Documentarians Bill and Turner Ross begin Western by informing us that for generations, the border towns of Eagle Pass (on the Texas side) and Piedras Negras (on the Mexico side) have been joined in friendship, only separated by the Rio Grande. An important dimension of this alliance between two cattle towns is trade. Fifth-generation rancher Martín Wall–a Texan who pronounces his Spanish given name in the American fashion–is able to make an early-morning meeting on the Mexican side of the border and still get home in time to drive his young daughter to school. During an interview for Mexican television, Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster discusses the positive climate for American investment in Piedras Negras. Later, a Piedras Negras resident tells him, “I hope that one day the entire border is how it is here.”
“Welcome to Paradise,” Foster replies, “It don’t get no better than this.”
It’s not going to last. There’s a storm brewing–not one of the many thunderstorms that dominates Western’s B-roll, but a figurative one in the form of the encroaching Mexican drug cartels (fueled by the demand of American consumers) and the violence they bring. It seems inevitable that this violence will eventually reach Piedras Negras, a proposition which worries everyone. The U.S. government’s response is to build a $2.5 billion fence that stretches over 600 miles…including through Eagle Pass. The fence may keep the cartels out of Texas, but it also keeps American money out of Mexico. It makes it harder for ranchers like Wall to do business, and stymies Foster’s attempts to preserve the relationship between the two towns.
Foster is a genial subject–when he receives an email condemning him as a “rat traitor” for his commitment to “open borders,” he responds, “Happy New Year! Love, Chad”–the quintessential small-town politician, committed to both his own neighbors and the citizens of his city’s counterpart. The film follows him as he delivers bilingual speeches and attends bullfights and rodeos in Mexico. Wall is less idealistic, more practical, prone to bouts of swearing, devoted to his business, his family, his legacy. “This’ll all be yours one day,” he tells his daughter (“…or not. Whatever you want”).
Western is a vital examination of the unique benefits and challenges faced by residents of the border towns. Politics here are as multifaceted as they are in any other region, but it’s easy to reduce them to hot-button issues such as “drugs” or “undocumented immigration.” State and federal officials are more than happy to propose and enact quick “fixes” that pacify constituents and special-interest groups, but fail to consider the needs of the citizens, whose livelihoods depend upon access to the border.
To Chad Foster, the moral of the story is clear: “If they’d do within the Beltway what they force everyone else to do along the border, we’d be a much better country.”
Monday, April 27, 6:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Wednesday, April 29, 1:30 PM, Isabel Bader Theatre
Friday, May 1, 1:45 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Saturday May 2, 1:30 PM, Revue Cinema
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.