By Michael Dear, author of Border Witness: Reimagining the US-Mexico Borderlands through Film
Over the past two decades, there has been an explosion of film releases about the US-Mexico borderlands. Not surprisingly, many have addressed issues of drug trafficking and cartels as well as immigration. But border films also have a longer history—many early 20th-century silent movies were set in border communities.
Border films are important because they hold up a mirror to the real borderlands and reflect ways in which past and present U.S. and Mexican filmmakers imagined the other side. Forward-looking films of successful cross-border collaborations also suggest guidelines for constructing better binational relations between our two nations.
So, here is a list of my top 15 recommended border films, presented in chronological order, and including the outstanding, still-relevant “classics” of the genre (both old and new), plus a few personal favorites. Most of these films are easily accessible, but some Mexican-origin films might require a deeper search.
1949 BORDER INCIDENT Anthony Mann
One of the earliest and most powerful of films in the border film catalogue, Border Incident tells the story of cross-border migration from the US viewpoint, and optimistically emphasizes the successes of binational law enforcement in preventing the exploitation of migrants crossing over from Mexico.
1955 ESPALDAS MOJADAS /WETBACKS Alejandro Galindo
An early film relating the story of cross-border migration from the Mexican viewpoint, Espaldas Mojadas highlights the nobility and courage of Mexican migrants in the face of brutal exploitation on both sides of the line. The film opens with a government warning deterring Mexican migrants from attempting to cross the line because the lawless US Border Patrol shoots first, and never bothers with questions afterwards!
1958 TOUCH OF EVIL Orson Welles
The first border film masterpiece, Touch of Evil is set along the borderline in the style of gangster-oriented film noir, with non-stop action, standout performances, memorable music, and the darkest photography. This is absolutely the first ‘must-see’ border film, still relevant and shocking.
1983 EL NORTE / THE NORTH Gregory Nava
The best account at the time of the perils of cross-border migration, El Norte is told through the tragic story of a sister and brother forced to flee from certain death in Guatemala. Beautiful to look at and heartbreaking, the film has garnered many awards and remains among the foundational contributions to the emerging border film catalogue.
1987 BORN IN EAST LA Cheech Marin
The funniest farce in border film ever! Rudy is an American who is accidentally deported to Tijuana where—lacking any documents to prove his nationality—he spends the rest of the film struggling to get back. This is a drama of undocumented crossing before border fences existed. Friends of mine who lived in Tijuana in the 1980s swear that the craziness portrayed in this film was exactly what real life was like along the line during that era.
1996 LONE STAR John Sayles
Lone Star is an epic narrative of small-town borderland life told through the lives of diverse characters and spanning many generations. The story begins with the terrors wrought by the murderous actions of a racist sheriff, but ends hopefully as biracial younger generations begin to free themselves from the tyranny of the old ways.
2000 TRAFFIC Stephen Soderburgh
The twenty-first century opened with a striking sequence of big-budget, mega-star films that portrayed the origins and consequences of drug trafficking along the borderline. The first of these films was Traffic, a multi-layered story portraying the global reach of organized crime, the conflicts between drug cartels and US law enforcement, and the corruption of any person, community or society exposed to drug trafficking.
2004 AND STARRING PANCHO VILLA AS HIMSELF Bruce Beresford
This film recalls an incredible-but-true story from the Mexican Revolution, when the rebel General Pancho Villa signed a contract with a US film studio allowing his battles to be filmed in return for payments in support of his military campaign. The film is tragic, comic, romantic and convincingly imagined, bouncing between the crew’s adventures in the borderland war to the film’s glittering premiere in New York City.
2008 SLEEP DEALER Alex Rivera
Sleep Dealer is the best science-fiction fantasy film about the US-Mexico border. Mexico is now completely sealed off from the US by enormous walls. Drones maintain constant surveillance along the line, dispensing death as required. Workers in Mexico are connected to robots that carry out the actual work in the US, thus removing the need for imported migrant labor. Yet even in ruthlessly authoritarian societies, resistance is possible along the border’s edge.
2010 MACHETE Robert Rodríguez/Ethan Manaquis
In this film, a disgraced Mexican cop called Machete escapes assassination and hides in a Texas border town. There he joins the local resistance movement led by a young woman who operates a taco stand. Following Machete’s example, immigrant domestic workers, nurses, dishwashers, and field hands unite to revolt against oppression! This is the world imagined by Robert Rodríguez, so get ready for a deluge of comedy, heroism, sex and violence. (Like his kind of craziness? Watch out for borderland vampires in From Dusk Til Dawn.)
2015 SICARIO Denis Villeneuve
Fifteen years after Traffic, Sicario announced that the US and Mexico had lost their respective wars against drug cartels. The “war on drugs” has been displaced by an endless series of local battles, involving a kind of trench warfare where gains are measured by minor, temporary victories that are inevitably followed by setbacks. Convincing, violent, and thrillingly pessimistic, this is filmmaking of the highest quality —in any genre.
2015 600 MILLAS/MILES Gabriel Ripstein
600 Millas is a smart, tense film about a US government agent whose day job is to combat cross-border gun trafficking but who also doubles as collaborator with local drug lords. The agent is kidnapped and transported to Mexico by an inexperienced gang member who delivers him to a drug lord’s home. After multiple murders and a surprising betrayal, the agent returns to the US and takes up his dual life once again. The film demonstrates that cartel influence penetrates deeply into all aspects of everyday life.
2017 CARNE Y ARENA / FLESH AND SAND Alejandro González Iñárritu
Unlike any film-going experience I’ve had, this short film is an immersive, virtual-reality installation made by one Mexico’s most prominent film directors. At night, you witness a small group of migrants get intercepted by the US border patrol, drawing you into the terrifying action in ways that are difficult to resist. The engagement is unforgettable. Such installations might foretell our future —about the way we will be entertained, experience the world, and know ourselves.
2019 YA NO ESTOY AQUÍ / I AM NO LONGER HERE Fernando Frias de la Parra
Ya No Estoy Aquí provides a close look at the life of Ulises, a charismatic teenager forced to flee from Monterrey (in northern Mexico) when his life is threatened by neighborhood gang members who don’t like the way he looks, dresses or dances. Unhappily exiled in New York City, Ulises longs to return to Mexico even though he faces certain death there. The film was shortlisted as Mexico’s nomination for an Academy Award.
2021 SIN SEÑAS PARTICULARES / IDENTIFYING FEATURES Fernanda Valadez
This eye-opening film shows what happens to small-town Mexican communities once they are occupied by cartels. After the takeover, many residents flee and communities become ruined, hollowed out of every aspect of personal life. The remaining inhabitants live in remote caves or holes in the ground, scratching out marginal lives in terrified seclusion. This is one of the most accomplished Mexican-origin films in the current crop, especially noteworthy because it is directed, produced, and written by two women, using an almost all-women crew and mostly nonprofessional actors.
1952 AVENTURERA / ADVENTURESS Alberto Gout (I know, this is #16, but it’s super-special!)
Mexican cabaretera films were the equivalent of US film noir – lots of macho villains, deadly dames, and one honorable private eye. This film has a knockout performance by the incomparable Ninón Sevilla at the heart of a riotous combination of Latin music, song and dance, heartbreak, comedy, and non-stop bad behavior. Some critics dismiss it, but I cherish this film because no-one ever mentions crossing over into the USA to realize something called an American Dream.