After a modest private screening for 15 people at The Loft Cinema last fall, the documentary, “Missing in Brooks County,” comes roaring back into Tucson as a headliner for the Arizona International Film Festival on April 20 for a rare, in-person screening at the MSA Annex Festival Grounds.
School of Theatre, Film & Television Adjunct Instructor Lisa Molomot co-directed the film with Jeff Bemiss and TFTV Associate Professor Jacob Bricca ACE was editor and producer. The film has been screened at prestigious film festivals, earned numerous “Best Documentary Awards” and garnered national and international media coverage.
The film follows the stories of two families searching for their loved ones who went missing in the fields of Brooks County, Texas, and chronicles the consequences of decades-long U.S. border policy.
The New York Times reported on one consequence: 642 migrant deaths from 2009-2019 with bodies or skeletal remains discovered in Brooks County, a fraction of the border-wide total. Another consequence: thousands of unsolved missing person cases over the decades.
“The film is even more relevant now than four months ago,” Molomot said, referencing the change in U.S. Presidents last January. “Many more migrants are coming to the U.S. from Latin America, and as a result, the number of deaths has gone up. This is usually the case when a Democrat is president. Summer is the worst season because it’s so hot in South Texas. I think a lot people working in this are very concerned right now.”
Brooks County has a large customs and border patrol checkpoint 70 miles north of the border that serves as a second border for entry into the United States and is the epicenter of migrant deaths in Texas.
While the film festival circuit continues with over 20 national and international screenings completed, plans are underway for the next stages of exposure, opportunities to effect change with the policy on our southern border.
A theatrical run will commence in August and the film will be shown on over 300 PBS stations in the fall via Independent Lens.
“We are beginning to work on the impact campaign which means getting the film in front of lawmakers in order to make meaningful change,” said Molomot. “These deaths have been happening for almost three decades. It’s time.”
Filmmakers are working with border policy advocates (ACLU, WOLA, etc.), who will help facilitate introductions with lawmakers.
“We had a meeting last week and one of the advocates is putting us in touch with a few key congressional staffers of moderate Democrats who we need to target,” Molomot said. “The moderate Democrats are key because they can bring in Republicans. We will likely have to show just 15 or 20 minutes.”
Immigration reform passed in 1994 is driving the crisis in Brooks County. Titled ‘Prevention Through Deterrence,” the theory by policy makers was that migrants would be deterred from attempting to cross the border by funneling them into the most dangerous areas of the borderlands. That was the theory, but that hasn’t been the reality.
The film strives to show viewers how the broken immigration system and the reality of that border policy impacts individuals and a community. Filmmakers visited the county 15 times over five years to track individual stories to capture and present a sense of what it is like to live in Brooks County on a daily basis with vérité footage.
The result is a gripping drama, but also a deeply humane of ordinary people: human rights workers, activists, immigrants and law enforcement agents.
“We have been present at many moments of discovery and revelation, documenting the missing as they were reported, rescued, recovered or exhumed,” Molomot writes in the Director’s Statement. “We rode with Sheriff’s deputies and Border Patrol, with ranchers and vigilantes. We filmed men and women wading across the Rio Grande at night, and we filmed men and women as they surrendered to Brooks County law enforcement, dehydrated and exhausted. We filmed the emotional testimony of a border crosser, his face shielded, as he described the moment he realized the teenage boy he was carrying—one of the missing individuals portrayed in the film—was no longer alive.”
> How U.S. Policy Turned the Sonoran Desert Into a Graveyard for Migrants | New York Times Magazine, 08.18.20
> One of the Deadliest Places on the Southwest Border | New York Times, 04.18.19
> The Many Nameless Migrants Skeletons Buried Along America’s Border, Daily Beast, 01.11.21
“This is not the first documentary about the immigration crisis,” writes Boston Globe film critic Peter Keough in his review of the film, “but it’s one of the most nuanced and disturbing … The filmmakers tell the stories with restraint, emphasizing the injustices, cruelty, and suffering without needless, manipulative exaggeration.”
Bricca edited the film in Tucson, assembling the stories as the footage arrived after each shooting trip.
“It was a challenge to build the mosaic that you see in the film, as you experience the search of the two families for their loved ones as well as all the stories from the other participants that gives you a sense of what life is like out there,” he said. “It has been incredibly gratifying to finally get to share the film with audiences, pandemic or no pandemic.”
Typically, film festivals are seen in packed movie theatres and filmmakers travel the circuit to visit with audiences face-to-face, but because of COVID, all but two have been virtual.
“We, of course, hoped for in-person film festival screenings, but the online ones have included many screenings with great Q&As that show that the film is clearly connecting with audiences,” Bricca said.
Bricca recalled a specific moment of connection when the film screened in a college class a couple months ago.
“One student said, ‘I’ve never had any sympathy for these migrants before, but I can see it from their point of view now.’ I was so gratified! That’s exactly the intention of the film: to present the experiences of migrants and their families in an immersive way that allows an audience to see things from a different perspective without hitting them over the head with facts and figures or overtly political messages. The message of the film is one of shared humanity.”