The forgotten southern border of Mexico, site of an endless stream of northbound Central Americans looking for work, provides young documentarian Juan Manuel Sepulveda with an imposing stage for his camera in “Infinite Border.” Essential viewing for artfilm lovers, docu-mavens and news hounds, the pic will struggle to get North American distribution but should sell widely in Europe and Latin America after a fine fest run.
As if to fight against the chaotic and desperate conditions, Sepulveda and his lenser Victor Davila seek out their subjects with a precise eye that balances aesthetic engagement with human sensitivity, akin to a consummate landscape painter depicting a group making a mad dash from the cops. Sepulveda offers mere glances near the pic’s beginning and end of the U.S. border fence, but as a Mexican, he appears far more concerned about how his own country is policing its southern border. The shy and subdued testimonials he gathers speak to widespread police abuse on a shameful level.
Sepulveda’s own voiceover narration is too abstract and precious (“Mexico is at the heart of a border paradigm”) to be of much help to much of the film’s likely audience. So it’s just as well that the narration is kept to a minimum, in favor of the filmmaker’s strength as an artistic observer.
In Honduras, a group of nervous travelers hope to get over to the other side in a bus, not sure if it will work out. The nighttime setting — much of the illegal transport and crossings happens under cover of darkness — gives tremendous weight, and dread, to Sepulveda’s well-composed shots, which can recall the photography of Jeff Wall.
In a detention center, the setting is surprisingly calm; the mood Sepulveda gets here is almost like that in a boys’ camp, with the youngsters waiting for their parents to pick them up. Far sadder is a church where Central Americans who’ve lost their limbs during high-risk runs on moving trains are trying to rehabilitate themselves. Even without legs, a young man says he still hopes to get to the U.S.
In the film’s longest and final sequence, set in and around Tapachula in the semi-lawless Chiapas province, bands of young men wait patiently for the next northbound train to move out. They’re not about to let the “migra” stop them, but they’re well aware of their reputation for brutality, which can range from tear gas to bullets.
Wherever the migra may be, they’re nowhere near where Sepulveda films at the train tracks. The sight of one train car piled high with young men trying to get north is astonishing, suggesting that immigrant and refugee patterns are like water: They’ll find their way through, and they’re about as difficult to dam as a large, wide river.
Closing telephoto shot of the train lumbering slowly down the tracks and away from view has a truly epic feeling rare in documentaries, as powerful and huge as the jaw-dropping closer in Juan Rulfo’s “In the Pit” about the construction of a Mexico City freeway. Once the train and illegals vanish from view, normal daily life resumes, as families, cars and animals quietly cross the tracks. History is being made, but life goes on.
Davila’s HD lensing is magnificent, as is Arturo Villela Vega’s score.