Bill and Turner Ross's documentary, Western, premiered last month at the Sundance Film Festival to widespread praise. The film is about two sister towns located on either side of the Rio Grande. Although the towns are technically in different countries—Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Zócalo, in Mexico—the film shows them intermingled in both business and personal matters. But throughout the course of the documentary's 13-month span, a rash of cartel violence in Piedras Negras begins to drive a wedge between the towns. The subsequent uproar in Texas, and the United States as a whole, shines a sharp light on our complex relationship with Mexico.
One of Western's first scenes takes place at the Abrazo Ceremony, where families from both towns meet for fireworks, food, and music to celebrate their continuing connection. (Abrazo means "hug" in Spanish.) But the Ross brothers capture the towns' growing schism as drug cartel fears and border anxieties ultimately lead to the Justice Department suing Eagle Pass for the right to erect a $49 billion wall between them.
Despite dealing with politically-charged topics, the Ross brothers' documentary does not take a stand on immigration or the drug trade. Western is, simply, a glimpse at two towns on opposite banks of a river who happen to be in the middle of something beyond their control.
I spoke to the Ross brothers last week as they were getting ready to leave for Austin, Texas, where the film will be shown during SXSW's Festival Favorite category.
VICE: What first brought you to Eagle Pass, Texas?
Turner Ross: The idea was to go out and make a non-fiction western. Or, to say it differently, go out and find what the frontier actually looks like in its modern-day iteration. We scouted border towns from New Mexico down the Rio Grande and eventually landed in Eagle Pass, Texas. Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras are two symbiotic towns facing each other on the Rio Grande, so visually it sort of tells that story. And since we're relying a lot on visual storytelling to do that, it made a lot of sense.
And in Eagle Pass, there was Mayor Chad Foster, a giant iconic figure who started opening doors. We stayed there for 13 months and captured what we could.
Mayor Foster is such a larger-than-life character in Western—a cowboy hat-wearing, bilingual, incredibly idealistic Texan. Was it just luck to stumble upon him, or did you go town-to-town looking for a mayor like Foster?
He just happened to exist. The amazing thing, always with all of this stuff, is that we're depending on real life to give us the things we need. John Wayne actually exists somewhere, and he looks like that.
The regions of tension in Mexico are constantly shifting, because much of the violence stems from cartels fighting for control of an area. You happened to be in Piedras Negas while the cartels were battling over that region. Has Piedras Negras become less violent since you left?
It goes in waves, and it just happened to be the crest of a wave while we were there. Another wave came in a couple years after we left, and it got really nasty. But life's like that. Life goes on, and this crazy shit, this noise, happens in the background, and sometimes right in your face, but it's not necessarily the community that's living there. It's this other thing—this wild industry—that has to make its way illegally through the corridors of business.
At the time you were there, the mayor of Piedras Negras died in a plane crash that appears to have been cartel-related, and Mayor Foster was in a café during a shooting. Did you guys feel the violence around you while you were filming?
I hope that we presented the movie in such a way that you feel it the way that we felt it, and the way that we think most other people feel it to, which is just this anxiety. A lot of times, it's not right in your face. Sometimes it is, but other times just the awareness of it creates that great discomfort.
The cartels are noticeably absent from the film, except in news clips. Was that meant to mirror the experience in town?
Bill Ross: It was out of a desire to see the place as the people we were filming saw it. Like you say, they only hear about it. Although it's very close to them, they're not seeing the heads rolling on the floor.
Turner: So it's the truth and also a filmic device. That thing becomes scarier and creates more anxiety if you don't see it—if you don't put a face to it.
You guys lived in a town on the border for over a year. Obviously, the conversation about immigration reform and drug reform is going to continue to come up more as the 2016 presidential election approaches. What did you learn from your time in Eagle Pass? What can be done?
It's much bigger than a talking point. It's a cultural region. And you know, our own politics, our own ideas, are our own. Really, I don't feel that it's our place to say those things. Our movies aren't trying to say those things.
If we've done anything, I hope that we've at least created a capsule of a place, instead of the vision of something being absorbed through political talking points. It's people's lives! I don't think our politics are important. We're more interested in figuring out what that place actually looks like, as opposed to what we're supposed to argue about regarding that region.