I had the honor of serving as a juror at this year’s Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and once again the festival’s program featured a wealth of talented filmmakers presenting their work. One of the most gripping documentaries I had the opportunity to see was “Missing in Brooks County”, a thoughtful and immersive look at the lingering US/Mexico border crisis.
The film comes from documentarians Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss. The two directed, filmed and produced this affecting examination of a critical issue that has in many ways been lost in the noise of battling bureaucracies and political parties. As is obvious from the title, the film is set within Brooks County, Texas, much of it in and around the small town of Falfurrias.
For a little history, during Bill Clinton’s presidency measures were taken by his administration to address the increasing flow of illegal migrant traffic crossing the southern border. The idea was to strengthen border security in order to funnel migrant traffic to the most dangerous areas. While some casualties were expected, the hope was to discourage illegal crossers from attempting the long, arduous journey. Predictably that’s not at all what happened.
In Brooks County, some 70 miles from the US/Mexico border, migrants are brought in by coyotes who gave them a jug of water and directions around the checkpoints. The groups then walk for miles across hot, dry, privately owned ranch land. Many never make it to their destination, losing their way and dying due to the harsh and rugged elements. It’s believed that since 2008 an estimated 2,000 migrants have died in their attempt at making the dangerous trek. Yet considering how many are never found, the total could be considerably higher.
Molomot and Bemiss begin by introducing us to Eddie Canales, a 70-year-old advocate running the South Texas Human Rights Center. With limited resources but maximum heart and effort, Eddie works to help families looking for missing relatives. He also works with willing ranchers to place water stations on their property in hopes of reducing the number of migrant deaths. But not everyone sees this as noble work. We hear from some who question Eddie’s motivations, even theorizing that he is involved with smuggling people past the checkpoints. It creates a local tension that exacerbates the problem more than helps.
There is also a real-life mystery element as we follow two different families trying to find their loved ones who attempted to cross Brooks County but have never been heard from since. We also feel the pulse of others directly affected by the crisis including the border patrol, human rights workers, and the understaffed local sheriff’s department who is tasked with covering approximately 900,000 square acres of jurisdiction.
Through them all Molomot and Bemiss vividly capture the complexity and the far-reaching effects of the situation. To the film’s credit it doesn’t pretend to have a perfect solution. Instead it’s aim is to focus on the humanity, something often lost in today’s black-and-white politicization of the issue. Outside of a few overt political pop-shots, the movie keeps us at the epicenter by concentrating solely on the viewpoints of those directly impacted. It’s the essential ingredient to the film’s potency.
Another strength is the cinematography which places us close to the people on the ground and offers us an effective emotional connection to them and their circumstances. It also does a great job presenting the south Texas territory whether on foot or through soaring high-resolution drone footage. Both reveal the sparse foreboding landscape consisting of thousands of acres with few distinguishable landmarks. The vast ominous sameness is striking. This strong sense of setting adds a sharp visual clarity to the issues Molomot and Bemiss are exploring.
“Missing in Brooks County” is a clear-eyed exposé of a troubling situation that isn’t as simple as “opening our borders” or “building a wall”. The documentary shows that the situation in this poor South Texas county is far more complicated and personal. Again the film doesn’t pretend to have the answers nor does it get lost in the inflammatory rhetoric￼ and political posturing that surrounds this important issue today. Instead the film’s interests are in the human costs and in challenging its audience to look past the surface-level nonsense in order to understand the real stakes at the heart of the crisis.
“Missing in Brooks County” made its world premiere at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival where it won for Best Southern Feature. Look for it to be expanding to other festivals in the near future.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS