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First forays into Ciudad Juárez (and some video editing)

July 25, 2010

For the better part of this week we hunkered down to the most unglamorous  and tedious part of the video-making process: editing. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time it takes to create a video from component clips (especially if one is learning the process at the same time)–I’ve easily spent eight or ten hours working on a short video that is about four minutes long…it’s not that technically complicated or particularly brilliant, it’s just a rather simple story that needed to be put together, and it took me that long to do it. Marley and I spent many hours this week sitting side by side at the dining room table, ears covered by headphones and eyes trained on the computer screen, cutting and pasting and sound-checking and trimming and rubbing our strained eyes.

Video-editing is a profoundly creative process and one that, especially in documentary-making, is laden with a great deal of responsibility. The power inherent in the process of editing video is almost scary–although we do not script or plan the interviews or “prep” the subjects, in editing there is infinite possibility to re-create the story that was told: to change the sequence, purpose and entire meaning of the footage. A prime example is the drama that has played out over the firing of Shirley Sherrod this week. It’s an important and sobering caveat for watching news stories or documentary pieces–the knowledge that what you are watching has already been filtered through the biases and perspectives of everyone involved in the shooting, editing and presentation of the information. That in every choice of camera angle, interview questions, clip editing and background music the final product moves a little further from “truth” and a little closer towards an artificial construction of the film-makers. That when reality is re-created through a media such as film, the story will always be distorted by the prejudices of the “creators.” This is by no means a new or particularly profound thought (anyone who has watched the same news story on two different channels has experienced it themselves), but it is one that has been in the forefront of our minds as we engage in the editing process.  In our project this summer, we recognize this power and are attempting to reconcile it–the public won’t see any of the footage we edit until it has been approved by the subject who is” re-presented” in the film. It’s not a perfect process and it doesn’t eliminate the problem, but it is an important part of  our production process, especially since many people in the business of film and news do not do it at all.

But enough of that. I’m sure you’re reading this post mostly because you saw the title and thought, “WHAT? Ciudad Juárez? Surely they haven’t…such a dangerous place…what the hell are they thinking???”

Yes, we have been into Juárez and no, we haven’t been threatened or kidnapped and yes, we are being very cautious. Our friends pick us up right at the bridge and we aren’t dawdling on street corners or wandering into dangerous areas. Before deciding to go in at all, we talked to many different and very reliable sources to get a good grasp of the situation.  The danger in Juárez is real and needs to be respected–that is, don’t go there for frivolous reasons or without a plan. We have been  told that it is OK to go in under specific circumstances: if there is an important reason, you have a guide, you stay alert,  you don’t try to buy or sell drugs and you are gone before nightfall. It’s easy to forget (in all the media hype about the city) that it is also full of regular people breathing and working and raising families and shopping and laughing on street corners and living their life.

It’s hard to describe the juxtaposition of El Paso and Juárez to someone who hasn’t been to either place recently. It’s quite surreal. El Paso is one of the safest cities of it’s size in the US. It’s a sprawling Western city full of grand old houses and strip malls with the Franklin mountains providing a backdrop to the cityscape. It’s also a city of two worlds–I hear Spanish spoken much more than English in many of the places in the city and there are many places where English would not even be understood. You are more likely to see an Anglo face or an Anglo name on a billboard or business sign than in flesh and blood. It’s a place where one is forced to remember the part of American history that is almost forgotten on the East coast–the fact that until very recently most American land “belonged” to the people who we are so diligently trying to keep out now.  It’s easy to forget that for 350 years Spanish was the language spoken from California to Texas. Even easier, perhaps, to forget the people who inhabited the land for thousands of years before the Spanish came. Makes the last 150 years of Anglo rule seem pretty measly, don’t it? In El Paso you have to ask the question of who is the immigrant and who is the “native”–because it sure seems that white skin and spoken English is the minority.

You can walk from the quiet and clean streets of El Paso and over the fence into Juárez in about ten minutes and find yourself in another world, even though the people  you see and language you hear are similar. It’s absurdly easy to get into Mexico–you pay 50 cents and walk right past a few guards who hardly bother to show interest. The street directly across the bridge gives you an intimation of what Juarez was like three years ago, when people came to Juárez to dance, drink and have fun. The clubs are all boarded up now and the restaurants struggling. Marley and I were the only white people to be seen, and we got plenty of looks that said, “if it’s so easy for you to be over there, why the heck would you choose to be here?”

The streets are full of people going about their daily business, leaning against open storefronts, chatting on the sidewalk, walking laden with bags after a day of shopping in El Paso–and it seems like quite a normal city landscape except for one thing: the helmeted federales driving around in camouflaged convoys and guarding checkpoints with automatic weapons held in front of bullet-proof vests. We’ve heard that the number of federal troops has decreased in the past few weeks, but especially near the bridge there still seemed to be a lot of them. As we are driving out of the city past a military checkpoint, I think about what it must be like to live in a city like this one,  so near a border like ours. In your own neighborhood you watch armed police and troops go back and forth, and less than a quarter mile away a huge fence is constantly guarded by silent white cars whose main objective is to keep you on “your” side.

Juárez is a city that is struggling with many layers of violence: the very public narco-violence that is all over the news, the less-known femicide that has targeted women who come to work in the maquilas, and, perhaps least publicized, the violence that stems from corruption and power, as in the case of Lomas del Poleo. We are lucky enough now to be able to work with the people of Lomas to tell their stories. I don’t want to give too many details and spoil future posts, but check back in with us in the next week or so to learn more about what we’re doing.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Craig Tucker permalink
    July 26, 2010 3:53 am

    Very well written, informative, and observant post!

  2. Susan Peacock permalink
    July 26, 2010 11:45 pm

    Your description of the difference between El Paso and Juarez is sobering, but imaginable.

    You are brave and honorable in what you are trying to do . . . and you are taking risks . . . and it is work like yours that opens peoples eyes and changes the world.


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