SXSW FILM 2015
By Linc Leifeste | March 16, 2015
Directors: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
The beauty of adeptly programmed film festivals such as South by Southwest is that it’s likely you can blindly walk into a random screening and walk out having had an amazing cinematic experience. I didn’t walk into the Ross Brothers’ latest piece of documentary filmmaking, Western, completely blind, but close, never having seen their two earlier documentaries, 45365 and Tchoupitoulas. But I’m hearing that Western is cut from the same cloth as their earlier work and that the three comprise something of an Americana film trilogy. Considering how deeply I fell in love with Western on the opening night of the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival, I plan to soon find out for myself.
Western is an immersive documentary set in Eagle Pass, TX, a border city that shares a deep cultural and historical bond with it’s Mexican sister city just across the Rio Grande, Piedras Negras. I was completely unaware of the long-running spirit of respect and cooperation that has existed between the two cities but ostensibly that is what initially brought the Ross brothers there to film. But timing is everything and as they arrived and developed a relationship with the two Eagle Pass men who would be the focus of their film, mayor Chad Foster and cattleman Martín Wall, there was a storm brewing in the form of growing Mexican drug cartel violence, threatening to sweep into the twin cities and destroy their harmonious relationship.
For me, a native Texan who is often disturbed by the state’s current hard-right-political and cultural trends, it’s hard to fully detail how much I appreciate and respect the image presented by both Taylor and Wall. They remind me of the Texans I remember from my childhood and that have seemingly become harder to find. Both are respectful of the Mexican culture and history that has shaped their environment and are respectful of the people they interact with on both sides of the border, and both speak the language. Mayor Foster is the more charismatic and outgoing of the two, an educated smooth-talking man of the people who seems to be beloved in both cities. Wall is cut from rougher cloth, a physically imposing man whose language and ways are less polished but whose gentler side is captured in his moments with his young daughter, Brylyn.
But the future of both men is threatened by the growing xenophobia in Texas and the U.S. that is leading to the construction of an imposing border fence as well as by the growing Mexican drug violence. The two combined are also leading to heavier scrutiny and regulation from the relatively far-away governments in Austin and Washington, D.C, who eventually put a stop to the cattle trade between the two nations in the name of enhanced security, in the process at least temporarily killing Wall’s business. Neither man is happy about what they consider the unnecessary overreach of their state and federal governments. But there is also the clear possibility that these two men are simply blinded to the real threat that is coming their way, not realizing that the harmonious existence of the past is soon to be crushed in a wave of unimaginable violence.
What the Ross brothers do amazingly well in the film is to effectively immerse the viewer in the Eagle Pass world of Foster and Wall while obscuring the fact that they themselves are (obviously) present as they film. While undoubtedly the reality is more complex, the viewer gets the sense that the filmmakers have earned the trust of the community to the degree that their subjects have become comfortable enough to simply be themselves as the cameras roll.
They also show themselves to be masters of crafting mood in their editing, strategically building up a palpable sense of tension by using images of ominous lightning-filled storms rolling in on the cities, foreboding grackles in all their black-blue majesty, a bloody Mexican bull fight, an old Texan who habitually patrols his border acreage searching for any signs of illegal crossing (to what purpose is never really revealed). In the process they give the viewer a sense of impending doom on a Cormac McCarthy-like scale, while also managing to achieve something akin to the atmosphere he creates in No Country for Old Men. It helps, of course, that in men such as Wall and Foster, they’ve found the real life equivalents of literary creations such as Ed Tom Bell and Llewelyn Moss.