MISSING IN BROOKS COUNTY gives insight to the U.S./Mexico border and the families who seek to find their loved ones. GOOD DOCS intern Amber Stokes met with Co-Director Jeff Bemiss to learn more about the film and his experience in Brooks County.
So my first question for you is, what is this film about and what drove you to make Missing in Brooks County?
Missing in Brooks County is a feature-length documentary about two families who have come to Brooks County, Texas to search for their missing loved ones, who disappeared after crossing into the United States from Mexico. The film is an examination of what's happening in Brooks County—families in search of their missing loved ones, volunteer activists putting life-saving water out in the desert, vigilantes hunting migrants on private ranch land, and forensic scientists exhuming anonymously buried migrants who never had a chance to be identified.
This wasn't the film my co-director Lisa Molomot and I set out to make. Initially, we heard a radio documentary about a forensic scientist at Baylor University, Lori Baker, who was doing exhumations in South Texas. Lisa and I were both moved by the piece. Lisa has lived in Mexico, I have family from Mexico. We just found ourselves affected by that story, so we reached out to Lori, who invited us to Texas. She took us to this place called Falfurrias, and we said “Okay, so where's the Border?” She said, “Oh, that's 80 miles away. Brooks isn't even a border county. But this is where the problem is.” That was the moment Lisa and I began to realize this was not going to be a short documentary set at Baylor University. In the end, it was a four-year endeavor to document what is happening in Brooks County, Texas.
What was it like to interview and speak with the families of those who have gone missing in Brooks County, Texas?
The families of the missing are the heart of the film. We filmed with several families, but in the end, two are featured in the film. In the case of Juan Maceda, we met his cousin Moises while filming with Eddie Canales at the South Texas Human Rights Center. We reached out to Juan’s father who was willing to share his story.
We met the Román family in a different way. Early on, we gave the film a temporary title: Missing in Brooks County. Jacob Bricca, our editor and a producer on the film, put up a website. Meanwhile, Michelle Chinos and Omar Román, the brother and sister-in-law of Homero Román, were searching online for information about his disappearance and our website popped up. We connected first on the phone, then sat down together a few days later in Texas. Lisa and I proposed participating in the film. They had a family meeting and bravely came back and said yes. They wanted the story of what happened to Homero to be a part of the film. They said one reason for sharing their story was to spare another family their pain.
Your film does a great job of showcasing them, you holding space for them really makes a difference. Towards the beginning of the film as you traveled to the Mariposa Ranch with the Border patrol officer, the officer explained that in order for this work not to get to him he has to view the dead as bodies instead of people, did you use the strategy?
Every time I see that scene, it makes me sad. It's one more example of the dehumanization of immigrants. It also says as much about the policy the agent is enforcing as it does about the agent. He is struggling emotionally to cope with his job. It's an indication something is very wrong with the way the U.S. is administering our border.
Most of the border agents we encountered were decent people enforcing inhumane policies. Some had PTSD from the deaths, and from notifying families. Lisa and I dealt with it by talking through it during long drives in Texas. We did a lot of processing on those Texas highways.
What was your thought process in deciding to include the images of the dead in your film?
Showing the deceased is a heavy responsibility. We had lengthy discussions about how much to portray in the film. We wanted to be sensitive, but we didn't want to be silent about it. There is one difficult image in the film, and it occurs in the first few minutes. It establishes the stakes of a clandestine crossing very clearly. We took care not to show anything identifying, and we followed up with the appropriate consulate, who told us this individual could not be identified. Sadly, this is the case for many who are discovered in the desert.
Do you believe that the film would have been as impactful without the imagery of dead bodies?
What's happening along our southwest border is so extreme, you have to see it in order to wrap your mind around it. Thousands of people are dying in the desert, essentially turning our borderlands into an open grave. If this were a war or a genocide, we would treat it as a mass disaster. But Migration is quiet. People walk into the desert and disappear. We wanted to make the situation visible.
And to revisit our talk about the water stations, in the film there are ranchers who are not in favor of the water stations as well as activists who were in favor of providing water stations. What are your views on the inclusion of these water stations?
I can tell you what some people in Brooks County say about the water stations. Mike Vickers, the rancher who founded the Texas Border Volunteers, says they attract criminal activity. At the same time, he says they are not effective, which is a little contradictory.
Mike Vickers may be a bit of an outlier on this issue. Most people in Brooks County believe that nobody should be dying and that water is a simple thing that can save lives. On the other hand, Eddie had 15 of his water stations stolen, so there is definitely some tension around them.
Eddie was interviewed about the thefts, and what he said was, "This is a humanitarian aid effort. If you are stealing these water stations, what's the message? You want people to die?" Eddie believes humanitarian aid is never wrong.
I also want to mention, I'm assuming it was an intentional decision to include the imagery of the dirty water troughs on Mike Vickers ranch as it was mentioned that Water Poisoning is one of the main causes of people dying in the desert? I just wanted to discuss that with you in terms of your use of imagery throughout the film.
Water is a theme throughout the film. There are cattle troughs on the ranches, but the water is not clean. It's difficult to carry enough water for the journey, especially if you become lost. People will drink from the cattle troughs, which makes them sick and ultimately hastens dehydration. Eddie puts out clean water as an alternative to what is essentially poison water.
Texas Rancher, Dr. Mike Vickers, was featured in the film as someone with very conservative views concerning people who illegally cross the border into the U.S. What was it like to speak with him after talking to so many families who had lost loved ones?
Mike lives on a ranch near the checkpoint, and he's had some scary encounters with people migrating through his property. At the same time, he doesn't bother to distinguish the people who are coming through. He says they're all criminals and gang members, and that's just not true.
One thing that's not portrayed in the film, is that Mike electrifies part of his ranch fence. It's not for the sake of cattle. He electrifies it for migrants. Fences tend to get torn down in Brooks County because people climb over them, and Mike argues that if his fence gets trampled, his cattle will get on the highway and kill somebody. It's a legitimate concern. However, I've also heard him say it gives him pleasure to know a migrant has been electrified by his fence. I find that extremely hard to hear. If he were a humanitarian, he would find another way to solve the problem. Most ranchers simply mount a ladder structure to their fences so people can get over without causing damage. I feel that Mike's answers to certain problems are unnecessarily hurtful.
What are your thoughts on the Texas border volunteers?
The Texas Border Volunteers are a group of vigilantes who come from all over the country to participate in nighttime operations where they track and report migrants. We assumed they would be angry, fringe types, but we discovered they are serious people. Judges, politicians, NASA engineers. But they are extremely political.
Mike Vickers is one of the group's founders, and he says some outrageous things about Eddie. He accuses Eddie of smuggling migrants and working with the cartels. To me, it's another manifestation of the paranoia that exists within that group.
What message do you want people to get out of Missing in Brooks County?
We made Missing in Brooks County because we felt that if people could meet the families of the missing and hear their stories, especially our political leaders, they would feel differently about the policies we are creating for our border. If someone is moved by the film, they absolutely must call their political representatives and tell them how they feel. Any policy that deliberately causes over 1,000 deaths a year deserves to be challenged.