For generations, before the drug cartels metastasized into Piedras Negras, Mexico, and the construction of the xenophobes’ wall was begun in Eagle Pass, TX, the neighbors on opposite sides of the Rio Grande lived together harmoniously, doing business together, celebrating together, intermarrying.
During the filming in New Orleans of their previous documentary, “Tchoupitoulas,” the Ross Brothers, Bill & Turner, decided that their next project would be a “non-fiction western.” Years of planning went into “Western.” And then, with simply a telephone pitch, the mayor of Eagle Pass, Chad Foster, a real life (bi-lingual) cowboy hero, agreed to let them set up their cinéma verité shop in his office, and as they followed him with cameras, facilitated their acceptance in his town.
For the filmmakers, Chad’s most important introduction was to cattleman Martín Wall, whose family has been in the business for over 120 years, and who’s Texas big–his stature, his mustache, his pick-up truck and his love for his young, ponytailed daughter Brylyn, who he’s raising as a single father.
“Western,” sharply-observed and moving, opens with a morning-in-America (and Mexico) shot of the Rio Grande at dawn. And daily life unfolds over the thirteen months that Bill & Turner were embedded in Eagle Pass: meetings in Chad’s office (on his desk a sign says, “no wall between amigos”) with constituents, and friends from both towns; Martín and his workers bring cattle from Piedras Negras to his ranch and prepare them to be re-sold; Chad’s Mexican counterpart, the well-liked José Manuel Maldonado works on real estate development and opportunity in his town; the people on both sides of the border go to cafés, church, carnivals, rodeos, the annual Friendship Day Parade.
Unwanted change arrives. Drug violence–brutal murders and torture in Acuña, near Piedras Negras–causes the USDA to shut down the livestock trade and the open-endedness of the ban creates anxiety for Martín. A sudden thunderstorm causes flooding and a plane carrying Mayor Maldonado to view the devastating damage explodes, likely the work of the cartels. The border fence, which Chad opposes, encroaches.
“Western,” a film that strides the new border in cinema between documentary and narrative, ends with a shot at sunset. Chad (who declined to run for a fourth term–as he tells a reporter, “I didn’t want to be a pig at the trough”), rides in his open Jeep, looking out over the Rio Grande. The neighbors’ simpatico relationship has been tragically and forever altered.
“Western,” included in the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 44th New Directors/New Films, will be shown on Sunday, March 22 at 3:30 pm (MoMA, Titus 1) and Monday, March 23 at 8:45 pm (FSLC, Walter Reade Theater). A Q&A with Bill & Turner Ross will follow both screenings.