Exposing Trump’s Ugly Fearmongering Over the Migrant Caravan
The new documentary “Blood on the Wall” examines the human face and root causes of Central American migrants’ yearning for a better life in America.
Blood on the Wall, the new film from Restrepo co-director Sebastian Junger, and co-directed by Nick Quested, is Junger’s most political yet. The film, out Sept. 30 on National Geographic, follows three groups in 2017 and 2018: a caravan of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico and hoping to make it to the U.S. where they can claim asylum in the wake of extreme violence due to drug trafficking; the drug traffickers themselves, usually Central Americans and Mexicans from poor or working-class families that have been left behind by neoliberal economic policy; and the townspeople and community police units formed to protect them from extortion, sexual abuse, and murder.
Rather than embed himself as a fly-on-the-wall “apolitical” observer, as Junger has previously described his filmmaking style, he and Quested allow their subjects to inform the thrust of the story while using interviews and archives to provide ample sociopolitical context to their conditions. Combining incredible access with a lucid yet standard approach to historicizing a human rights issue that’s been cynically politicized by the Trump, Bush, and even Obama administrations, Blood on the Wall is not the most compelling film about Central American immigration you’ll see, but it is thoughtfully designed to inform American skeptics and equivocators.
The U.S. has played a major role in destabilizing the countries from which the majority of immigrants risking their lives to cross the Mexico-U.S. border hail. The CIA funded and the Reagan government openly supported the Contras, a counterrevolutionary group formed to take out the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. This anti-communist activity reverberates into present-day Nicaragua, where economic degradation and community destruction has made drug trafficking one of the few realistic paths out of poverty for many while leading to turf wars that result in constant violence for locals. Reagan’s War on Drugs in the states only exacerbated the issue, since trying to take out drugs at the supply level through an extreme carceral approach rather than addressing the socioeconomic root causes of drug use and trafficking allowed for more competing gangs to form in Mexico, breaking the peace between established drug families.
Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans who travel north to the U.S. are also met by corruption in their interim country where neoliberalism has won the day, and they are especially vulnerable to gang violence (hence the caravan—there’s increased safety in numbers). Just like the U.S., in Mexico, wealth is concentrated among the ultra-rich and oftentimes, government officials are getting a cut of the looted income. Still, migrants come to the U.S. from Central America, refusing to stop in Mexico, because, as one anonymous drug trafficker pointed out, Americans export violence, while “in Mexico, wars come to us.”
American presidents have been crafty in making sure that the consequences of their political wargames don’t disrupt the lives of its citizens; but in order to preserve this illusion, they have made sure to demonize the very people’s lives they’ve endangered—detaining asylum-seekers, separating families, and making the path to citizenship long, convoluted, and unlikely. The migrants Quested and Junger spoke to, including the subjects he followed directly, never expressed concern about ICE detention or family separation because, according to the filmmakers, they had not yet understood the degree of the threat; America was still a refuge to them.
Blood on the Wall puts intimate human stories to this global nightmare while simultaneously zooming out to explain why people would go to such lengths to leave their homes. The film’s own ideas about migration are still somewhat tepid—its tagline, playing on clichés beloved by cable news pundits and bestselling novelists alike reads, “What would you risk for a better life?” Yet, by using a large amount of its runtime to provide historical context, Blood on the Wall inadvertently calls to attention those of us who have benefited from the undeniable yet highly contingent advantages of American citizenship or residency by virtue of being born in the right place. It’s not a question of privilege, per say, but position. In that way, the film seems to ask, from what vantage point do you see the world? Are you looking up, down, or straight ahead?