Border-watching factions explored in student film,
March 17th, 2006
Jeremy Levine, 22, co-directed "Walking the Line," which will screen at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday, with Landon Van Soest.
film examines the eruption of a "border war," where armed militias work
to stop illegal immigrants from crossing the border. Their claim is
On the other end are humanitarians who attempt to give aid to immigrants as they brave the desert, the immigrants themselves, and the local American Indian communities that have found themselves bearing the brunt of the influx.
"It started off as shock value," said Levine. "'Let's go down to the border and interview the guys with guns'— I think that was as complex as our thinking was."
As it turned out, the team did figure out the immigration issues and the complexity of the chaotic situation once they got there, but the border patrols themselves still loomed as larger than life personalities who dominate the film by the sheer magnitude of their bravado.
At the forefront, though, were the border militias and the over-the-top personalities that were involved. Among the most extreme are Glenn Spencer, the founder of the American Border Patrol and a man convinced that illegal immigration is part of a systematic conspiracy on the part of the Mexican government to take back the American Southwest. Spencer was insistent that he do background checks on the crew before speaking to them.
"He was just annoyed that we didn't have a history," said Levine, "we didn't have other projects we had worked on. When I would tell him 'We can't get you that information because we don't have it,' he just started going off on me."
Eventually, Spencer calmed down and Levine learned that even gun-toting conspiracy theorists have a soft side.
"You show up at the door, he's got his little dog and his little house and welcomes you in," said Levine.
Levine and company also spent a lot of time with the group Ranch Rescue, especially its rather loudmouthed, gung-ho leader, Casey Nethercott, who has been in and out of jail. Quite the opposite of Spencer, this group was desperate to get their message out.
"Ranch Rescue were very media hungry," said Levine. "They just loved the attention, they just loved the cameras there, it was no problem getting access to them. They would've had us around forever if they could."
A good portion of Levine's interaction with the group involved going out on patrol with them and that sense of danger proved an intoxicant initially.
"At first it was really kind of exhilarating and frightening at the same time to be walking around with these guys dressed up in army camouflage with their guns," said Levine.
Once the filmmakers began to live the life, however, they began to see it in a way that conflicted with the general paranoia of the men warning of conspiracies.
"The more time we spent out there, the more normal it got," said Levine, "and that was actually frightening in its own way. We were out with Ranch Rescue so long, nothing happened, day after day after day. It was just getting boring more than anything, sitting out on the desert brush and waiting for hours."
At the same time, the humanitarians on the case were finding immigrants, despite the fears of the local Indian populace that providing aid was just encouraging more people to brave the desert to cross the border.
Levine sees as many similarities between the militia and the activists as he does differences. A man like former minister and member of the Tohono O'odham Reservation Mike Wilson spends as much time patrolling the desert as Casey Nethercott, it's just that he wants to give the immigrants water and medical care rather than a bullet for trespassing.
"It's fascinating to us how similar both sides seemed," said Levine. "We took sympathy much more with the humanitarians, but both sides would be out driving around looking for illegal immigrants, though their purposes were a bit different."
Levine thinks that each side draws inspiration for their work from a similar, private place.
"I wouldn't want to equate them all," said Levine, "but I think both the vigilantes and the humanitarians, this gives them a real sense of purpose."
Still, Levine was not blinded by the over-the-top personalities — he and Van Soest came away with their eyes focused clearly on the big picture.
"The situation was so much worse than I could have imagined," said Levine. "We have this huge problem that the government is not handling and it's overwhelmed small towns who have never dealt with this before, which has caused so much resentment. At the same time, it's causing thousands of migrant deaths and suffering. There are a lot of different opinions about what we can do from here, but it's sad to say that I don't think we can be doing much worse."
"Walking the Line" will be screened at 3 on Saturday, March 18, at Mass MoCA as part of the Projections Film Forum. There will be a panel discussion following the film. Admission is $6.