Directed by The Ross Brothers, WESTERN, which made its World Premiere at Sundance in the US Documentary Competition, follows two prominent residents of Eagle Pass, TX, just over the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras. Chad Foster is the mayor of Eagle Pass, and a popular public figure on both sides of the border. Martin Wall is a cattle man, who makes his living by importing cattle from Mexico and reselling in US markets. The film opens by showing the ties the two cities have, ‘generations of friendship’ as Foster calls it, with a giant parade and ceremony at the center of the international bridge.
But a storm is coming. With Mexican cartels vying for control over Chihuahua, the border gets more and more dangerous. Every month brings a new story of a mayor or government official being executed. Foster tries to maintain a positive outlook despite tighter restrictions on crossings and trade. When the US government forbids veterinary assistants from making the trip to inspect the cattle, it brings Wall’s entire business to a halt. Everyone in Eagle Pass think the people in Washington don’t know much about how the world works in their part of the state, but the town is changing. The storm has arrived.
Western was at the top of my list to see at Sundance. Not just a Texas film, the subject matter is really important, and presents a fascinating view into the problems of big government making decisions that affect little government. Unfortunately, the film ended up being a real missed opportunity, and one of the least compelling films I saw at the festival. The primary offense rests with the style. Shot with a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach, we are privy to conversations and solitary moments with both of our characters, but never given a context to understand them.
Without keeping track of the date, or who they are talking to or why, we spend most of the time as outsiders, despite being given great access. I wish the subjects in the film could have just turned and talked to the camera, and given us their views instead of us just looking over their shoulder and hoping we can get some understanding. For example, mayor Chad Foster decides not to run for reelection, but due to the production choice, the filmmakers can’t ask him why. Sure, we over hear him talking on the phone saying it was time to let someone else in and give it a try but that’s very political. What is the point of access if you don’t actually use it?
Martin Wall spends a portion of the film with no work (due to the trade restrictions), but what are all his employees doing during that time? I have no idea, because no one asks. I don’t even know how long the restrictions lasted, as there is no sense of time in the film. Also, the selection of a mere two documentary subjects, both white men, doesn’t really paint a full picture of the area. Why not involve someone from Piedras Negras? Why not a follow one of the women who asked Foster to chair the parade?
The strongest female presence is Wall’s six or seven year old daughter. And even though the issue is somewhat open-ended, the film never really felt like it came to a conclusion. It just ended. I was unsure what it wanted to say, if it had any perspective on the issue whatsoever or if it was instead just presenting evidence. If in fact that’s all it was doing, the evidence could have been much better, by including a wider range of subjects and by speaking to experts. Why not speak to someone is the State Department making these decisions? Or the Texas house representative from this district?
In the end, the style of the entire film just did not allow anything substantive to be taken away from the film. Finally, the inclusion of bloody images from bull-fighting felt entirely unnecessary and pretty difficult to watch. Even if this is a common occurrence in the region, it did not really play into the general structure of the film and sent several audience members quickly out of the theater.
Unfortunately, Western turned out to be one of my least favorites at Sundance, but it may have been simply that the film I wanted to see was not the film they wanted to make. If you think the idea of just being a spectator to a difficult situation is interesting, and you are open to this style of filmmaking, you might really love this film, because the filmmakers have delivered that artfully, its just not enough substance for this reviewer.
Only a few more days left of Sundance. Be sure to follow me on twitter @bearsfonte for my film-by-film reaction of this year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals.