Director Rory Kennedy on Capturing the Humor of Building Fences
What inspired you to take a look at the fence?
I had been approached by my friend Douglas Brinkley, who's a historian, and who, at that point, was a visiting professor at University of Texas at Brownsville. He called and explained how they were proposing to put the fence smack through the middle of the university so that people were going to have to bring passports to go from one class to another. So I got off the phone and did some more research. And the more information I got about the fence, the more absurd it became, and of course, the more tragic — there's been an enormous increase in the number of people who have died now trying to cross the border.
At what point does something progress from interesting tidbit to something with documentary potential for you?
It's pretty rare for me to have someone pitch an idea and for me to do it. I don’t think it's happened before. But the fence touched on a lot of issues that are important to me: issues around immigration, the war on terror, the war on drugs. And also the use of taxpayer money — especially given where we are with the economy right now and how people are struggling, it's all the more important to hold our legislators accountable for how they're spending taxpayer dollars. If they're spending $3.7 billion on a 670 mile fence for a 2000 mile border, that when people aren't climbing over it, or going under, or driving around it, they're simply walking around it because it continuously ends, it seems like a clear case of wasteful spending for political purposes.
What were the logistics of your shoot?
We spent eight days on the border and filmed what became the doc. I did a good amount of research to understand the issue as thoroughly as I could in the time frame that I had. The stated purpose of the fence is to reduce the number of immigrants coming in, to reduce the number of drugs, and to reduce the number of terrorists. So I wanted to touch on the stories that addressed those topics. It was hard to talk about terrorism because no terrorist has ever come over the Mexican border. There was no apparent story there, so in some cases we used visual elements to convey a point. We went to Arizona, Texas, California and Mexico, and as we got into the field, narrowed the focus to what you see in the film.
Was it difficult to convince Minutemen, ranchers, border guards or coyotes to appear on camera?
Pretty much everyone we wanted to get on camera agreed to be on camera ultimately. The coyote was resistant at first and didn't want to be shown — he wanted to do an interview in the dark — but he came around, and became very chatty and excited to share all his secrets with us.
Knowing what you did, was it always your intention to give the movie a comedic tone?
I think with all my films, I find what feels truthful to me about it. Not to say there's one truth, but there are certain realities that seem important to different projects and I try to figure out what those are and how to convey them. What I kept saying over and over as I learned more was: This is so absurd. I had also read the book Catch 22 — I read it in part because the more I learned, the more it seemed like a Catch 22 situation. I think there was some part of me that wanted to capture that absurdity and dark humor.
Politicians from both parties supported the fence, was that the case locally?
I did look for a statistic, but it's hard to find exactly. It seemed like pretty much everybody I spoke to — even the Minutemen — saw the absurdity of the fence in large measure. And on top of all of that, it's an enormous eyesore. It's some of the most pristine land in the United States and it's been completely destroyed by this really ugly fence.
Does anyone consider the fence a success?
Well John McCain was really excited about it during his campaign. He had a video where he ended up saying, "Let's finish the dang fence." I'm not sure if he still is now that he's won, or if he'll become more moderate and back off.
With a 35 minute running time, you kept the story tight.
I'm a fan of the short — I think there are a lot of films that go on too long and can get boring. It seemed like a better pace for this subject matter. I really wanted to keep it tightly focused on the fence, and it's always tempting because there are so many issues around immigration, the war on terror, the drug war. There are stories of people who come into the country and their challenges, families that are being divided, and I thought: Are these stories that would have happened if the fence were there or not?
Were you were aware of how timely the topic would be?
I didn't anticipate the Arizona law, but I do feel issues surrounding immigrants have sustained themselves over a long period of time. I don't think the fence would have been built had 9/11 not happened and had we not had the policies of the Bush administration, the fear mongering. I think the fence was largely created in that context and environment. And I think it's important to remind us what happens when we create policies when our politicians are scared or their using fear to create policies that aren't necessarily reasoned or rational.
Do you think the fence will ever come down — or is there for good?
I think it will come down eventually. The issue is of course that it cost $3.7 billion to build it, but they're estimating $49 billion to maintain it over the next 25 years. That's a huge amount of money to sustain something that is really ineffective and doesn't represent us as a country. We've always been a country that's been opposed to walls and fences.