Amid the firestorm over illegal immigration, advocates on both sides of the issue can easily let political discourse overwhelm the humanity involved. Documentaries are particularly helpful in this regard, lending a human face and voice to a public debate not likely to be resolved anytime soon.
El Inmigrante doesn't contribute much insight about how to tackle the problem of illegal immigration. What it does provide, however, is an up-close and personal look at the porous U.S.-Mexico border and the sometimes deadly consequences of crossing it. In particular, the filmmakers cast light on the case of Eusebio de Haro Espinosa, a young Mexican national killed in May, 2000, while he was trying to rejoin his girlfriend and baby daughter in San Antonio. De Haro, who was sneaking back into the U.S. after having been deported, made the mistake of asking for water at the Kinney County, Texas, home of Sam and Brenda Blackwood.
The elderly couple turned him away, but that wasn't the end of it. The Blackwoods jumped in a truck and tracked down de Haro and a traveling companion. Sam Blackwood shot de Haro in the back of the thigh, and the young man bled to death.
The documentary is most engrossing when centering on the tragedy surrounding de Haro's death. Directors John Sheedy, Dave Eckenrode and John Eckenrode conducted a wealth of interviews on both sides of the border, including Euesbio's large family and Sam Blackwood's friends and neighbors; what emerges is a fairly typical portrait of a Mexican illegal immigrant who came to the U.S. because no good jobs existed in his hometown. The circumstances that drove de Haro to cross the border are all the more compelling because it's not extraordinary, which, of course, makes his untimely death all the more shocking.
The film's narrative meanders in spots, but things turn tense when it comes to the day that de Haro was killed. The filmmakers crosscut interviews with Kinney County law enforcement officials, de Haro's brother and an eyewitness to the slaying. The story gets weirder and darker. Authorities charged Blackwood with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, but the "deadly weapon" part mysteriously disappeared on a grand jury indictment. As a result, the old man received two years of probation, essentially a shooting death reduced to a misdemeanor.
El Inmigrante loses that sharpness when it strains for the "bigger picture" and talks to plain ol' folks about the immigration issue. You can pretty much guess what Chris Simcox, founder of the so-called Minutemen organization, has to say about the matter. Similarly, the filmmakers give us an older Texas woman who remarks, "Now, don't misunderstand, I don't lay all the vandalizin' and the thievin' at the wetbacks' door." Such commentary doesn't do much to advance the discussion, but then again, documentary filmmakers don't need to follow the ivory-tower goals of journalistic objectivity. They are allowed a clear point of view. It's just not particularly revealing to conclude that, lo and behold, some opponents of illegal immigration are motivated by prejudice. In these scenes, El Inmigrante could have withstood some judicious editing.
The print transfer is serviceable, with the film subject to a flatness and slight graininess that distinguishes the visual scheme of so many documentaries. A little past an hour into the picture, the DVD suffers from several quick freezes and incidents of pixilation (the problem persisted to a lesser degree in a second viewing of the section in question). There is some minor picture damage toward the end. Aspect ratio is 1.78:1.
Better than many documentaries of this budget, El Inmigrante's DVD boasts a surprisingly rich Dolby Digital 2.0.
Indican heaps on some mediocre extras. The most worthwhile is Just Coffee, a four-minute, 13-second featurette about an organization that helps the Mexican economy by enhancing its coffee-producing industry. On a more disappointing note is the de Haros Family Screening. The two-minute, 38-second clip essentially shows us de Haro's relatives at a 2006 showing of the film in Mexico -- but there's no subsequent reaction from them. Huh?
The other supplemental material is spotty. Narcoleptic Drunken Daydreams (Two Stories from the Mexico-U.S. Border) is a nine-minute, 51-second piece about a Border Patrol agent and an American woman living on the border. History of the Border is text that recommends specific books, articles and films for further research on the subject.
Other extras include a theatrical trailer, photo gallery, a 47-second poster progression (not too interesting) and a handful of trailers for other flicks.
The documentary's strengths outweigh its soft spots. Unlike the clipped television news stories you're likely to see on the cable networks, El Inmigrante provides a much-needed window to the perils of life along the U.S.-Mexico border.