movie starts becoming more conventional with its crisis points and cliffhangers. But the climactic fire scene is super with the abstract special effects. There will be some justice at the end as she takes another paper after the final tragedy.

There is a great conversation where Eva asks Lauren why Lauren doesn’t have any children, and Lauren explains what a career is like, a “different kind of job” that you don’t necessary want as badly as you thought in the end. Later Lauren has to deal with the cultural issues as to how Eva perceives things.

I remember getting a call from a polling company in early 1993 as to whether I supported NAFTA.

I believe that the last time I visited Juarez was in January 1979, over a weekend when I was moving from New York to Dallas to start a new job.

The DVD has a featurette "Exposing the Juarez Murders" where Gregory Nava explains the making of the movie and his desire to expose this horrible problem. They shot in Mexicali and Nogales as well as Juarez, because it would be too dangerous to shoot everything in Juarez if people knew about the exposure. The filmmakers did get death threats. Newspapers are not free to print the "truth" about how NAFTA encourages the Mexican government to look the other way on the abuse of female workers.

There is also a short documentary "La Frontera -- The Border" (17 min) about a worker's life in a maquila, in Spanish with subtitles. Poor Mexican women definitely don't get a choice between work and family. One of the women is from Oaxaca. The director is Barbara Martinez Jitner.

There is another short "Dual Injustice: Femininicde and Torture in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua".

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