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At SXSW, A Modern ‘Western’ Opens Eyes To A Closed Border

Ross Brothers
The late mayor of Eagle Pass, Chad Foster, watches the skies in WESTERN.

If you’re looking for talking heads in Bill and Turner Ross’s documentaries, you won’t find them. Their documentaries capture the essence of the people and places they film, from nocturnal New Orleans to a small Ohio town. Their latest portrait, Western, was shot in Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, Mexico. The Ross brothers were there as the twin communities, united in one culture, slowly fractured from encroaching border violence and the construction of the border fence.

Two characters emerged from the 300 hours of footage shot for the film: the late Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass, and Martín Wall, a cattleman whose business is bringing steers from south of the border into the United States for sale.

Bill and Turner Ross spoke following the premiere of Western at the South By Southwest Film Festival, where many of the film’s subjects got to see the movie for the first time.

When we last spoke in 2012, you hinted that your next project was going to be set along la frontera. How far along in the process were you at that point?

Bill Ross: We were being sneaky, because we had already shot it! We finished shooting in 2011, so this one had a strange roll-out, because we shot Tchoupitoulas in 2009-2010, and then Turner started scouting the border in 2010, and he called me up one day and said ‘I found this place, you should come check it out. Pack a bag for the weekend.’ I went for the weekend, and we didn’t leave for 13 months. So we shot, and then I went back and cut Tchoupitoulas. We toured around with that, and then went back and cut Western. It’s had a slow roll-out I guess!

There had been years of violence — and we’ll talk a little more about this in a moment — but there had been years of violence in Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, but I think that here in Texas, we hadn’t heard much about it happening around Acuña or Piedras Negras yet. What had you heard before you started to go shoot, about what was happening along the border?

Turner Ross: I was aware enough, just circumstantially. I mean, [conflict] is not what we are ever seeking out. We didn’t go down there to shoot a conflict movie, we didn’t go down there to do a political film, but in scouting the border, in going to towns on either side from Columbus, New Mexico all the way down the Rio Grande, you get a pretty good sense of what’s going on. Some of those places had been affected, and were in a different state. And then there was Eagle Pass and PiedrasNegras, which seemed to be… well nothing’s ever all sunshine, but it seemed to be in this relationship that was buoyant at the time, but there were murmurs of this thing coming. That was an interesting backdrop. We went for another reason, but the time happened to be just inherently dramatic. A real shift, flashpoint, for that region.

When you think of the idea of a Western, you have these ideas in your head [about what] you're going to see. We set out to find what was the truth of the modern frontier, and hopefully we've encapsulated some of that. -Turner Ross

Credit Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross
Chad Foster works the phones.

I love how the picture opens, because first of all you capture the beauty of the land, with that wonderful shot of the Rio Grande, and the sky all purple and pinkish above it. And then this wonderful celebration of … almost as if there are no borders whatsoever, with the two cities of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras coming together. Did you expect to find this kind of cross-pollination of the two cultures to such an extent when you came there?

Bill: The shooting is always the homework. It is the discovery and it’s a trip that we’re on, just existing and seeing what is happening. So I didn’t know much of anything going in. I knew that we wanted to make some sort of non-fiction western that spoke to the westerns that we had grown up on, but through the lens of what we’ve been doing with ourselves the last many years. But it was this discovery of finding this harmony between these two towns, and this brotherhood that they shared. That was pretty interesting, because you don’t get that on the national news. You’re not told about that.

You said western,and the title of the film is Western, and you just referenced the westerns you grew up on. How do you feel that this film references the genre of the western in that regard?

Turner: It’s symbolic, because our other titles are symbolic, and probably confusing even in its directness, but when you think of the idea of a western, maybe what a nonfiction western would be, you have these ideas in your head, these archetypes, these things that you’re going to see. And then when you go and confront realism, perhaps we use some of the genre devices, the tropes, the imagery, the archetypes, the things that exist in there, but I think in our minds, and hopefully in the audience’s mind, that starts to play on what is myth, and what is reality, why you project this, why you bring this to the table when you see this thing.

And the western genre as you go back, dime novels and beyond … the way that we have told this story to ourselves, and the way that this story has gone out into the world, the myth of the west and of the frontier, it’s a language all of its own that once represented something, that then became art imitating life, and then life imitating art, and back and forth, until it eventually becomes a dialogue of the times ... in which we are living. We set out to find what was the truth of the modern frontier, and hopefully we’ve encapsulated some of that.

And you do get some of the archetypes, because you have the lawman in Mayor Chad Foster, and then you have the hard scrabble rancher/farmer in Martín Wall, who’s bringing up cattle from Mexico into the U.S. to sell …

Turner: Honestly [there are] many more, but they aren’t in the movie. The nature of what we do is that we don’t go stick the camera in somebody’s face and say ‘tell me your story.’ We go and we try to find it, fishing. And you get what you catch. And those [two] stories spoke most truthfully to that experience. And certainly those are two sturdy archetypes. Something that is such a standard, the cattle trade, the cattleman, is stopped literally by this shadow of modernity, this thing that is coming, that’s compelling stuff.

Credit Nathan Cone
Bill (left) and Turner Ross.

How did you find these two subjects? How long does it take you, and how many people do you see before you came across the ones you’re going to follow?

Turner: You hit the ground running. Once I had seen [Eagle Pass] ... my initial reaction driving in was ‘well, this isn’t it.’ But as I drove away, I realize that was me bringing something … my own projection. And it was actually the truth of the frontier, which is this liminal space, this grey area. It’s not necessarily Texas or Mexico, it’s this cultural thing that exists there. And it is not Hispanic and White, or black hat/white hat, you know? So when we found that place, and I started doing research, I found out that Chad Foster has been on the ‘O’Reilly Factor,’ and testified in front of Congress, [that] they didn’t want a fence. That’s backdrop. So I cold-called Mr. Foster and told him what we do, what we wanted to do, and most importantly what we didn’t want to do, which was create an expose, to be another journalist who came down, made a pointed story, and then left. And he said, ‘yeah, come on down.’ He opened the door. He opened so many doors. And the way that we work, we start with one door, one handshake, and we let it lead to the next one.

What you do is you create this wonderful portrait of an area ... and so how did y’all come into your style of filmmaking?

Bill: Well, it started very early on. We took our mom’s Hi-8 camera running around, capturing images, not knowing that it was documentary, you know? And much later on, looking back on it, we were making documentaries as little kids. But it was always about not wanting the fleeting moment to pass. Falling in love with what was happening around you, and not wanting it to go away, and so I still have that feeling, I guess. It started from there, and we still do it every day, I guess!

Turner: … and then you certainly arrive at a method of doing it. When you break it down, it’s a series of component parts. If you can gather all the component parts, then hopefully together they can create this alchemy that becomes something, this experience. 

I noticed a recurring shot in Western of a bird sitting on top of a wire, or a fence. At first, it seems like it is sitting on a barbed wire, and then later it’s sitting on the official border fence. It almost becomes progressively ... well, when you talk about encroaching modernity ...

Turner: Yeah, it becomes this ever present specter. For some people, and very unfortunately for some people, they were very directly affected by these things. We filmed some of these people. Their stories are heart-wrenching. The majority of people experience this thing as a shadow, paranoia, a looming fear, something that’s coming to disrupt …

It’s heard on the radio, but rarely seen ...

So very rarely directly confronted, but it’s there. And you know that it’s there, but you don’t necessarily even know who or what it is. And so for us, the birds, and other metaphorical licenses that we take, speak better to that than showing some sort of actuality. I think you as a watcher get to experience it better if you feel it as this thing that’s encroaching on you, to be wary of.

For Mayor Foster, I’m wondering if he revealed to you at all if it was a turning point for him when the mayor of Piedras Negras died in a plane crash [in 2010]. Is that a moment when Foster felt that maybe it’s time to pass the torch on to the next person? Did he speak about any of that at all?

Bill: He would never say something like that. He never let us in like that. That just wasn’t who he was.

Turner: I don’t even know if he let himself in like that. That question is not answered. You can deal with what happened, and infer what you will. And it can speak to his individual experience, and also a broader experience, but he took that one with him. [NOTE: Former mayor Chad Foster died of cancer in 2012.]

Were you ever scared, or worried to be filming in Mexico with cameras?

Bill: Certainly. It never got too dicey, but you could feel it, and you knew sometimes you were in rooms where there were some unsavory folks, but the scariest thing is that Turner was supposed to be on the plane with the PiedrasNegras mayor when that went down. But we were called away to shoot something else. That was a real eye-opener that had us rethinking a lot of things.

Turner: But we made sure that our entrances into every situation were well thought out. We weren’t going down there to stare down the barrel, and we weren’t going down there to get killed. We were going down there to continue this adventure, and this dialogue that we have with each other, this body of work that we’re creating. This movie happens to be set in a very compelling place that is often headline fodder. And it has certainly allowed us into an arena and conversation that we don’t usually get to have. And hopefully made for a good film. But it was a deep experience, and one that won’t go away.

What are your hopes with your screenings at South By Southwest?

Bill: The great opportunity here is to share it with everyone [from] Eagle Pass and PiedrasNegras. So many people have come up for these screenings, and we’ve been able to share it, and have conversations and relive the experiences that we had with them. Anything outside of that is fine, but it’s sharing the adventure that we had.

Turner: We can have all the creative conversations we want, but that really pales in comparison to having the experience of having the people who were part of that be here and approve of it. They don’t see it as an art film, they don’t see this film as some creative thing we’re doing, they see it as a document of their experience, and is that true to their experience. We showed it to Chad Foster’s daughter today. That’s a ‘life’ thing. That’s not a filmic thing.

Western screens one more time at the SXSW Film Festival, on Thursday, March 19, at the Paramount Theater.