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‘The River and the Wall’ Reveals the Environmental Impact of a U.S.-Mexico Border Wall

Documentarian Ben Masters was going to make a nature doc about mountain lions -- then he realized how much the border wall would affect them.

“The River and the Wall”

Fin & Fur Films

The border wall is obviously a contentious political issue in the U.S. right now, but the documentary “The River and the Wall” examines the situation from a perspective some might not have considered just yet: the environmental one.

The film sees director Ben Masters and a small group of environmentalists and filmmakers travel 1200 miles down the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico via bike, horse, and canoe. The filmmaker told the audience following a showing of the film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles that he was inspired to make “The River and the Wall” while in the process of filming a documentary about mountain lions. When he realized the animals he’d tagged with GPS trackers were traveling freely between the U.S. and Mexico, he thought more about the impact a potential border wall would have.

“This proposed wall is going to go far beyond just our immigration system. It’s going to affect the wildlife, it’s going to affect all these landowners, it’s going to affect all of our public land, it’s going to affect our relationship with Mexico,” he explained. “When you live in Texas, there’s this friendship that you have with Mexico, similar to what y’all have here [with California and Mexico]. And, you know, it’s a good thing. And I just felt compelled to try to go out and document these landscapes that had meant a lot to me in my life while I still had the chance. That was kind of the impetus of the film.”

In addition to everything he captured during the journey, Masters spent months before and after capturing shots of the wildlife and landscape. In the end, he wound up with 50 terabytes of footage that can now serve as a historical record of how the border looked before more construction began, which it already has.

“Getting good landscape and wildlife shots takes time,” he said. “It’s not something that you can just step out to go shoot for 10 minutes. It takes a lot of dedicated time. So prior to the trip itself, I spent about four months or so filming a lot of bear shots, mountain lion shots, [other] shots that you saw in the film, and then after it [was also] myself and a different cameraman filming for probably two to three months of different wildlife. We also had a drone operator literally drive the whole border and spend three months and just document the whole thing.”

The logistics of the shoot were difficult — during one stretch, the group traveled on a route that no vehicles with supplies could reach — but producer Hillary Pierce had a simple solution to stay organized: spreadsheets.

“It was a huge endeavor, I mean, traveling the entire 1200 river miles of the Rio Grande required a great deal of pre-planning, and I consider myself a spreadsheet extraordinaire. So there were spreadsheets involved,” she said. “I know that’s not sexy, but it’s true.”

Pierce and Masters have been screening their film across the country, including on Capitol Hill, and they’re hoping audiences take away one key message: “If you think this is not happening, that this could never happen, it is happening,” Pierce said. “I want you to pay closer attention, because we need to speak up and we need to join our allies on the ground in these communities who are fighting against this while the rest of us are distracted by the chaos of the news cycle. This wall is going up.”

Watch their Q&A with film subject Austin Alvarado below.

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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