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Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary

Engrossing Canadian-produced docu "Wetback" hits the ground running alongside migrants fleeing poverty in Central America for the (North) "American Dream"; pic points out that only about 300 of the estimated 3,000 who leave every day will actually make it to their destination.

With:
With: Pat & Lynn Hannigan, Sister Maureen Quinn, Mark Zwick, Roger Kemp, Richard Solis, Chris Simcox, Gene Barbetta, Craig Howard, Guadalupe Barbosa, Leonardo Lopez Guajardo, Arturo Herrera Gonzales, Flor Maria Rigoni, Francisco Aceves Verdugo, Gabriela Coutino, Hugo Angeles Cruz, Ademar Barilli, Walter Arriaga, Francisco Martinez, Ajax Alvarado.

Engrossing Canadian-produced docu “Wetback” hits the ground running alongside migrants fleeing poverty in Central America for the (North) “American Dream”; pic points out that only about 300 of the estimated 3,000 who leave every day will actually make it to their destination. Considered an invasion of undesirables by many in the U.S., these illegals are dealt in sympathetic terms here, with Yank border authorities and vigilantes also given time to air their views. Feature has been traveling the fest circuit since March, and merits further exposure among pubcasters and other educational outlets.

Armed Stateside citizen groups trying to catch those illegally crossing the Rio Grande complain the leaky border lets in criminals, rapists and terrorists. But that’s not who we see attempting dangerous journeys from countries (Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, etc.) where unemployment is epidemic, inflation sky-high and wages poor. Most, including a rising number of mothers leaving young children behind, see no other way to keep their families fed. Astoundingly, the docu pegs the money illegal immigrants send back to Nicaragua, for instance, to be 25% of that country’s GNP.

Current free-trade policies have played no small part in collapsing local economies. As a sympathetic U.S. activist notes, the reason Americans can get bananas at 29¢ a pound is because agricultural laborers are paid a less-than-living wage.

Beyond the pain of leaving their cultures and loved ones behind, the emigres face any number of perils, particularly once they’ve reached Mexico — one official there guesses 80% of migrants passing through are robbed, many by the corrupt police who might send them home even after being bribed. Rape, murder and “disappearance” are also common.

One heartbreaking sequence is shot in a hospital ward full of those who’ve lost limbs falling from the sides of cargo train cars, which hundreds of travelers cling to every day. One young man, both legs now amputated, recounts calling the wife who was waiting for him in Virginia, telling her to “forget about me and go on with her life.”

There’s a loose focus, insofar as filmmakers are able to follow them, on three pairs of would-be emigrants: A father and young daughter who ultimately make it; two men who are left penniless by bandits and must go home; and another pair who are deported after capture just over the U.S. border.

Official commentators range from migrant advocates and safe-house operators to a U.S. Border Patrol agent and members of controversial citizens group Civil Homeland Defense in Texas and Arizona. Latter might argue the docu is biased toward the titular “wetbacks” (so named for their frequent arrival via a Rio Grande swim), but helmer Arturo Perez Torres does maintain some semblance of a neutral reportorial tone.

Allowing for inevitable verite rough edges (especially in nocturnal lensing), package is well-honed, with sharp editing and a good use of music.

Popular on Variety

Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary

Canada-Mexico

Production: An Open City Works production in association with Canada Council for the Arts. Produced by Heather Haynes. Directed by Arturo Perez Torres.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Felipe Rodriguez; editor, Julia Blua; music, Roko Citroen; sound, Benito Amaro. Reviewed on DVD, Nov. 28, 2005. (In San Francisco Latino Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.

With: With: Pat & Lynn Hannigan, Sister Maureen Quinn, Mark Zwick, Roger Kemp, Richard Solis, Chris Simcox, Gene Barbetta, Craig Howard, Guadalupe Barbosa, Leonardo Lopez Guajardo, Arturo Herrera Gonzales, Flor Maria Rigoni, Francisco Aceves Verdugo, Gabriela Coutino, Hugo Angeles Cruz, Ademar Barilli, Walter Arriaga, Francisco Martinez, Ajax Alvarado.

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