A filmmaker’s journey along the US-Mexico border shows it's 'a very powerful idea to have a line'

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re listening to The World. We hear so much about the US-Mexican border but headlines can give a distorted picture of a place that not many people actually know firsthand. That’s where Rodrigo Reyes comes in. His new documentary, “Purgatorio,” shows us a complex view of the border. My colleague Monica Campbell sat down with Reyes to talk about his film. Monica, you also spoke with Reyes about his own history.


Monica Campbell: I did. I met Rodrigo Reyes at his home Merced, California. Just to give you a little context, Merced is a small city about two hours from San Francisco. It’s in the Central Valley, kind of our bread basket. It’s a very Latino area. Rodrigo is 31 now, but he moved to Merced when he was 6-years-old, with his family from Mexico City. So, he’s still really connected to Mexico, he still speaks Spanish with his dad, and he’s always seen how the border plays into people’s lives. But for this film, he didn’t know the physical US border until he was an adult. In this film, he kind of takes us along that journey as he travels the border and sees it from his point of view. It, as we know, can be a pretty rough place. It’s an in-between place for a lot of people. I think that’s what also inspired the name of the film, “Purgatorio” -- purgatory.


Werman: As we will all hear in a moment, Reyes sounds like a really interesting guy. He’s a filmmaker but I gather he’s also got another job too, right?


Campbell: Yeah, he’s an independent filmmaker, so not a very profitable thing. He also works as a Spanish court interpreter in criminal court in Merced. He told me about how his work influences his filmmaking, and in this film in particular, I think we really see that because when you’re in court, and he was telling me this, you see how people are in these really extreme situations. But he’s sitting there interpreting all the nuances of a case. He sees how things just aren’t black and white, and it’s not just good guys and bad guys. The border isn’t like that either, and I think that that’s an image we often don’t get of the border. We often see the border as this kind of polarized place filled with bad guys and criminals and people crossing. In this film, you really meet people from all sorts, you see them speaking about the border from all sorts of perspectives, and I think that that’s something that his court work really lends to this film.


Werman: Let’s hear your story now Monica.


Campbell: Let’s start with Rodrigo Reyes’ first thoughts about the border as a kid moving from Mexico to California.


Rodrigo Reyes: I had this vague idea of the US, but it was almost like a fog stretched between Mexico City and California. Then I guess you learn different ways that the border exists as you grow up. There’s a language border, there’s a cultural border; kids would make fun of me because I would stand up every time I talked to a teacher.


Campbell: Because that’s something you did in school in Mexico City?


Reyes: Yeah, that’s something you do in Mexico. You stand up out of respect for the teachers, and the teachers would love me immediately and the students would hate me right away, right?  Because “Who is this jerk coming over here, sucking up to the teacher?” And that’s a border too, right?


Campbell: But in his film, it’s the physical border and how it trails people that drew him in.


Reyes: When I started thinking about a film about the border, I realized that when you’re an immigrant, people see a border behind you. There’s a line behind you, you have a tail, you know? It’s following you. It’s this line in the sand that people see and that comes to life in a very powerful way.


Campbell: So Reyes and his small team followed that line in the sand.


Reyes: So we met in Tijuana and we set off from there and just weaved our way east.


Campbell: Early on, we see a Mexican man dead in an empty yard. But there are no sirens, no rush to carry him away.


Reyes: Just an insignificant dead body. Why? Because it’s a murder victim but the whole culture of that almost considers it a waste of time to pick up this small time guy who was killed in a vacant lot. There’s been thousands and thousands of them, and all of a sudden you see a very anti-climactic kind of death, very underwhelming.


Campbell: We also meet a man, a good samaritan, in the Arizona desert where migrants travel.


Reyes: Of his own free will, on his own free time, goes out and hikes into the desert and leaves food and water to people.


Man 1: These are somebody’s  parents, somebody’s brothers or sisters or children and they deserve to live just as everybody else deserves to live.


Reyes: But then right after that, we visit -- almost like it’s his twin brother separated at birth. It’s like a guy who’s a minuteman, and he’s out there also of his own free will, also all alone, also on his free time, but what he’s doing is trying to catch people and stop them from coming into the US. He collects all the trash that he finds in the middle of the desert, hauling bags and bags of trash because he feels that the trash marks trails. All of a sudden, he looks right at the camera and he says --


Man 2: I’d like to see the Mexican people build up their own country. They got all the mineral wealth. They have copper, they have silver, they have gold, they have oil. What’s the problem? Why are they coming up here? Why don’t they overthrow their corrupt government and build up their own country?


Campbell: Reyes says when he shows his film in Mexico, it’s this scene that gets to the audience.


Reyes: People in Q&A’s constantly debate each other over this. One person will be like “Look at that racist guy,” and then another guy will be like “Well, what about the things he’s told us to do? We need to get to work.”


Campbell: In the film, we meet two guys from Mexico holding backpacks, exhausted. They’re at the border and a US border patrol truck slowly rolls by on the other side. Once it’s clear, they try to scramble over the border fence.


Reyes: With immigration, it’s a very powerful metaphor to look at people climbing over this fence and just rushing in, getting lost in our backyard and taking things from our house or something. It’s an invasion metaphor, and I think it’s a very dangerous way to think about other human beings. Like a mother and children, you know, a hardworking dad. Because that’s really most of the people that are coming over, but you can’t see them because there’s this line, there’s this fence and they just become shadowy figures. It’s a very powerful idea to have a line.


Werman: Rodrigo Reyes speaking with The World’s Monica Campbell about his new documentary, “Purgatorio.”