The River and the Wall
2019, NR, 97 min. Directed by Ben Masters.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 3, 2019
At 1,759 miles, the Rio Grande is the fourth-largest river in the United States, beginning in Colorado and running down to South Texas where, as you may have heard, it forms the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The River and the Wall focuses on that hotly contested latter stretch, and while the film’s politics are unavoidably front and center, the overwhelming beauty and pristine awesomeness of Big Bend and the Rio Grande Valley on display here make this anti-border wall rallying cry less a polemic than a breathtaking and visually sumptuous travelogue. By film’s end, the obvious question isn’t “why build a wall,” but “How could you?”
Ben Masters, his film crew, and a diverse group of four experts embark on a journey that takes them the length of the 1,200-mile border and deep into the sometimes stark, often treacherous, but always extraordinary backcountry. With its intense focus on the natural beauty of the constantly changing environs and the myriad wildlife that inhabit what the majority of Americans tend to only think of as a desert, this is one documentary that should be required viewing for anyone and everyone on both sides of the “build the wall” conflict.
Along for the trek are Heather Mackey, a Cornell-trained ornithologist; river guide Austin Alvarado (the son of Guatemalan refugees who came to the U.S. illegally); conservationist and native Texan Jay Kleberg; and Filipe DeAndrade, the host of National Geographic Channel’s Untamed and the son of a Brazilian refugee who fled Rio de Janeiro’s bloody favelas in search of a better life for her offspring. The group starts off on mountain bikes only to find themselves bogged down when an unanticipated snowfall turns the dirt trails into gluey, impassable mud pits. Hoofing it on foot for a while, they eventually move onto horses – Masters’ own prized mustangs, the rescue of which was documented in his previous film, Unbranded – and from there into drastically overstuffed canoes as they enter the frothing Rio proper. Passing by some of the 654 miles of pre-existing border fencing erected since the Clinton era, they stop to talk with ranchers and landowners whose property, farms, and lifeblood stand to be destroyed should President Trump decree eminent domain. To a one, they agree that the construction of the proposed concrete-and-steel barrier would not only be a tremendous drain on the local economy but also a ghastly eyesore. As one fourth-generation rancher points out, building a giant wall in a straight line would effectively cede hundreds of thousands of acres to Mexico, creating a literal no-man’s-land between everything south of the wall and the Rio Grande, which twists, turns, and snakes throughout its length like the worlds largest strand of overcooked spaghetti. At one point, DeAndrade hops off his bike and scales a portion of the existing barrier in 20-odd seconds, proving beyond a reasonable doubt the inefficacy of the whole “build the wall” illogic.
By the end of this epic and thoughtful expedition, you’re left with the unmistakable feeling that some things – in this case, the natural splendor of the Rio Grande ecosystem – should and indeed must remain unsullied by cheap Washington grandstanding and election year promises. Even Texas’ Republican Rep. Will Hurd, whose district includes 800 miles of the border, concurs that the whole wall idea has been poorly thought out and instead suggests increased electronic surveillance and more boots on the ground. Amen to that. Let the wilderness stay wild.
For an interview with director Ben Masters and producer Hillary Pierce, read "A Wilderness Without Divisions," May 3.