'The River and the Wall': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of Film
Visually stunning and politically sharp.

A documentary follows five adventurers as they travel the Rio Grande, assessing the ecological and social impact of a border wall.

The five adventurers in The River and the Wall set out with a purpose and a point of view. They will follow the Rio Grande for 1,200 miles where it forms the U.S.-Mexico border, trying to scope out the ecological damage Trump’s proposed wall might cause. Led by the film’s director, Ben Masters — the subject of a 2015 documentary, Unbranded, about his trek driving wild mustangs from Mexico to Canada — the group includes an ornithologist, a river guide, a National Geographic explorer and a conservationist. Along the way, as they switch from bikes to horses to canoes, they occasionally talk to the camera to tell their individual stories. Despite its verité form, this is no shaky, handheld affair, though. Polished, visually gorgeous and acutely political, it is a vivid, engaging nature film with a message.  

The documentary starts with a spectacular overhead shot of the river flowing through a rocky canyon, boats appearing as tiny specks below. The travelers begin in El Paso on dirt bikes, whose wheels soon become caked with mud. In those early scenes they also talk to two Texas Congressmen. Beto O’Rourke, who was then a Democratic representative (before losing a Senate race and currently considering a presidential run), recorded his interview before he became a national figure. But his comments mirror recent news, as he explains that El Paso has become one of the country’s safest cities, despite its proximity to the border.

Will Hurd, a Republican representative, actually rides along with the group for a short stretch, at one point wading through water and carrying their bikes overhead. Like O’Rourke he rejects the wall, citing practical reasons. “Every mile is different,” he says, pointing to the way the border goes along the riverbank, hills and desert. No wall across that would work. “We already have a physical barrier — it’s called mountains,” he says. More important, he cites technology as a better tool, with surveillance cameras spotting anyone crossing illegally and more border patrol employees to apprehend them.

When the group reaches more open terrain, a trailer arrives carrying horses. Masters is an expert rider, and Filipe DeAndrade, the National Geographic explorer, can barely sit on a horse, but they are all game. Along the way, Heather Mackey, the ornithologist and the only woman of the five, points out that there are 150 species of birds in the area, some only found there. The cameras capture a rich sense of the natural world in the background, including ocelots and bears, as the journey moves past green hills and scrubland, pastel skies in the background. The travelers have more difficulty and the film gains some drama when they switch to canoes and try to navigate around rocks in the rapidly flowing river.

Some of the camerawork is by the film's subjects, others by an unseen support crew and from outside sources. With a couple of exceptions it all blends together seamlessly to create a bright look. John Aldrich’s editing keeps the documentary moving gracefully. The images are gripping enough, and there is no need for Noah Sorota’s score to be so grandiose; it feels like overkill.   

On land the group finds stretches of barriers already built, many resembling high picket fences, none of them very imposing. DeAndrade climbs to the top of one in less than a minute. Masters asks two Mexican fishermen what they think about a possible wall, and one answers, “They’ll just fly over it like Superman.”

The characters do not emerge as well-developed personalities, but each is memorable for his or her contribution to the story. The film is inevitably political because two of the five grew up in the U.S. as children of undocumented immigrants. DeAndrade talks about coming from Brazil as a child with his mother, who stayed without a visa but eventually became a citizen and a nurse at a veterans hospital. Austin Alvarado, the river guide, explains that the trip will take him to the area where his parents crossed over on their way from Guatemala, succeeding on the fourth try. His profession came from his feeling that as the child of illegal immigrants, class and status are always on your mind. “In the outdoors, on the Rio Grande, that’s somewhere that status doesn’t matter,” he says.

Their personal stories come into play when they arrive at a desolate and notoriously dangerous area one night, and view suspicious movements that look like people carrying sacks across the river. If those people are refugees, the group is inclined to leave them alone. If they are seeing drug runners, they want to call the border police. It is too risky to engage with whatever they are. Together the group has to make a wrenching choice, in a scene that speaks to the complexity of the issues the film explores.  

Masters, who modestly positions himself as part of the group, talks to landowners who have lived peacefully along the border for years. They fear that their property will be seized, and that the animal life that now freely moves back and forth will stop flourishing. There is no alternate viewpoint offered, but The River and the Wall doesn’t mean to be balanced. Without preaching, it immerses viewers in the natural world and makes an effective case for keeping it that way.

Production companies: Fin and Fur Films

Cast: Ben Masters, Jay Kleberg, Filipe DeAndrade, Heather Mackey, Austin Alvarado

Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Director: Ben Masters

Producer: Hillary Pierce

Directors of Photography: John Aldrich, Dave Adams, Korey Kaczmarek, Phillip Baribeau, Brandon Widener, Colin Baggett

Editor: John Aldrich

Music: Noah Sorota

109 minutes.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)