Once again, scattered boos could be heard following yet another press screening in Berlin -- this time, for the film Bordertown. Like pic's main character, some would think I'm imagining such evilness; but it is real, it is happening and it is in poor taste. If there's anything I've learned within the past 24 hours, it's that you should never be afraid to speak your mind -- to tell the truth -- no matter who awaits you on the other end, determined to bring you down. And that's exactly what journalist Lauren Fredericks (Jennifer Lopez) intends to do when she's sent to Juarez, Mexico by her Chicago Sentinel editor (Martin Sheen) to investigate a series of murders that are taking place within the small, seedy bordertown.
An opening title graphic explains that American corporations are taking advantage of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) by opening large American-owned factories (or Maquiladoras) right across the border, hiring Mexicans (mainly women) to work long hours (sometimes in 24-hour shifts) for little money in order to produce mass quantity (one computer is produced every seven seconds). Some might call it "slave labor," while the American government probably just views it as a major convenience. Needless to say, for a long time now women factory workers (who often work and travel late into the night with little to no protection) are being kidnapped, raped and, in most cases, murdered. To this day, the Mexican government has done very little to try to prevent these atrocities from occurring.
Which brings us to Ms. Fredericks, who was born in Mexico but has lived in the States for most her life. Early on, we learn that she's not too fond of her Mexican roots, barely remembers any Spanish (which is a lie) and only wants to write the story if it means she's next in line for a hot foreign correspondence gig. Once in Juarez, she looks up Diaz (Antonio Banderas), an old flame who's editor-in-chief of a local paper, El Sol -- a paper that is determined to spread word of the murders, even though the Mexican police are just as determined to rip said papers from the newsstands. See, the Mexican authorities want their citizens to believe what they tell them -- and when they seem to locate the man responsible for the murders, they don't want news of any further killings landing in the papers. As they see it, one person is responsible ... not many.
In one of the most powerful scenes I've witnessed in some time, a young factory girl named Eva (Maya Zapata) is kidnapped by her bus driver while returning home from work, taken to a desolate wasteland, then raped, strangled and left for dead. Only she's not dead, and somehow manages to dig herself out of the shallow grave she was placed in. Afraid the local police will "silence" her, Eva turns to Diaz for protection ... and that's when Fredericks gets involved. Word that a victim has survived quickly spreads, and in order to shield her from those looking to do very bad things, Fredericks takes Eva under her wing, and hides her until the murders are solved. At first, Fredericks views Eva as her meal ticket to a foreign correspondence gig; a story every paper would want, but no one (except the Chicago Sentinel) has. But, as Fredericks continues to dig deeper, thus threatening her own safety, the two form a strong bond -- one that not only helps break open the case, but also helps Fredericks get back in touch with her Mexican background.
Obviously a passion project for Lopez (who is also credited as producer), Bordertown has a very very strong first half, but stumbles a bit toward the end when it turns preachy. Fredericks writes her article, but her editor refuses to publish it because America is too close to expanding their trade agreement to include South America. American politicians get involved; there's this whole speech from Sheen in which he claims "news is as dead as the typewriter I used to write on." Having worked with Lopez once before on Selena, writer-director Gregory Nava knows how to get a good performance out of the actress, who shines in the lead role (which makes you wish Lopez would take on more risky material instead of settling for your standard Hollywood rom-coms).
Nava's direction is, at times, both brutal and fantastic to watch; from the pristine, robotic-like atmosphere inside the factories to the hectic, seedy underbelly of Juarez, Nava captures it all with some tight, fast-paced claustrophobic (especially during the rape scenes) camerawork. While the film is based on real events, the story definitely has your standard and predictable Hollywood spin (even though it's strictly independent), but with help from a big name like Jennifer Lopez, I hope the issue is given more attention and that, this time, people actually do something about it.