Where Fences Don't Make Good Neighbors

AFS Doc Nights: Purgatorio

Where Fences Don't Make Good Neighbors

Imagine a doc about the border, stripped of its hot-button politics and geographical context. Mexico City-born filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes, who himself straddles the line between the country of his birth and his life in California, says his goal with Purgatorio was to reset the conversation by presenting the border's complexities and chaos in a way "that allowed people to travel into the soul of this place and forget about the rhetoric and posturing."

And that he did in this remarkably nuanced film shot during a monthlong road trip along the border from Tijuana to South Texas. Actually more visual essay or meditation, sparsely punctuated by Reyes' first-person voiceover, Purgatorio juxtaposes stunning panoramas of the frontera's natural beauty with scenes that reveal the soul-crushing horror and material devastation that resulted when humans drew lines and fences went up. Without identifying locations or those who talk to the camera, Reyes edited his footage into a visual collage of the societal costs that the border exacts: an American morgue's cubicles overflowing with the sun-bleached remains of those whose attempted crossings failed; acres of junkyards piled high with used tires and bullet-riddled cars, to name a few such fraught images. We witness the pervasiveness of Mexico's drug war culture in a sequence that cuts from a memorial service for three cops felled in a shoot-out to a young mother, her back to the camera, tearfully describing a brutal and corrupt cop dragnet and on to a group of young boys mugging for the camera with their precocious knowledge of AK-47s.

Austin Chronicle: Talk some about why you opted for the "impressionistic" style of your documentary.

Rodrigo Reyes: I firmly believe that in their heart, documentaries are an art form, not a manifesto. They are a window to life, they bring us into reality. And yet too often, the focus is on an explicit and direct political agenda. Watching a film feels like activism instead of an experience of reality. ... A poetic experience is the real power of film.

AC: And your choice of editing style?

RR: This goes back to the heart of documentaries. Am I supposed to spell out the problems of the world for the audience? Or am I trying to achieve some sort of nuance, to provoke thought and reflection? When watching Purgatorio, audiences have to stay on their toes in an effort to connect the dots. The names of places and people are not important. Not in this sense. They get in the way of actually feeling the emotional weight of each scene. If I tell you we are in Ciudad Juárez, for example, all of a sudden you are thinking of all the headlines or movies you have seen, you are focusing on the drug war and echoing the paranoia of it. It simply gets in the way. The film is constantly changing with characters and moments that throw you off guard. Forget what you thought you knew about the border. Allow yourself to have an emotional experience, let the film disturb and amaze you with the sheer power of this chaotic place.

AC: Have Mexican audiences reacted differently to the film than American viewers?

RR: The film has traveled extensively on both sides of the border, and I'm actually amazed at the similarities. I've heard both audiences express a feeling of discovery, a sense that although the border is constantly in the headlines, they had never actually looked at it. In spite of all the cultural and social differences, there seems to be a great layer of indifference within both countries and the film manages to pierce through it.

Purgatorio screens Wednesday, Dec. 10, at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre as part of the Austin Film Society's Doc Nights series. See www.austinfilm.org for ticket info.

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Purgatorio, Rodrigo Reyes, AFS Doc Nights, border documentaries, Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border

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