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With the current political climate, and Donald Trump increasing the height of the wall he wants to build on the US-Mexico border weekly, nothing at SXSW seemed quite so timely as Greg Kwedar’s TRANSPECOS.  Co-written with Clint Bentley, Kwedar’s film throws the viewer on the front lines of the border.  Gabriel Luna plays Flores, a border agent stuck between the by-the-books politically correct Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr.) and the fresh recruit Davis (Johnny Simmons). When a routine inspection goes terribly, terribly wrong at a surprise check point, Flores finds out that his ‘apprentice’ has been compromised. He needs to let the drugs through to the US or his family will be killed.

It’s an intense thriller in the desert, miles away from any help, and in that moral grey zone that makes for the best drama. Flores wants to do what’s right, but that means letting his friend’s life be destroyed. Going the other direction, he’s helping the cartels, and not doing much for Hobbs, who is shot at the checkpoint.  The film dispenses quickly with political idealism and deals with the very relationships that have been ripped apart in a manner of seconds.  “I spent three or four years in college, going down to the border every weekend, working with college students and communities in Nuevo Laredo,” says director and co-writer Greg Kwedar, “what I didn’t register at the time is that every time I passed a Border Patrol agent – I didn’t see them as human beings – I saw them as a uniform and a symbol.”

I had a chance to sit down with Kwedar, his co-writer Bentley, and actors Simmons and Collins at SXSW. We joked about how a film Kwedar began working on six years ago was still timely.  “You’re on a runaway train and we all know we’re heading to the bridge where the tracks run out,” he says “we’re just gonna keep saying it’s timely until we run off into a cliff and explode.” Kwedar says the thought initially occurred to him in Big Bend, as he skipped rocks across the Rio Grande river (into another country). The exact plotting of the film, however, came much later. “We wrote a lot of different drafts over the course of four years before we got to the shooting script,” says Bentley, “we had this script that worked up to the point that in the end you find out there’s a dirty agent and he’s another agent’s best friend. And that was the end of the movie. We wanted to tighten it up so we just took that reveal at the end and put it in the first 15 minutes. So thhe first thing you find out is that this agent has been turned, and all these guys are best friends, and what happens next.”

Kwedar loved the idea of compounding consequences, that the thing that makes them all friends, their job, is also what will pull them apart.  The first fifteen minutes of the film really just lays out the personalities and throws you into a day in the life.  When everything starts to go down, you feel as lied to as Davis’ co-workers. “My brother’s in the military,” explains Simmons on his character’s turn, “and he took a vow, an oath to his country. He would give his life for our freedom- and then you put that in a smaller set up where you can pass a car through and your family’s safe. This drug that’ll be legal in twenty years, it might be illegal now – you can start questioning all kinds of morality with that, you can start rationalizing it, you can say things.”

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Each agent has their own view on their job, on the cartel, and on how to handle the inspections. But they are also under their own pressures outside of the job, or that directly affect it.  “When you’re dealing with an enemy like a cartel that is highly sophisticated, highly powerful, has great reach,” says Kwedar, “and you have an agency like the Border Patrol that’s putting agents alone in places in the middle of nowhere, that makes you very vulnerable to an enemy like that. And they find any point that they can break in, and any weak spot.”

In fact, the family the cartel is threatening are several states away.  This isolation in the desert gives the film a very different take on the ‘cabin in the woods’ motif. These agents are stuck her, without help, until they find a way to overcome their trials.  The place they are stuck in the middle of nowhere in is a desert.

Bentley agrees, saying, “one of the things we talked about with our DP, Jeffrey Waldron, was, how can start a movie where the landscape and the setting is inviting and complimentary to the lives of these agents, and then, at the turn, it becomes it’s endless and wide open, but yet it’s a prison.” Here’s a place where someone can see for miles, but when it turns to dark, you can only see as far as your flashlight. There are no lights, not even from passing cars, because no one is passing.  “One of the most interesting things about the job,” says Bentley, “it’s 99% complete boredom, and then something so surreal and unimaginable happens to them, and then it stops, and it’s back to a boring day.”

To help with authenticity, Kwedar and Bentley brought on technical advisor Sam Sadler, who had joined the Border Patrol at age 18 and had retired just a few years before TRANSPECOS’ shooting commenced.   “He’s got the kind of commitment that would prohibit him from flying here, because he feels the TSA violates his rights,” jokes Collins, whose Hobbs character mostly echoes Sadler.  “I’ve got the utmost respect for him,” the actor says, “his moral core and his integrity are the exception, sadly, and not the norm. This guy really speaks and supports laws that are voted in by the people. You know, whether marijuana’s harmless or not, he’s like, ‘I’ve got laws to uphold.’ Sam’s never even seen cocaine in his entire career. He never drew his pistol once. He goes, ‘Clifton, often times presence is enough to stop any potentially violent situation.’ He’s like Steve McQueen. he’s a bad motherfucker this guy, you would think he blasted a lot of folks, but he didn’t.”

Bentley is quick to praise Sadler as well, mentioning he runs an adoption center and plays by the book, just like the ‘Hobbs’ character. “It just gave me an insight into the person who would put on a badge and say, ‘I’ll sacrifice my life for yours,’” the co-writer and producer says, “it gives me chills even still thinking about it, ‘Even if it is weed, it’s the laws of the nation, and it’s not my duty to question, it’s my duty to enforce to the best of my ability.’ He’s just one of the most incredible people that I’ve ever met.”

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So if no one ever pulls their gun and presence is enough to stop violations and most of the people sneaking across the border never get caught, is Kwedar’s film just supposition? Unfortunately, no.  “The moment where Hobbs is dragged away by a car actually happened to an agent,” says the director.  “A guy drove out of a checkpoint, the agent reached in, the window caught him, drug him away.  That agent, while he was being driven down a highway, speeding away, hanging off a car – shot the driver.” Busting a car with $10 million in coke would be a career-defining achievement.  “If the cartel’s gonna move an important load, they’re controlling the situation,” he says, “you’re catching the riff-raff, but the real stuff is moving through undetected because they’re beating the game.” Collins is quick to point out the reason they catch this car in the film is that it’s a roving checkpoint – it wasn’t supposed to be there.  One bit of reality that I loved is the way they catch the drug mule – Hobbs notices the car keys are just that, car keys, no house key.  “Everyone’s got a house key, and so it looks like a burner vehicle,” says Kwedar, “they look for all these little, tiny details that are off.”

It’s hard to talk about TRANSPECOS without thinking about the political backdrop playing out in our election cycle, a sort of us vs. them mentality.  The reality is that the problem would be as much on this side of any proposed wall as on the other side. Kwedar recalls one of Sadler’s stories, from his time teaching ethics to a class of agents.  “He’s like, ‘How many people believe men in the United States Border Patrol are corrupt?’ You know, and everyone raised their hand,” he retells, “then he said, ‘Okay, how many men in our region do you think are corrupt?’ About half the room raised their hand. Then he’s said, ‘How many people do you think at the Deming Station are secretly working for the cartel?’ Only a couple people raised their hand. Then he said, ‘How many people in your own unit have been turned?’ No one raised their hand. You never think the man next to you could be possible.”

One thing to remember about Border Patrol agents is that they are being asked to do something which was completely unintended when the agency was formed.  “The Border Patrol is, constitutionally, supposed to be looking for illegal immigrants,” reminds Bentley, “If you look into it, it has nothing to do with drugs.”  Kwedar agrees; “After September 11th everything changed, we got folded into Homeland Security and a hiring search happened and standards dropped. You were recruited into Border Patrol if you liked the outdoors.”

TRANSPECOS world premiered at SXSW this month and won the Narrative Feature Competition Audience Award. It screens next at the Dallas International Film Festival.

Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.

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