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Once upon a time, PBS television was a frequent sponsor of documentaries and even feature films. Among the fine pictures released first on public television and now strongly in need of rediscovery is Victor Nuñez' 1984 American Playhouse production of A Flash of Green. Almost as elusive was the acclaimed 1977 PBS feature ¡Alambrista!, the first American feature to look at the migrant labor experience from the point of view of an illegal from Mexico. The word ¡Alambrista! translates as "wire jumper", or "fence jumper". An alternate American release titles is The Illegal.
In 1976 socially progressive documentaries were seen as a way of informing the public, and not as a means to advocate a specific political solution to a problem. A work of fiction, ¡Alambrista! is so true to its subject that it might as well be a documentary. It asks us to contemplate the situation of a particular illegal migrant worker, not to agree with an opinion.
Penniless Mexican Roberto (Domingo Ambriz) leaves his family and sneaks into the United States. Barely escaping the Migra, the Immigration Police, he finds a friend in Joe (Trinidid Silva), who counsels him in how to order breakfast in America, and how to avoid arrest. But after Joe is killed riding the rails, Roberto must go it alone.. He finds some work but is so exhausted that he falls asleep on the street. Anglo waitress Sharon (Linda Gillen) rescues Joe and takes him home. Despite the language barrier, she invites him to stay. Sharon remains close, even after she discovers that her new boyfriend has a wife back home. Caught in a raid on a dance hall, Roberto is swiftly deported, and almost as quickly smuggled back across the border. An Anglo broker in cheap labor (Ned Beatty) has a quota to fill, for workers to break a strike in Colorado. Roberto's disillusion is final when he discovers what became of his father, who left for America years ago and had not been heard of since.
Back in 1960, the legendary Edward R. Murrow capped his broadcasting career with Harvest of Shame, a TV documentary about migrant workers. A call for justice, the show advocated for the powerless underclass that picks the nation's food. A farmer in the show states, "We used to own our slaves; now we just rent them." By 1977 activist farm worker Cesar Chavez was making national headlines, and protests at supermarkets were asking consumers not to buy grapes. ¡Alambrista! made the issue personal.
Roberto's odyssey into the mysterious Northern land is a tangle of strange situations and customs. As he does not speak English, he deals almost exclusively with farm foremen and 'worker contacts', all of which are in the business of exploiting his labor for as little money as possible. Roberto cannot tell when a garrulous old cowboy (Jerry Hardin) is just being friendly, and he does not immediately understand that the sympathetic waitress Sharon has kept him from being robbed. A simple rural Catholic, Roberto is clearly frightened when Sharon takes him to a revivalist service run by a hellfire preacher. He thinks he has the best job in the world when the pilot of a crop duster hires him to do ground spotting flag work. Roberto proudly shows off his new company overalls, but does not understand that he's been hired to circumvent the law: the pilot is soaking him in insecticide, without a face mask or any protection whatsoever.
Roberto eventually arrives at a painful. Living with the welcoming, understanding Sharon establishes him in a second family arrangement. When he learns that his father abandoned him for a new life in the United States, Roberto understands that he is taking the exact same path, and no longer believes he's doing the right thing. Roberto cannot articulate these feelings, but actor Domingo Abriz and director Robert M. Young communicate them clearly and directly.
Although every scene in ¡Alambrista! has the ring of truth, its most indelible moment is the finale at the border. As he's being ushered back into Mexico, Roberto witnesses a Mexican woman (Lily Álvarez) giving birth to a baby right out in public, with only the help of a couple of passers-by. At first the spectacle of the woman clutching a pole and grimacing in pain seems an ultimate degradation. But when the baby is born, she laughs and cries and calls out her victory. The pole she is gripping holds the border kiosk's American flag; her boy has been born in the United States. He will have papers allowing him the freedom to cross the frontier whenever he wants.
Although he progressed to more conventional feature films, writer-director Robert M. Young approached ¡Alambrista! through documentary work, including a number of National Geographic Specials. He also co-wrote and photographed Michael Roemer's impressive 1964 feature Nothing But a Man, starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln as young marrieds trying to live a dignified life in the South. Young's hand-held camerawork in ¡Alambrista! is simply remarkable. The camera glides with Roberto as he walks, and, as young explains, "enters the character's personal space, staying up close but always showing the full reality of every location." We fully believe that actor Domingo Abriz is doing real backbreaking work. Young's filming strategy "invades" reality, turning documentary subjects into active participants. Playing a pair of drunks, actors Julius Harris and Edward James Olmos taunt a pre-dawn group of laborers waiting at a pick-up point. Filming the entire confrontation, Young gets authentic reactions from the workers, who are unaware that the drunks are not real. The scene has an authenticity that money can't buy.
The small film crew ranged for ten weeks all over the American Southwest. With only $200,000 to spend, director Young and his producer Michael Hausman made on the spot deals to shoot farmers' fields during real harvests. They also solicited cooperation from State Police and even the INS. Real police and border patrolmen perform on screen. Barriers since erected to such informal shooting would make ¡Alambrista! much more difficult today. Corporations, private landowners and government agencies are now obsessed by security and image control, and are completely de-incentivized against cooperating with filmmakers. The "reality" that filmmakers would like to document, is now privately controlled or government-regulated.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of ¡Alambrista! is a remarkable restoration of an important social document. Feeling that he was never able to present his preferred cut, director Robert M. Young re-edited the show a few years back, adding more scenes with actor Trinidad Silva and trimming over a reel from the overall running time. The result is a leaner and more focused narrative.
The 1:66 widescreen transfer pulls every nuance from the original 16mm elements, giving the viewer a full appreciation of ¡Alambrista!'s excellent cinematography. Old TV prints from PBS and the "Z" Channel were grainy, with weak colors; most of this encoding looks as if the film were shot on 35mm.
Actor Edward James Olmos appears in a lengthy featurette, explaining why he feels Robert M. Young is such an exceptional director. They've kept up their working relationship over the years. Young directed several episodes of the Olmos-starring TV show Battlestar Galactica.
Director Young and producer Michael Hausman share the full commentary track, explaining the genesis of the show and their run-and-gun filming method. Young points out when a complex scene is done in one shot. Their most expensive day of shooting involved lining up an entire train and renting several cars to portray new autos being shipped by rail. Filmed from a helicopter, Domingo Abriz and Trinidad Silva are actually cruising down a rail line, twenty-five feet in the air, when the cops spot them from the highway.
A valuable extra is director Young's earlier short 1973 documentary, The Children of the Fields, about an Arizona family that follows the harvests as a working unit. It's a nomadic survival situation. The adorable children don't attend school but instead work all day helping to pick crops. The most heartbreaking scenes show a little girl no older than five using a sharp tool to trim onions; a slightly older daughter has a big scratch on her cheek, obviously from an accident with the adult-sized shears. The docu is an obvious precursor to and preparation for ¡Alambrista!
Film historian Charles Ramirez Berg provides the essay for the insert booklet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
¡Alambrista! Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.
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