Life and death along the border in ‘Western’
January 23, 2015
"Western," an entry in this year’s Sundance Film Festival, isn’t a typical Western-genre film with heroes in white hats and bad guys in black ones. It’s a documentary that looks at the lives of people living on both sides of the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico.
"It’s the continuation in a series of films focusing on different aspects of sort of American regionalism, which is how we think about it, anyway," said Bill Ross, who co-directed the film with his brother Turner Ross. "This one is a result of 13 months spent down on the Texas-Mexico border, where we went down more in pursuit of the mythic architects of the West and the genre of the West, the people and the landscapes.
"The resulting film is sort of a record of a time of change, a place in flux, and it ended up being a very inherently dramatic region at a sort of inherently dramatic time. So the story does play out in more of a narrative fashion."
Escalating cartel violence and drug trafficking are the backdrop for much of the film.
"There’ve always been problems and certainly underworld stuff, but this is new and violent and affects people in a different way than it did in the past," Ross said. "That, coupled with the way that the US is choosing to approach that, you know, as well as immigration. You’ve got border walls being erected and these communities that were historically just intrinsically intertwined are being separated."
While the setting for "Western" is charged with hot-button political issues like drug policy and immigration policy, the directors aren’t tackling those issues head-on.
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"That is totally not our M.O.," Ross said. "We’re not going out trying to solve social issues; we’re not going out to identify those in a journalistic way. We’re more interested in a documentation of a time and a place and a feeling."
But, he noted, "All those things are backdrop. All those things are subtext to everything that’s going on. So while that wasn’t our intention — to go down there and examine those things — they certainly came up.
"So it was a learning experience — just realizing how one-dimensional the coverage of all of that is and just how it affects people and people’s lives. You know, when you’re talking about putting up a wall and we’re going to keep these Mexicans out — you know, it’s like, these are people. And they’re people on both sides of the border. And their families go back and forth across the border — these places are intertwined. So when you’re drawing this line, it’s really rather harsh and arbitrary.
"It’s more of an experiential immersion into a time and a place and a region that is intertwined and it brings up a lot of questions that it doesn’t answer — which is the way that life plays out," he said.
The stars of "Western" are a longtime cattleman named Martin Wall and the longtime mayor of Eagle Pass, Chad Foster.
"That’s what the film became," Ross said. "The way we approach things is to cast a very broad net… if you go fishing long enough, you’re bound to catch something. So in the end those were the two biggest fish that really represent what we were after."
Bill Ross, Turner Ross and Martin Wall will be traveling to Utah for the festival and will be doing Q&As with members of the audience following each screening. But if you’re at one of those screenings, don’t expect to spot Bill or Turner until the film’s over — they said they’ve never watched one of their films alongside the public.
"No way," Ross said. "It’s just too close. You feel every edit and every choice."
"Western," directed by Bill Ross and Turner Ross, is an entry in the U.S. Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It premieres Sunday, Jan. 25, at noon at the Temple Theatre. Additional screenings are Monday, Jan. 26, at 9 p.m. at Sundance Resort; Tuesday, Jan. 27, at 9 a.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre; Thursday, Jan. 29, at 5:30 p.m. at The MARC; Friday, Jan. 30, at 3 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre; and Saturday, Jan. 31, at 10 a.m. at the Holiday Village Cinema 4.
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