Bordertown. Written and directed by Gregory Nava. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Antonio Banderas and Maya Zapata (Capitol Films 2006).
Try, if you can, to follow the logic of this argument:
Point One. NAFTA allows free trade between the United States and Mexico but does not contain provisions to protect workers. Corporations build hundreds of factories in the border town of Juarez, Mexico, to assemble computer screens and other goods for import to the United States. Hundreds of thousands of poor Mexicans, predominantly young women, migrate to Juarez to work in the factories for five dollars a day.
Point Two. Several serial killers are drawn to Juarez to prey on the young women. The Juarez police cover up the crimes and may well be protecting certain of the killers. Journalists and straight-laced lawmen who investigate the killings end up dead.
Conclusion. The bad guys in this scenario are the United States, the companies that built the factories and free trade agreements in general.
This is the argument made by director Gregory Nava’s film Bordertown. This is also an example of what libertarians and conservatives call “fuzzy liberal thinking.”
The movie -- which has been released in Europe but not in the United States -- is a comment on actual events. The factories are real; so are the young women and the serial killers and the indifferent police. Since 1993, at least 700 women have vanished or been murdered in Juarez, which is across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. You can read about the situation here, here and here.
There is a compelling film to be made about the sorrows of Juarez. It’s a film about illiterate peasant girls, denied an education by a corrupt government, who work in the factories because that’s one of the few opportunities their country offers. Some of these women are slaughtered by psychopaths, and Mexican law enforcement refuses to investigate or prosecute, because dark-skinned girls from the colonias won’t be missed by anyone who matters. People of good faith say nothing, because they don’t want bullets ripping through their lungs.
The problem with this hypothetical film is that it places the blame on murderers and Mexican officials, and that’s not what’s wanted by the people who gave the Best Picture Oscar to Crash. The United States and conservative politics must be blamed if the filmmakers want to be players come awards season. So Nava blames the Bush administration and NAFTA (which was signed by Bill Clinton, by the way) for the murders.
Writing is about exclusion and elision, but Nava, who wrote the screenplay, didn’t leave anything out. Jennifer Lopez, whose charisma is better suited to light comedy, plays a journalist for the fictional Chicago Sentinel newspaper who travels to Juarez to investigate the story of a young woman (Maya Zapata) who survived an attack by one of the killers. (I can hear my journalist friends chuckling at the thought that an editor at a Chicago daily would incur the expense of assigning a staffer to cover an attempted murder in Mexico when he could pick up the phone and call a freelancer. According to the First Fifteen Minutes Rule, this and other unrealistic events in the first 15 minutes must be ignored; otherwise, there wouldn’t be a movie.)
So Bordertown is a brave journalist movie. But it also wants to be a serious commentary about globalism, an illustration of Mexican class differences, an expose of factory working conditions, a gritty documentary about life in the Mexican slums, a critique of media conglomerates, and don’t forget Lopez’s heartfelt monologue about life-work balance issues for career women. When Lopez goes undercover to work in one of the factories, the film veers into Nancy Drew.
Bordertown is so busy discussing all these Big, Important Issues that it becomes disorganized, unfocused and bloated, changing genres with each new scene. Nava doesn’t let the story emerge organically from the characters, perhaps because he knows his characters are too thin to support the film. And Nava keeps inventing situations and dialogue to illogically place the blame for some of Mexico’s homegrown problems on the United States and its free trade policies.
As it happens, there is a masterful film about murder, politics and race on the edge of Mexico. It is called Lone Star, and it was written and directed about ten years ago by John Sayles, one of America’s unique voices. It was centered by its richly drawn characters, and, by knowing that it was about the tiny lives of a few people in a small town, it became a film about The Border. And its politics made sense.