SXSW Film Review: The River and the Wall

Award-winning border documentary focuses on nature over politics

Before there was a wall along the Southern border, there was a river. This self-evident fact also serves as the primary argument in Ben Masters’ latest documentary, The River and the Wall, as he examines the history of the natural landscape and its role in both immigration and conservation.

The River and the Wall (which won the Louis Black "Lone Star" Award at this year's SXSW Film Awards) uses a similar conceit to Masters’ film Unbranded – in which an incredible physical journey serves as a mechanism to force conversations around pressing political and environmental issues. In Unbranded, he and three friends rode adopted Mustangs from Mexico to Canada. Here, it's a trek from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico.

As Masters and his assembled crew of conservationists journey by bike, hike, horse, and canoe, they survey the relationship wildlife has to the river, as well as the way politics has projected itself onto the natural landscape. Masters is ambitious in what he seeks to cover, and this occasionally results in the film feeling disjointed as we bounce thematically between questions of bird conservation to the issue of the illegal drug trade and back again. Each topic alone could stand to have its own documentary, and viewers may be left without a clear takeaway from the film outside of wall bad, river good. Others would argue that this is the only takeaway you need in today’s political climate.

Ultimately, The River and the Wall is an attempt to reclaim the legend of the border and bring it back to its natural roots. This is not easy, but with Masters at the helm, it is at the very least beautiful.

The River and the Wall

Friday, March 15, 11:15am, Paramount Theatre

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SXSW Film 2019, The River and the Wall, Ben Masters, Border Wall

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