Border South review: slow train to US border purgatory

Raúl Pastrana’s compassionate film rides with a Nicaraguan migrant trying to cross into America, and a US researcher seeking traces of others who never made it

Documentaries about migrants have become a thriving subgenre, thanks to an abundance of subjects crossing the globe. Rarely are they presented with the kind intimacy of Raúl Pastrana’s film, which presents the trail from south Mexico to the US in vivid detail, filled with the weary but amused resignation of displaced people. Many migrant documentaries are about the final journey; this one is about waiting, unsure if there will ever be a final journey to a better life.

Our main character is Gustavo, a Nicaraguan who has been shot by Mexican police while attempting to get closer to the border. Migrants such as Gustavo play a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, whose presence as they ride the top of trains in full military fatigues and balaclavas is a frightening warning in the film. If the troops are deployed elsewhere, the migrants are the ones riding in dense formation on the roofs. This back and forth of trains is a backbone of the film, and Pastrana shows us as much of the dust and hot metal as possible in some spectacular frames.

This game has rules of engagement, one of which is that the police should not use excessive gunfire on migrants, or at least not be caught doing so – and Gustavo’s case has had significant attention in the media, which gives him a welcome leg-up on his fellow migrants. We return again and again to Gustavo’s waiting game, and also visit an array of other Central Americans, mostly Hondurans, hanging out in camps, in forests and by the tracks, waiting for an opportunity. With both the US and Mexican authorities cracking down, their chances are bleak, and the film is peppered with talk of those who’ve disappeared and died.

Watch a trailer for Border South

There’s a solidarity and pleasure in the migrant camps, even though these friendships may be temporary. Coffee is made in an ingenious way and shared, and delicious-looking Mexican food is whipped up on the cheap for a communal meal. There are some imaginative skills on show – fixing shoes on the fly, making sculptures, making the best of what’s lying around. There are some frighteningly young-looking migrants, who do at least appear to be looked after. We don’t often see migrants doing the best they can like this in stasis, at least not in this part of the world. There are some stunning set-piece scenes, such as the endless train that could liberate them crossing above their heads every day as they lounge on chairs in a communal yard, and plentiful use of eerie silhouettes of figures on freight trains in the dark.

Less successful is the other half of the film, featuring Jason, an American anthropologist tracking the remains of migrants in the borderlands. He’s a likable and determined figure, and there’s poignancy in his treks through the desert finding ephemera such as sun-faded backpacks as he seeks to document and name the many unidentified or lost people. However good his intentions, I found it difficult to care about his academic approach and his neatly folded bags of lost possessions, compared to the real struggles of people attempting to join him in the United States. Jason can pop over the border any time to do his research, while the equivalent journey is of monumental difficulty to those in the other half of the film. While this irony is clearly intentional, it sits oddly.

This quibble aside, Pastrana has made a caring documentary with humanity. We receive the message strongly that these are ordinary people expected to do extraordinary things to live like the rest of us. Gustavo’s destiny becomes perilous when he is no longer the centre of media attention, no longer regarded as exceptional; we don’t end the film with much more hope than when we started. This is skilful film-making, not to present the migrants as heroes, but just as people with mundane plans and dreams like the rest of us.

• Border South will be shown at Sheffield Doc/Fest on 8 and 10 June.

Contributor

Charlie Phillips

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
A Woman Captured review – brave and up-close story of modern slavery
This traumatic documentary about a Hungarian woman forced into domestic servitude is an outstanding example of how film-making can make a difference

Charlie Phillips

09, Jun, 2018 @8:48 AM

Article image
A Northern Soul review – view from the bus of Hull's rebirth
Class and chance collide in Sean McAllister’s brilliant Sheffield Doc/Fest opening film, as young performers are guided through their home’s transformational year as UK city of culture

Charlie Phillips

08, Jun, 2018 @10:44 AM

Article image
Trump’s border wall and the slow decay of American soil | Carlos Sanchez
The ‘big, beautiful wall’ has kept US citizens away from the no man’s land it created – and in effect ceded the territory to Mexico

Carlos Sanchez

05, Jan, 2022 @4:00 PM

Article image
Border crisis: US failure to respond to migration surge has created chaos
El Paso officials, aid workers and churches are scrambling to find shelter and legal counsel for a surge of Central American migrants

Amanda Holpuch in New York and Nina Lakhani in Mexico City

29, Mar, 2019 @3:16 PM

Article image
Mother review – tender portrait of a charismatic carer
Kristof Bilsen’s documentary focuses on Pomm, who looks after Europeans with Alzheimer’s in Thailand while facing problems of her own

Charlie Phillips

10, Jun, 2019 @11:56 AM

Article image
‘People with no names’: the drowned migrants buried in pauper’s graves
As deaths in Rio Grande increase, Piedras Negras has buried unidentifiable bodies removed from water by first responders

Patrick Timmons in Piedras Negras

29, Jun, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
'My neighbourhood is being destroyed to pacify his supporters': the race to complete Trump's wall
In his final months in office, Donald Trump has ramped up construction on his promised physical border between the US and Mexico – devastating wildlife habitats and increasing the migrant death toll

Samuel Gilbert

16, Jan, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Pink seesaws reach across the divide at US-Mexico border
Children seen playing on art installation that aims to show unity amid Trump-era hostility

Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent

30, Jul, 2019 @11:09 AM

Article image
Remain in Mexico policy needlessly exposed migrants to harm, report says
Human Rights Watch describes crimes including rape, kidnapping, extortion but Biden team warns change may not be immediate

Tom Phillips Latin America correspondent

06, Jan, 2021 @5:01 AM

Article image
'The US can't dump people in Mexico': Trump asylum policy in doubt
Head of immigration authority says Mexico has ‘asked for answers’ on ‘catch and return’ – but shutdown isn’t helping

Sarah Kinosian in Tijuana, Mexico

05, Jan, 2019 @12:01 PM