REVIEW: Film Screening: The River and The Wall

“Building a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to do border security.”

-Will Hurd, Republican Congressman of Texas

A politicized landscape can be both metaphorical and physical. We preoccupy ourselves with the issues, and the solid ground they concern disappears. But for all those who benefit from this space–wildlife, nature enthusiasts, fishers,–forgetting is impossible. The land is sacred, life-giving, the means for making a living. Politicians in faraway places decide what happens, unaffected by the cascading effects a complete wall would have on the life here.

Important populations which have historically struggled to survive are put at risk by Trump’s border wall. Black bears and mountain lions, just coming back from local near-extinction, will suffer geographic isolation, decreasing genetic diversity and weakening the populations’ ability to withstand disease or other destructors. The meandering nature of the Rio Grande and the unrelenting straight edge of the wall necessitates a wide swath of no man’s land by the river, unjustly punishing local landowners and workers. The US side will lack the river, along with its aesthetic, spiritual, and bodily supportive value.

It’s impossible not to draw a connection from this to Robert Moses’ tyrannical reconstruction of New York during the mid-20th century. Caring not for the residents of its “slums” (read: people of color, the impoverished, undesirable white ethnic groups), he cut straight through with expressways and less-than-affordable new public housing. Rich, dense communities were reduced to identical buildings cut off from the rest of the city. The cultural and physical landscape of their old home had completely changed. He, like the Trump administration, was detached from the people he affected, and in this he lacked the knowledge and empathy necessary to be a leader of that kind. 

The river is our equalizer between us and our neighbors. A source of life, a means of survival and emotional wellbeing. The alluvial river plains, fertilized by upwelling of rich sediments during floods, are extremely productive areas. Losing out on this agricultural resource would be disastrous for farmers and the communities they support.

What bothered me about this documentary was the clearly elevated position on which its subjects stood. It really was not an accurate approximation of a migrant’s dangerous journey. They’re equipped with strong horses, expensive bikes and hiking gear, nice canoes. They are all young, in good health, physically strong. All the methods of transportation the five used (bikes, horses, canoes) are physically taxing. The film failed to bring up the unique dangers that elderly migrants face on their way, and also children, pregnant women, the ill. That side of the issue is an even darker facet, and it should be represented here.

Luckily, the film was able to balance the tragedy of our likely future with the joys of past and present. The cinematography was graceful and rugged at once, the environment lending itself to an exploration of the simultaneous existence of fear and awe. It seems to reflect a migrant’s experience because of that.

The ending was too idyllic for my taste, a little too naively hopeful. We see little direction for viewers to seize and act from. Emotion alone is not enough to argue against the political situation in which we find ourselves.

This website is a great resource for investigating what you can do.




Just before Fall Break, The Center for World Performance Studies hosted an incredible guest artist by the name of  Taous Claire Khazem. The actress/activist performed a one-woman, self-starring theatrical performance called “Tizi Ouzou.” Named for the real life town in Algeria from which her father’s lineage descends, the play recounted the tales of ten imaginary emigrants or citizens of the mountainous village, exploring their struggles, values, dreams, disappointments, and distinctions. Taous created each character using simple props: a pair of shoes, a scarf, a coffee cup, a cane, or a pair of glasses, a cigarette. The set was bare, so the only way to enter the story  was through the performer’s movements, utterances, and expressive behaviors. It was astounding how developed each character became as Taous donned the accessories that defined the separate story lines. The cast included an old man who believed the cultural revolution of thirty years previous was current news; a young woman who wanted to move to America and find a basketball player for a husband; a sweet French girl who had fallen in love with an Algerian man; a grandmother who bakes bread and doles out unsolicited life advice; a religious teenager; a travel agent with strong opinions about Algerian men, and many more. In a question and answer session following the performance, Taous declared that each character had been adapted from real-life counter parts. Her personal history of immigration, multi-cultural values, language barriers, and even discrimination came alive in this animated narrative. Though the plot is specific to French-Algerian culture, it somehow felt relatable to the entire audience. The characters she developed are archetypal and familiar. Their challenges and triumphs are pertinent to nearly any group of people in the world, particularly those who have crossed country lines in their lifetime. The characters felt close to heart, though they are from a far off land called Tiz Ouzou.

For more about events hosted by The Center for World Performances, click here. For info on Taous, click here. See you next time!

REVIEW: State of Exception

State of Exception

Just inside the double doors of the Institute for Humanities is a small, discreet passage leading to a far away place  beyond Ann Arbor: the US/Mexican border. I see “gallery” and I  imagine photographs hanging on walls or statues on pedestals- not dizzying videos, dialogue about border control, and images of tactile, human  belongings staring me in the face.

As part of the Race Theme Semester, the Humanities Institute is featuring a striking exhibit about the immigration journey across the Mexico-Arizona border.  Anthropology professor Jason De Léon’s four year old “Undocumented Migration Project” is the organization behind this emotive installation. In collaboration with world renowned photographer Bill Barnes and curator Amanda Krugliak, the two created the ethnographic story of unauthorized migration through dangerous southern  border territory. Using techniques such as forensics and  archeology, the “Project” curated abandoned vestiges of migrant workers, such as backpacks, dirt encrusted toothbrushes, forgotten bottles, salvaging rosaries, Mother Mary’s, orphaned shoes and more.

As you enter the gallery, the space is dark and crowded. Disorienting videos of a rocky pathways project onto the floor as the viewer progresses through a dark tunneled entrance. She  follows the sounds of pensive, recorded voices speaking over each other repeatedly. Once inside, the viewer  sees two video projections playing simultaneously: one of six faces looking into  the camera and speaking their concerns, fears, and curiosities about illegal immigration; one with pastures, rough hills, and jagged fences rushing outside a moving car window. Opposite the running films, a wall of about one hundred crusty, recovered back packs blanket the walls, making the viewer appear  diminutive in their presence.

This instillation is intriguing because of its collaboration between academics and fine arts. The content of the “Project” clearly addresses issues of policy, social (in)justice, and race, while the imagery is skilled, creative, and artfully executed. This combination of disciplines “considers the complexities and ambiguities of found objects and what they may or may not reveal in terms of transition, human experience, culture, violence, and accountability.” The piece did a thorough job of emoting the urgency of these conflicts, especially by incorporating  lost baby shoes and tiny pony tale holders fit for toddler sized children. I wondered about the people who carried  those objects, wondered who struggled against all odds to cross suc treacherous barriers.

Skimming the guest book near the entrance, I noticed a variety of responses to the exhibit. Most were positive, conveying a sense of appreciation for the severity of the work. Some comments, however, conveyed a less than delighted reaction to the piece. One claimed it was an expression of “white guilt” and did nothing to transcend the issue of race and racism. Perhaps this reaction was because the voices in the film were mostly “white”. That was a very interesting, strategic choice on behalf of the artists to choose white, American voices to address these issues. I wondered whether it was intentional or whether it happened by default. It had a curious affect on the purpose of the piece and left me uncertain about how well  it affected me in the end. You’ll have to see and decide for yourself.

For more on State of Exception, click here. Click here for an LSA review of the event and here to see images and texts from the artists themselves. An most informative of all, click here to see a video of Prof. De Léon describe the details of his project and hear from his students. The gallery is located in the lobby of the Institute for Humanities. It is open 8:00 am to 5:00 pm through the end of Spring Break. Definitely relevant to this semester’s theme-  check it out!