The River and the Wall | Docs/ology

The River and the Wall

Director: Ben Masters

Runtime: 97 min

In a conversation as politically charged as immigration and border security, it can be hard to block out the noise and think about who and what a border wall might actually affect. The rhetoric we’re exposed to makes it difficult to separate truth from propaganda. But we must ask ourselves are we missing the stories and voices of real people in this crossfire?

In The River and the Wall, which recently premiered at SXSW, five adventurers set out to find answers to these difficult questions from the source itself: the Rio Grande River and the wildlife and people who call it home. Ben Masters, the film’s director and past subject for the 2015 documentary Unbranded, is accompanied by ornithologist Heather Mackey, National Geographic explorer Filip DeAndrade, river guide Austin Alvarado, and conservationist Jay Kleberg. Together, the eclectic team goes on a 1,200 mile journey from El Paso, Texas to the Gulf of Mexico, exploring the landscape via bicycle, horse, and canoe.

During this two-and-a-half-month expedition, the crew is subjected to the terrifying and mystifying landscape around the Rio Grande. They are exposed to all climates and terrains, revealing the natural barrier already existing between certain parts of the U.S. and Mexico. The film provides stunning visuals, and exposes a part of the United States most of us don’t equate with magnificent topography — mostly due to the fact that few of us have ever visited.

While the scenery speaks for itself, the wildlife of course doesn’t have that luxury. Throughout the film, Masters, Mackey, and Kleberg make a case for the animals and the landscape that could potentially be destroyed in the wake of a wall. By pausing to note the biodiversity they encounter along the way, they highlight the possibility of an ecological threat. One tends to think of Texas as a desolate place, but by taking a closer glimpse we are exposed to the sheer volume of incredible flora and fauna that the deep South has to offer. Just by witnessing these creatures in their natural habitat, one finds it easy or at least easier to advocate for their justice and sacred livelihood.

This idea of conservation is complemented by the input of political figures such as Will Hurd and Beto O’Rourke, two Texas congressmen from opposing parties. This bipartisanship serves to prove that even groups of typically opposing viewpoints may come together on an issue that threatens to affect their state and our country as a whole. They debunk misconceptions about the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico and invite us to take a second look at what we think we know about these countries.

Politics and environmental concerns aside, it is the life of each individual person affected by our government’s policies and rhetoric that often goes overlooked. The overarching pathos of the film is derived by the very personal anecdotes of DeAndrade and Alvaredo. Both Americans from undocumented immigrant descents (DeAndrade is from Brazil, Alvarado is from Guatemala), they shed light on the difficulties of their distinct yet similar transitions into this country. Namely, the sacrifice that all parents can relate to when trying to raise their children in an environment that will afford them the best opportunity possible. 

Their stories along with the stories of those who live along the border serve as a compelling narrative to dissuade us from the appeal of a wall. Becky Jones, a farmer who lives with her family in Alamo, Texas, shares her opinion on the loss of acres her family would suffer if and when a border wall were constructed. She vocalizes how overlooked her family and surrounding families feel and regards the whole process as something “un-American.” She goes on to say “when they talk about Homeland Security, we’re a part of the homeland”.

The River and the Wall presents an acutely political issue and transforms it into something beautiful without coming off too preachy — in fact there are even moments of great comedy in the film as the subjects struggle with the various forms of transportation required, and suffer the brutalities of changing weather conditions. By bringing in elements from all sides, Masters provides us with a comprehensive point-of-view that is sure to leave its audience with something new to consider. 

The River and the Wall is playing in select theaters beginning May 2 and will release via iTunes and other digital outlets May 3.

— By Delia Rowland