Halfway through retracing the journey that thousands of undocumented migrants take from Mexico to the United States each year, Washington farmer Gary Larsen becomes increasingly grim. “Every politician should go on this trip,” he says. “They need to see what these people go through.”
Larsen’s journey is part of Borderland, Al Jazeera America’s new documentary series, which features six ordinary Americans following in the footsteps of immigrants who died while trying to cross the US-Mexican border. The series, which continues on Sunday, melds elements of reality television and traditional documentary storytelling, and tries to put a new slant on the immigration debate.
“Immigration is one of the most contentious issues in the US, in the public arena,” said co-executive producer Ivan O’Mahoney. “When you have an issue that is so big, it tends to be quite hard, after a while, to get people to really care what lies at the heart of the issue.”
Which is why he envisioned Borderland as a “constructed documentary,” a hybrid between traditional documentaries and factual entertainment that alternates between people in real, unscripted situations, and contributions from experts and talking heads. “I think what a constructed documentary is good at is using everyday people as a conduit to explore big social issues,” O’Mahoney said. “As documentary makers, we always struggle with this issue of how do we compete against drama on television. How do we compete against big, noisy, reality shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent? And what I’ve found is that sometimes, you need to find a device that goes beyond the traditional form of documentary storytelling.”
Borderland’s “device” is to immerse six ordinary Americans from varied backgrounds in the lives of Omar Lopez, Claudeth Sanchez and Maira Zelaya, three undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador respectively. Twenty-one year old Sanchez wanted to send money home to her family. Zelaya, 39, was deported after spending nine years in the US, and was trying to make it back into the country. And Lopez, who was just 13 years old, wanted to be reunited with his mother in Phoenix. They all died crossing the border in the Arizona desert.
The series starts out in the Pima County Morgue in Arizona—which handles more migrant remains than anywhere else in the country—then follows the participants as they visit Lopez, Sanchez, and Zelaya’s families, and board La Bestia (The Beast), the train many undocumented immigrants hitch a ride on to the US border. It’s a novel way of approaching a very familiar topic.
The show’s production team was committed to authenticity, within reason. Series director Darren Foster scouted out the route through Mexico two months before the shoot and worked with a security consulting group to mitigate the dangers. “There was a certain amount of [risk] involved, but nothing compared to what these migrants actually go through,” he said.
As for participants, “we were looking for as close of a cross-section of the US as we could get,” said Foster. New York artist Alex Seel has several friends who are undocumented, while Alison Melder, A Republican state senator’s aide, strongly favors deportation. All of them were affected by the experience.
“When we were setting out to do this, some people had the mistaken idea that we were trying to convert the conservatives and the liberals into seeing different things. What we wanted to do was give as full a picture as we could of this issue,” Foster said. “These are human lives we’re talking about. We’re not talking about statistics; we’re not talking about numbers … And I think when you see it that way, then you realize how broken the system is.”
Borderland is Al Jazeera America’s first original documentary series and Kathy Davidov, senior executive producer of documentaries at the station, said it hopes to produce more such series. “We feel like it’s a great way to explore a topic,” and spark a debate.
“A lot of people have very pronounced opinions on a lot of issues, but these opinions are not necessarily based on any experience that people have had themselves, or any real exposure to the issue that they’re commenting on,” O’Mahoney said.
“When you meet people one on one,” you discover “that often, the situation is more complicated than you thought it was, and all the cast members will tell you that they’ve learned things that they never knew existed,” he continued. “My hope is that the series leaves no one unaffected. I don’t want any viewer to walk away feeling the same way about the issue as they did when they started watching.”