DOCUMENTARY DIRECTOR SAM WAINWRIGHT DOUGLAS has a problem with authority. He’s not into the layers of bureaucracy that happen on traditional film sets. It’s one of many reasons he became a documentary film maker: he liked the idea of a smaller crew of people working toward a common goal.
“Documentaries also let you explore and be part of a culture or an event,” says the native Houstonian, currently wrapping up work on Hot Grease, an exploration of the biodiesel industry. “I feel they’re more immediate. And, sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction.”
Douglas and his team joined forces with renowned arts collective Postcommodity to create Through the Repellent Fence, a documentary screening at this year’s Houston Cinema Arts Festival. It details the story of Postcommodity’s efforts to erect a two-mile long art project that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border between Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, in the Mexican state of Sonora. They describe is as “stitching the two countries together.”
“I’ve had an interest in land art for a long time,” Douglas says. “It’s fascinating. This project was just mesmerizing to look at, and we got to follow the project from start to finish.”
Through the Repellent Fence traces the story of Postcommodity’s meetings with various stakeholders about the installation through putting up the 28 balloons, which stretch for a mile north and a mile south of the U.S.-Mexico dividing line. More than just the story of an art installation, however, the film is an exploration of border history and the meaning behind the “open eye” symbol featured on each balloon.
Used by indigenous people for millennia, the “open eye” has roots that extend through tribal customs from South America to Canada. For the artists of Postcommodity, using the iconography was a way of connecting with their indigenous heritage. (Kade Twist is a member of the Cherokee Nation, Raven Chacon is a member of the Navajo Nation and Cristóbal Martínez is of mixed Mexican-American heritage and Tewa roots.) Much of their work—including the video installation A Very Long Line featured at this year’s Whitney Biennial—critiques the artificial economic, social, and political division inherent to borders and concepts of modern statehood.
“Being in the moment with these guys, it was a really energizing feeling,” Douglas says. “I’ve done 20 documentaries, but this felt like something bigger. Sometimes we’d be shooting, but they might need a hand with something so the crew would help out. It was cool to see how their collaboration worked and how ours did, too.”
Douglas hopes that viewers of Through the Repellent Fence come away with a more critical understanding of border politics. Over the centuries, the border between the U.S. and Mexico changed multiple times, before landing where it is today, passing through the hands of indigenous peoples, colonial powers, and the contemporary United States and Mexico. Not long ago, there was no border—just land.
“It’s not just about it belongs to the U.S. or it belongs to Mexico, it’s all of these nations, it’s all this history,” he says. “I want people to walk away from this film with a more nuanced and complex view of life on the border.”
He says that during shooting, he was very much aware of the surveillance on the U.S. side, with multiple cameras and a Border Patrol presence. On the Mexico side of the border, however, there’s less of a feeling of “being watched.” He’s quick to point out that yes, there exist problems of drugs and violence along the border, but he liked how Postcommodity wanted to focus on humanity in the art installation.
“People living along the border want what we all want,” he said, “they want a normal life, to live and be happy.”
Clearly, Douglas says, there is additional resonance with the current political mood.
“We need major reform in this country,” Douglas says, “but we’re not going to get it with more guns or walls or fences. These are actual people we’re talking about.”