Film Reviews

‘The River and the Wall’ Travels Borderland Beauty

Doc takes audiences across the 1200-mile stretch of Trump’s promised border wall

Courtesy Rio River Films LLC


The River and the Wall
(USA, 109 min.)
Dir. Ben Masters

The list of stupid things Donald Trump has said or done is too vast to remember. However, if one formed them into bricks, or little paper rings, one could easily fulfil the soon-to-be-impeached POTUS’s meme-able promise to build a border wall between the USA and Mexico far better than his administration can. 1200 miles of borderland are the proposed site of this 30-billion dollar campaign promise. Regardless of whether the wall sounds stupid or necessary to viewers, they probably haven’t visited the site or even seen it. The River and the Wall aims to correct the ignorance that emboldens some people and prevents others from speaking up.

Director Ben Masters, who previously rode horseback in 2015 Hot Docs Audience Award winner Unbranded, takes audiences on a road trip of sorts through the 1200 miles of borderland where the wall will purportedly stand. One will immediately notice two things about the terrain this documentary covers. For one, the land is strikingly beautiful. The picturesque countryside offers vibrant ecosystems with the Rio Grande River flowing between the two nations, while the rocky hills, rugged mountains, deep canyons, dangerous ridges, and rough deserts offer sights of which landscape photographers dream. Secondly, these elements create a natural border between the two nations. A wall is completely redundant.

Masters joins a quartet of environmentally and politically minded activists, photographers, ecologists, and adventurers as they traverse the length of the wall’s potential reach. They explore each inch of this 1200-mile run, crossing the land on bicycles, donkeys, and kayaks. What’s immediately clear to the group is that the terrain is not easy to cross. Even the advanced adventurers of the expedition struggle with the thick mud, steep and slippery slopes, rough waters, and arid terrain they encounter.

Although the journey frequently proves repetitive, The River and the Wall is an entertaining and illuminating look at a hot-button issue from every angle. Political junkies who lean to the left will enjoy how Masters and his team deconstructs the argument for the wall brick by brick. Outdoor enthusiastic will enjoy this energetic, sumptuously shot, and politically charged personal essay on the need to preserve rugged terrain and space for wildlife and recreation.

Beyond the fiscal irresponsibility of the wall, and the audacity of an American president to dehumanize the nation’s Mexican neighbours, the election promise boasts considerable consequences. For one, the wall would strip American residents of the wonders of the area, as the travelers often ride on the livelier Mexican side of the road where residents use the Rio Grande for recreational purposes. The wall would actually create a physical border miles before the actual border, cutting off vast slabs of land from use.

The wall also poses a great environmental toll. The group’s resident ecologist, Heather Mackey, studies the diverse wildlife, which ranges from birds to bears, and sees how the wall will disrupt migratory patterns on which a fragile ecosystem depends. One can’t see it from afar, but it’s there. Masters and his camera crew captures all the wonderful birdsong that rises above Trump’s disorderly Twitter outrage.

Additionally, expedition participants Felipe DeAndrade and Austin Alvarado, whose families migrated from Brazil and Guatemala, respectively, articulate the human costs of the wall. People flee in search of a better life, just like their families did years ago. Their stories challenge the negative stereotypes with which Trump emboldens his base.

DeAndrade, a nature photographer and filmmaker, intimately shares his perspective of leaving with his mother to flee an abusive father in the slums, but shares how they lived illegally after they arrived (by airplane) and realized their documentation had been destroyed. Alvarado, who leads much of the trip and knows the Rio Grande intimately through his work as a river guide, reflects on the human toll of the clandestine crossings the group witnesses, realizing that his parents made similar journeys while escaping life in Guatemala.

As the doc travels through dangerous pockets of the borders where the cartels flourish, flowing drugs into the USA and feeding the violence that inspires people to flee, the participants witness the reality of a crossing at a human level. This cinematic journey through the borderland illustrates how the region is more complex than it appears in Trump’s (obvious) simplifications.

Masters also gets to the politics of the matter. The River and the Wall situates the border situation within the larger context of White House politics, noting how the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton vastly shaped the culture that lead to the Trumpian ecosystem. The Bush years, on the other hand, erected fences in the midst of post-9/11 paranoia, but Masters’ film observes a difference between these chain perimeters—symbolic more than effective, really—and the draconian concrete barrier Trump promises.

Conversations with politicians like Democrat Representative Beto O’Rourke and Republican Representative Will Hurd look beyond partisan issues. They argue for smarter policy, effective policing, employing technology, and changing the habits of Americans that fuel the drug trade. But The River and the Wall is most effective when it sees the larger picture. This beautifully shot adventure captures a land, its natural wonders, and the inhabitants on both sides of the border.

There are many reasons why the border between nations exists where it does. Masters illustrates how Trump’s beloved wall would only offer a minor obstacle to migrants who cross Hell to enter the USA. A quick climb over or a small dig under is no biggie in the grand scheme of the journey.

The River and the Wall screens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Oct. 3 and 4 as this month’s Doc Soup Screening. Producer Hillary Pierce will be in attendance for Q&As.

Get more info on the Doc Soup series here.