Dear family and a few friends,
I’ve been in the northern Baja Penninsula of Mexico for the last four days so I wanted to share a little bit about what I have been doing. As most of you know, I am participating in the Bordocs documentary forum which is a gathering of filmmakers, critics and enthusiasts mostly from all over Mexico with a few of us from other places around the globe. There are only a few presenters from the US which is an interesting position to be in considering the fact that so many discussions about the border come up. The other US participant was Michael Renov, a documentary film scholar from USC.
Tijuana is in some ways a kind of mythic place for lots of us. You might remember or like to see the first shot of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” not to get a sense of what the city is really like but rather to witness its image in our culture. In contrast to this Film Noir depiction of life “on the other side” I have met so many thoughtful, engaged, extremely educated media, documentary makers, anthropologists and film scholars, as well as earnest, highly trained students with strong ideas. We are only a half hour from San Diego but not everyone here has a fluid access to that city because of the immigration issues which are always present. Some people travel regularly with ten-year visas, allowing them to shop for organic food and specialty wines every week. Others are not as lucky so the prospect of facing a challenge at the border is enormous. Of course, guaranteeing the officials at the border that you have a job and money can make all the difference. There is a seasonally dry river here where a shantytown pops up every year. Its denizens include all the poor people who couldn’t get into the US or who were thrown out after a certain amount of time. I was shocked to be told that quite a few of the people who live in the river area are American mentally disabled people or criminals. It seems that everyone here knows that the US authorities regularly send such people to Mexico, taking away their documentation and simply saying goodbye. I really found it hard to comprehend this, but so it goes.
During the festival I was able to spend a lot of time with the Mexican filmmakers and scholars, but I also had some very special time with a couple of young women who were given the responsibility to take care of me at absolutely every moment. They were charming women with quite a good grasp of the English language who were also willing to speak Spanish very slowly so that I could understand and speak back to them coherently. My second day in Mexico, I took a three hour bus ride through a breathtakingly beautiful desert canyon to Mexicali, on the other side of Baha just on the border next to Calexico, California. Of course, I had never heard of either of these towns which have taken on names that combine the two countries. In Mexicali, I gave a two hour workshop called “The Experimental Documentary: Reality and Performance” in the local art museum and then spent another two hours showing “Your Day is My Night” and answering questions. The audience for both events was mostly college students. They were absolutely amazing, really, full of insightful observations, a commitment to their work, and curious. I was so struck by their level of sophistication. Most of them spoke pretty good English so I felt fine giving my talk in my “native tongue”. There was also a very good interpreter. After the three-hour drive on a bus and the four-hour interaction with the public, I was pretty tired but nevertheless could not resist the offer from two lovely women anthropologists associated with the museum to take me and my chaperone Karla on a night tour of the town. They immediately asked me if I would like Chinese food which I found slightly bewildering, but then they explained that Mexicali was founded by Chinese farmers in the early 20th Century. The Chinese food in this small town in the desert is considered the best in Mexico! How could I resist? Low and behold, it was delicious and I ate great squid with asparagus, and white seaweed, along with soup and other tasty items. After dinner, they took us to see the “wall” and the border crossing where I noticed more dentist, orthodontist and plastic surgeon offices than I have ever seen in my life, each with an enormous sign. Of course, Mexican border towns are a great place for people from the US to take care of their medical needs! Sure, we Street-Sachs have plenty of health insurance but it does not cover these things, so we spend a pretty penny getting our teeth cleaned twice a year. I could buy a few plane tickets to Mexico for about the same price, I would guess. Our final stop on the tour of Mexicali was a 24/7 Table Dance spot where Mexican women in extraordinarily high heels (aka “Kinky Boots” of the Broadway kind) prance and strip atop a bar lined with drunk men and a sole woman grabbing at every part of their bodies. I mention the woman to point out the changing times. Our guides thought that I should see this kind of place because it is such an iconic and real part of border life. It was honestly so sad and interesting all at once. Our last conversation at about midnight had to do with Mexico’s narcotics culture. One of our anthropologist guides is studying the impact of drugs and gangs on daily life here. She works as an art therapist with children who lost their parents or other relatives to the drug wars. The building where this happens is not coincidentally also the abandoned “extermination house” that the gangs used to kill their enemies. According to a number of people with whom I spoke in Mexico, this situation is now so much better, but it is still a societal problem. At 6:30 am the next morning, Karla and I took the bus back through the desert to Tijuana. We arrived early enough for her to take me on a brief tour of Tijuana which included its charming beach with lots of little seafood restaurants and wandering musicians. The border wall stuck into the water about 20 feet and I wondered how that alone could keep folks from swimming to the US. She explained that under the water, there were sharp metal prongs, and everyone knew that. I didn’t and so I was glad I did not attempt the swim. In the afternoon, I spent a pleasant day watching movies and visiting with other festival participants.
Yesterday was Yom Kippur, so the festival’s director Adriana Trujillo arranged for another delightful woman (a college professor) to take me to the local synagogue, which was, not surprisingly, Orthodox. My first challenge was trying to figure out the way to translate the words “day of awe.” I somehow ended up simply saying “It’s kind of a Buddhist thing.” We sat in the women’s area and I whispered the meaning of the Ark, the Torah, the word Adanoi, etc to my companion. There was a floor-to-ceiling photo of the Wailing Wall in the room which I found rather surprising. There were mostly men and of course very few young people. Directly from there we went to see Tijuana’s infamous red light district. This was even sadder to me than the strip bar I’d seen in Mexicali. It is all in an area of about three blocks but there were SO many women and teens on the streets waiting to be picked up. They seemed unprotected and worn. Nothing like this seemed to exist outside this area, making Tijuana feel very warm, friendly and unintimidating. I had to remind myself that this town that is so full of rich Mexican culture is only about half an hour from the tall shiny downtown of San Diego. Yesterday afternoon I taught another master class (as they call it) in an enormous movie theater. I had to use a microphone and I kind of felt like a tele-evangelist. In the evening I showed my film and then I had a glass of beer with other filmmakers and people from my “audience” who came up to introduce themselves.
By the way, it is very hot here. I have come to love my only pair of seersucker pants.
Hope this gives you a good sense of the last few days of my life.