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Doc Corner: 'The River and the Wall'

By Glenn Dunks

The effects of the current administration on the psyche and the soul of American life have been well-documented in cinema. Documentaries about how Donald Trump has torn at the fabric of the country are almost a dime a dozen. Many have been great, and there will be many more until the day filmed entertainments cease to exist. It is a part of our cinematic lives now.

Less common as a subject is the effect the current administration is having on the land itself. That's surprising considering Trump and his cabinet are doing everything within their power to not just continue environmental genocide but speed it up. The soil and the water and the earth that surrounds us are at the heart of the evocative new documentary The River and the Wall...

Oh sure, movies about climate change and ecological disasters are common (as an aside, I really recommend Cullen Hoback’s What Lies Upstream and Luc Jacquet’s Antarctica: Ice and Sky as underseen gems), but the specific atrocities of Trump and company are still taking something like 19th fiddle to every other scandal that plagues them.

The wall (of “build the wall” infamy) has been a pivotal part of the entire swirling disaster that has been the Trump presidency. Director Ben Masters uses it, too, but in a way that surprises and startles as much as it dazzles with beauty. Along with four friends, Masters chooses to travel the entire length of the Rio Grande river along the border between Texas and Mexico; 1200 miles from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico on bicycle, horse and kayak through rapids, chasms, stone beaches and rocky enclaves.

In this evocative work spanning half the length of America, Masters (a Texan native), Jay Kleberg (also a producer), Filipe Deandrade (an award-winning Brazilian photographer and television host), Heather Mackay (ornithologist and conservation researcher) and Austin Alvarado (local businessman and Rio Grande specialist) immerse themselves in a landscape that is rarely given such prolonged attention around political issues. All while offering something akin to an adventure movie, although the recurring appearances of Beto O'Rourke may test some viewers' patience. 

A work of radical agitprop this is not. What it is, however, is a delicately handled exploration of the dangers that “the wall” will have on the American eco-system from birds and fish to bears and deer and everything in between. Of course, stretches of wall already exist along the border from California across. Theoretically they have deterred some, but it remains a fools errand to believe so called ‘illegal’ immigrants won’t find other ways to enter the United States, an oft-repeated refrain. These wall segments that Masters and his crew travel past are obviously eyesores, often rust-toned or barren concrete, but a larger one spanning the entire width of the country is shown here quite clearly to be not only impractical, but also extremely damaging. Through graphics we see how it will cut a large swathe of land, both private property or federal land, off from public access. Essentially creating what they label a “no man’s land” between America and Mexico. An area that humans will cease to utilise, but which will also drastically effect the natural instinctual habits of animals like migration hubs and food sources.

The Rio Grande’s place in the natural American environment is essential, but a wall would cut if off from recreational use, too. In one of its most memorable moments, the team drift on by Mexican locals using the river on “their side” with a carefree attitude as they fish for catfish while the American side remains fenced off and removed from human interaction.

The film is in no small part aided by the sublime cinematography of a collection of unseen cameramen who capture the stunning imagery along the border and juxtapose it against imagery of the existing walls in ways that read appropriately as both text and subtext depending on your take in any given moment. Dramatic weight is added by two of the five trekkers being the children of immigrants.

If the wall ultimately never happens – and it’s suggested with unfortunate preordained frustration that even if it doesn’t it will never truly go away as a concept or an idea – then much of The River and the Wall will lose impact. And if the wall does eventuate, then it will only gain in potency as perhaps the last film to truly capture the grandness of the Rio Grande.

Release: Nation-wide preview screenings on May 2nd before a release in 13 states on May 3rd.

Oscar Chances: It's chances may rise or fall with the politics of the day.

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Reader Comments (3)

This sounds amazing. I'm not really a doc person but now I want to see it.

April 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm so looking forward to this. I caught the previous documentary that Ben Masters produced and starred in, Unbranded, in which he and some friends train and ride wild horses on a 3000-mile journey through the American west in order to make a point about responsible management of the wild horse population. Really good stuff, and not just because I have a thing for cowboys.

It looks like The River and the Wall will also be available on iTunes starting May 3.

May 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterER

ER, I am keen to see UNBRANDED too after this one (Unbranded is mentioned briefly - or, at least, the subject of it is).

May 4, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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