The Hollywood remake of “Miss Bala” comes crashing into theaters Friday, bringing a slam-bang, action-movie aesthetic to the 2011 Mexican-American film about a teen girl who witnesses a gangland shooting in Tijuana and becomes an unwilling accomplice to very bad things. Like many high-profile borderland stories in American pop culture — the “Sicario” movies and the Netflix series “Narcos,” for example — the new film wrings thrills from the epidemic of narco-violence that claims lives on a daily basis.
Based on these movies and shows, which coincide with the current political debate over a wall between Mexico and the United States, Americans might think nothing but death unfolds on the border. Violence, after all, sells, much as sex does. It’s hard to find the vitality and color of life on the border amid all the onscreen gunfire and despair. It takes some digging to find alternatives to Hollywood’s view.
“The border is generally portrayed as a forbidding and terrifying no man’s land,” said June Carolyn Erlick, the editor in chief of ReVista, the Harvard-based journal of Latin America. Even some of the more fully developed border movies — including Gregory Nava’s 1984 gem “El Norte,” in which a Guatemalan brother and sister crawl through a sewer pipe and do battle with rats in crossing from Tijuana to San Diego — conjure up this tone.
“To me, that’s what the border is in movies,” Erlick said. “Rather than a bright, vibrant place, where a person lives on one side and goes to work on the other side, it’s a place of rats and darkness.” The scene is a terrifying vision in a film that does an exemplary job dramatizing the cultural adaptation necessary for people who cross the border every day.
Sometimes the darkness is replaced by a sort of washed-out brownish yellow, as in Steven Soderbergh’s drug-war epic “Traffic” (2000). Soderbergh used tobacco-tinged filters to make the Mexican side of the border seem desolate and otherworldly, giving it a different look from the rest of the film, shot with various color schemes for American locations.
Of late, however, the primary color for border movies is red, as in a whole lot of blood. The never-ending narco wars have turned sadistic violence into a key component of border stories: mutilated bodies hung for public display; assassinated journalists; multitudes of disappeared (or desaparecido); massacre on a massive scale.
After three seasons, “Narcos,” which debuted in 2015 with a focus on Colombia and the cocaine empire of Pablo Escobar, moved to Mexico. The main character is the real-life figure Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (played by Diego Luna), a former police officer who went on to start the sprawling Guadalajara Cartel. His nemesis on the other side of the border is a Drug Enforcement Administration agent (played by Michael Peña), who, as in real life, is tortured and murdered by the cartel when he goes undercover to infiltrate it.
WHEN AMERICAN AUDIENCES think of border movies, they’re more likely to remember “The Border,” the bluntly titled 1982 melodrama starring Jack Nicholson as a morally conflicted border agent, or “Lone Star,” the 1996 murder mystery that traces several generations of a law enforcement family in a small Texas border town. These aren’t bad movies, but their perspective, despite inclusive intentions, is primarily Anglo.
This generation’s defining work of American mass-culture storytelling on the border might be found off screen, in Don Winslow’s trilogy of drug-war novels. “The Power of the Dog,” “The Cartel” and “The Border,” which comes out Feb. 26, indulge in plenty of sex and carnage. But they also paint a grandly scaled portrait of political corruption on both sides of the border, particularly in the States. Winslow conveys as much excitement about the Iran-contra scandal, Nafta and Senate subcommittees as he does murder and mayhem. His driving premise: The drug war destroys everything it touches in Mexico and the United States. The trilogy is propulsive pulp fiction with literary heft, a hybrid of “The Godfather” and “War and Peace.” (One of his previous drug-war novels, “Savages,” was turned into a hyperventilating Oliver Stone movie).
There are certainly narrative features from Mexico about the border, including “Al Otro Lado” (2004) and “Desierto” (2015), with Gael García Bernal. But if you’re seeking an antidote to sensationalism, you might look to the world of documentary.
For instance, Bernardo Ruiz’s 2015 film, “Kingdom of Shadows” takes a sober look at how drug violence affects regular people on both sides of the border. His 2012 film “Reportero” follows the staff members of a Tijuana newsweekly who execute a different kind of border crossing: Correctly determining that printing in Mexico is too dangerous, they set up shop in California and truck tens of thousands of issues back to Mexico, where they are distributed to readers. Ruiz’s documentaries have the reportage to go with the storytelling; he’s not terribly interested in cheap thrills.
A dual Mexican-American citizen who moved to the States when he was 6, Ruiz spends a lot of time on both sides of the border, interviewing the kind of people who don’t turn up in “Miss Bala” or “Narcos.” He understands the flash-and-action appeal of such enterprises, but he also sees a need for telling other kinds of stories.
“Like a lot of people, I have a kind of narco-fatigue,” Ruiz said. “We’re getting to a point where we’re awash in media around this issue. My fear is that we’re getting farther and farther away from the impact it has on ordinary, day-to-day people.”
The current situation is complicated by the inextricable relationship between Mexican-American pop culture and the drug violence that claims a vast majority of its victims in Mexico. Shaul Schwarz’s 2013 documentary “Narco Cultura” illustrates the back-and-forth in devastating fashion. On the American side, pop-star wannabes write narcocorridos, songs that celebrate the murderous exploits of vainglorious cartel killers, who, in turn, pay quite handsomely to have their deeds chronicled to musical accompaniment. It’s a toxic blurring of the line between life and art.
NOT ALL NARRATIVE BORDER FEATURES fit into predictable and grisly patterns. The Peruvian-American director Alex Rivera’s 2009 film, “Sleep Dealer,” combines social consciousness with future shock sci-fi to create something utterly original. The characters in this near-future world long for nodes, electronic jacks embedded in the skin that plug into a virtual-reality drone system in Tijuana and that allow them to do dangerous jobs in America. In other words, they cross the border without having to cross the border. “Sleep Dealer” is a sly commentary on immigration and labor policy. Desperate for cheap labor, but not for the people who do it, the United States has found a way to import the work while leaving behind the worker.
Ruiz sees “Sleep Dealer” as an example of how modern border movies can push beyond the routine.
“The older vision of the border was almost like a classic western with cowboys and Indians, but in a different framing,” he said. “Now we’re beginning to understand the border as a place of electronic surveillance and drones. Understanding it in that context is really important, and it also goes beyond the current rhetoric around the border, which is pretty unsophisticated.”
Some of the most resonant border movies, however, are westerns, particularly the cycle of Mexico westerns popular in the late ’60s and early ’70s. These ranged from the condescending (“The Professionals”) to the surreal (“El Topo”). The gold standard of the Mexico western remains “The Wild Bunch,” Sam Peckinpah’s blood opera that sends a band of rogues across the border as they flee from bounty hunters at the beginning of the 20th century. Once in Mexico they’re hired by a tyrannical, counterrevolutionary general at war with Pancho Villa’s troops. Mexico, a lawless land on the other side of America’s rapidly closing frontier, is the end of the line for the mercenary Bunch. As this film makes clear, movies were indulging in borderland bloodshed long before the reign of the narco-kings. Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” from 1958, also fits this mold, depicting the border as a land of dirty cops covering up murderous deeds.
Indeed, border movies have been around just about as long as cinema. “We have a long tradition of border films since the Mexican revolution early in the last century,” said Adriana Trujillo, the co-founder and former artistic director of the BorDocs Documentary Forum, which focuses on films depicting life on the border. That long tradition includes Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez, who played General Mapache in “The Wild Bunch.” In a career stretching back to the 1920s that covered both performing and directing, he acted in films on both sides of the border.
Regardless of tone, scope or format, one thing is certain: There are a million stories on the border still to be told. As in most cases, bloodshed is what sells, and it’s what usually gets converted into mass entertainment for Americans. If you look hard enough, however, you’ll find work that transcends sensationalism and locates essential ideas about life and death that apply to either side of any border.