By Elias Savada.
The film examines, sometimes in gruesome detail, the unfortunate migrant disappearances and deaths that have occurred in this eponymous region of Texas, about an hour’s drive from the Mexican border….”
I’ve watched a lot of documentaries through the years. Among those that make me mad: Blackfish (2013), Strong Island (2017), The Central Park Five (2012), and most of Michael Moore’s output. There are dozens of others, of course, that make me rage out against this or that injustice, discrimination, or inequality. Add Missing in Brooks County, a verité documentary from award-winning co-directors/producers Lisa Molomot and Jeffrey Bemiss, which I caught virtually at the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and Symposium, to the list.
The film examines, sometimes in gruesome detail, the unfortunate migrant disappearances and deaths that have occurred in this eponymous region of Texas, about an hour’s drive from the Mexican border – but very much a major conduit into America – for the over 20,000 migrants who have died while crossing into the United States from Mexico. In 1994, President Clinton kicked off Operation Gatekeeper, which resulted in a massive military buildup along the border, but it failed in the one key component of deterring people from entering the USA. It ending up making it more hazardous for those coming in, particularly in Brooks County, where the terrain can be deadly. For the Rio Grande Valley Sector Falfurrias Border Patrol Station, which calls itself “the most productive immigration checkpoint in the nation in regard to aliens and criminals apprehended and narcotics seized,” it meant that anyone wanting to enter the country illegally needed a bypass before arriving at the station.
Thus the U.S. Border Patrol has pushed people toward perilous crossings, often trekking 40 miles off the beaten path to circumvent the checkpoint. They end up tired, hungry, thirsty, and, ultimately, dead on the thousands of acres owned by private ranchers, some of whom are less than accepting to these “trespassers.” Dehydration and exposure is most common cause of death.
Mere moments in, there’s a quick introduction to Eddie Canales, a retired union organizer now running the humble South Texas Human Rights Center. If anyone works miracles reuniting stranglers with their families, it’s Canales. His one-man operation strives to find the missing while offering any undocumented wanderers the basic decency of drinking water.
The film also takes several overlapping in-search-of story lines to exemplify the enormous task of finding the thousands of missing wayfarers. For those who have perished, often buried, if that, in barely marked graves.
In Houston, the family of Homero Román Gómez, now two years missing, sends his brother Omar and sister-in-law Michelle Chinos on their latest investigation…in Brooks County. Also, a determined Moises Zavala is the sad face of his family’s search for a missing cousin, Juan.
For filmmakers Molomot and Bemiss, the story began as a salute to a forensic scientist trying to identify human remains. These portions of the film, all blended well together by editor/producer Jacob Bricca, feature Kate Spradley, a biological anthropologist at Texas State University, and her colleague Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist, as they toil to identify over 200 bodies found in mass graves, part of a team of grad students designated as Operation IDENTIFICATION (OpID), to help connect those human remains with their families.
One unlikely participant in the film is Mike Vickers, a veterinarian and one of those ranch owners, but definitely on the flip side of the coin from everyone else. He believes there are huge drug and illegal immigrant smuggling problems in this part of the world, so no clean water stations on his property. His conspiracy theories mimic those of President Trump. An avid hunter (too much so if you look at the antlered trophies on his walls), he seems to game the human angle as well, proudly showing off cell phone footage of his dogs chasing trespassers up trees. “I’m compassionate, but you have to draw the line.” He couldn’t draw it any darker.
One of the saddest moments is a visit to a cemetery, where many of the unknown dead are buried as ‘Male Remains’ or ‘Unknown Female.'”
The local Sheriff, Benny Martinez, and Border Patrol agent Alex Jara, provide help while scouring the rough countryside, but one of them fears running out of body bags because of all the dead, often badly decomposed or just skull and bones, that dot their landscape. The scourge of unidentified human remains is this state’s and our nation’s shame.
One of the saddest moments is a visit to a cemetery, where many of the unknown dead are buried as “Male Remains” or “Unknown Female.” The forensic anthropologist group has started to exhume bodies and experiment with DNA testing. Sadly, just a scratch on the surface of try to catalog the thousands who have died. Reminiscent of the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the filmmakers’ camera shows a small yet disheartening warehouse area with hundreds of cataloged boxes of remains, stacked floor to ceiling.
With slow, elegiac, and determined camera movements, some effective drone shots, and a soundtrack combining the buzz of cicadas and Ted Reichman’s mournful music score, this is a sobering piece of film about frustration with our nation’s systemic inhumanity. It annoys Dr. Spradley, that she can’t give closure. She, like us, is crying out for answers, and compassion.
While the Missing in Brooks County moves about the festival circuit, you might be able to catch a virtual screening somewhere way beyond your neighborhood. Visit the film’s site for a list of upcoming showings. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was a backer of the film, so there’s good news and bad there. It will be airing PBS’s Independent Lens series, but it’s currently scheduled for Fall, 2021. Ugh.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).