TV Eye

A little border music

<i>Al Otro Lado</i>
Al Otro Lado

Illegals, wetbacks, mojados ... whichever label is deployed, the meaning is the same: someone who doesn't belong.

In recent times, the people those labels have been affixed to have become charged with everything from dismantling the American way of life to stealing bread from children's mouths. For those who have been studying the distinct immigration experience of the U.S.-Mexico border, the renewed attention to the "immigrant problem" is both familiar and frustrating. The wave of humans crossing from Mexico to the U.S. is not new. The level of visibility is what has changed. Again.

In contrast to the criminalization of immigrants typically found in the mainstream media, several small independent films have sought to put a human face on the experience. One of these films appears on PBS as part of the documentary series POV. Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side) by Natalia Almada, which makes its national broadcast premiere after playing the festival circuit, takes an interesting approach. She begins in Sinaloa, Mexico. As the drug capital of Mexico, Sinaloa is also the birthplace of the narcocorrido and home of the legendary singer Chalino Sanchez and monstrously popular Los Tigres del Norte. After offering some cursory background on the corrido, the life of Sanchez, and the history of Los Tigres, Almada focuses on a 23-year-old singer and fourth-generation fisherman Magdiel. Like many young Sinaloans, he is finding it difficult to make a living. The most obvious (and profitable) choice for him is to become a drug runner, but he's a musician at heart. So, when a coyote offers to help him cross to the U.S. in exchange for writing a corrido about him, Magdiel accommodates. He dreams of being a successful musician like Sanchez, but as many who have studied the immigrant experience know, Magdiel must overcome a series of inhumane hardships that he, in his naivete, cannot fathom.

Al Otro Lado is an important contribution to the understanding of the immigrant experience. Unfortunately, the broadcast version, edited to fit the 56-minute window, feels disjointed. Not having seen the original version, it's hard to tell if the lapses come from editing to length, or if it's an accurate reflection of the original. While Magdiel is an interesting central character, Al Otro Lado is most powerful when it veers from his story. In an aside, peeking at the work of citizen border-watchers like Chris Simcox with Civil Homeland Defense on the Arizona border, we see firsthand the human experience of border-crossers. When Simcox finds four Mexicans hiding in the desert brush, the sense of despair among the Mexicans is palpable. When one of the men shows his calloused hands as evidence of the type of work he did in Mexico, it's clear this is a man who is not afraid of work. If "stealing jobs from Americans" means getting something for nothing, this small moment proves that the charge is misplaced. In the same segment, Simcox's earnestness also comes through. Encouraged by his president, he wants to do his part as a good citizen. It would probably disorient Simcox to realize that he and the Mexicans he has collared have more in common than he thinks. And it is in this moment that Al Otro Lado reaches to the heart of the matter. Unfortunately, the moment is fleeting as we are pulled back to Magdiel's story.

In comparison, local filmmaker Heather Courtney's two films covering similar ground (Los Trabajadores, Letters From the Other Side) are more successful. However, Almada's work is a welcome and necessary contribution to what should be a long line of films that approach the subject from divergent perspectives.

It airs Tuesday, Aug. 1, at 9pm on PBS.

What Else Is On?

It has been 40 years since Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower, armed and with one thing on his mind. Ninety minutes later, Whitman had gunned down 45 people before being shot and killed by law enforcement. To mark the anniversary, local Fox affiliate KTBC will air a special 30-minute documentary on the event, Sniper '66. Whitney Milam is producing the special, which includes "never before seen footage." Also included are interviews with surviving eyewitnesses, Texas Ranger Ray Martinez (Ret.), KTBC newsman Neil Spelce, along with former UT President Larry Faulkner and Gary M. Lavergne, author of A Sniper in the Tower. According to KTBC, Sniper '66 does not seek to sensationalize the event but to "illuminate a time before mass murder in public spaces became almost routine. Before the tragedies of Columbine, Oklahoma City, and 9/11 desensitized the American public, Charles Whitman introduced Texas to domestic terrorism without a cause."

It airs Saturday, July 29, at 6:30pm on KTBC-Fox 7.

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Al Otro Lado, POV, Natalia Almada, Sniper '66

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