Recently I was trying to put together a line up for a forthcoming episode of Show Me Your Titles, the weekly film discussion podcast I co-host, on the theme that would generally fit around the topic of the exploitation of workers.
One of the films that I saw as a possibility was Bordertown, a film directed by Greg Nawa (Selena, Mi Familia) and starring Jennifer Lopez, Martin Sheen and Antonio Banderas. Lopez plays an investigative reporter for a newspaper in Chicago inexplicably sent to Juarez City, Mexico to investigate the murders of thousands of young women who work in the production pl ants opened along the border following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The story is based on real events that had previously only been explored in film with Lourdes Portillo's documentary Seniorita Extraviada which has availability limited mostly to college libraries.
Bordertown had recently been shunted by its distributor straight to dvd but given how much I had enjoyed I Could Never Be Your Woman (a remarkably smart romantic comedy that earlier this year had also been dumped to dvd) I was confident that Bordertown was a good film, possibly a great film that soft-minded marketing execs had declared that despite the heavyweight cast and directing talents would too difficult to promote.
My sagely cynical co-host Cathy recommended that I see the film for myself before committing it to SMYT's line up and I, oblivious to any possible beef with the film, happily obliged.
The film opens up with a graphic gang rape scene (which, as a matter of policy, disqualifies it from being covered on SMYT) and more or less goes downhill from there. The woman is beaten, strangled and buried alive but she survives and limps several miles home strong in her convictions to seek justice. The following two hours contains further degradation of every kind, there's the corrupt, thuggish police force, an international government conspiracy, an eyeball gouged out, a drive by shooting, Lopez going undercover as a factory worker 10 years her junior, prostitution, a teen pop idol, trans-racial adoption politics, someone being beat to death with a plank of wood that's on fire (ala Freddy Kruger), an open mass grave, a group of people left to die in the trunk of a car parked in the desert, and perhaps most harrowing of all: a scene where uber-diva Jennifer Lopez dyes her own hair.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but the script holding this all together is so ludicrous that plot points contradict each other from scene to scene. It would qualify as a camp classic among the likes of Showgirls and I Know Who Killed Me if it weren't all based on events that happened to real people with little to no justice for the victims.
In reality what is happening in Juarez City is genocide. There have been many theories about different culprits behind the thousands of rapes, murders and kidnappings of young women (including several serial killers and organ trafficking) but what remains clear is that these women's lives are not considered valuable so long as the nearby factories keep American consumer goods cheap.
The film brings to a head a deep conflict in feminist film criticism, do these depictions of violence raise awareness of the threat women face on a daily basis? Or do repeated, sanitized images of this kind desensitize us further from the obscene levels of violence in our society?
What is most troubling about Bordertown isn't all the ways it goes wrong (these are well-treaded paths of exploitation) but the glimmers of intelligence that I desperately want to believe belong to this director whose work may have been elbowed into different directions by jittery studio executives. There is a great scene where Lopez's character, distraught with the inefficacy of American journalism thrashes about her posh news office throwing computer monitors and televisions to the ground screaming, "there's blood on your hands! There's blood on all of our hands!"
Nava also does a masterful job of portraying class rage with visual splendor. The places where poor people live, work and congregate are all dirty, cramped and constantly violent. The wealthy people are hardly seen working at all but the homes, restaurants and parties they inhabit seem utopic in contrast with lavish gardens, floor-to-ceiling aquariums and the constant sound of soft piano tinkling.
I just wish he and Lopez shared the same righteous anger towards the actual murders instead of using them as a backdrop for an an uneven, absurd vanity piece.
UPDATE: I recently had the opportunity to interview documentary film-maker Lourdes Portillo and asked her about Bordertown.