Joseph Mathew thought he was onto something back in February 2004. He didn't know the half of it.
His first documentary, The Last Season: The Life and Demolition of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium (co-directed with Charles Cohen), had been a major hit at the 2002 Maryland Film Festival. Poking around in search of a subject for a new project, he traveled to the Arizona-Mexico border, his interest piqued by an international affairs course at New York University. He found his subject, little suspecting that by the time he finished the film, it would have become such a hot-button issue: illegal immigrants.
"The initial focus was the humanitarian crisis along the border and the efforts of volunteers, people who are trying to give humanitarian aid to the migrants," says Mathew, 40, a native of India and a Maryland Institute College of Art grad now living in Brooklyn, N.Y. "We wanted to give an overview of what's actually happening along the border, what it actually feels like to be there. But soon, we found that the whole thing had become this huge national story."
The resulting film, Crossing Arizona, debuted at January's Sundance Film Festival, and has since won the audience award at the Cine Las Americas in Austin, Texas, and best documentary at the Arizona International Film Festival. It premieres locally at the 2006 Maryland Film Festival tomorrow morning at 10:30.
The 97-minute documentary, which Mathew co-directed and co-produced with longtime friend and native Baltimorean Dan DeVivo, introduces both sides of the illegal immigration debate. Activists such as Mike Wilson, a member of the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation who distributes both water and advice to migrant workers making their way north from Mexico, speak movingly and eloquently of the human toll extracted by this country's constrictive border policies. Since 1995, when efforts began to seal off popular crossing sites in California and Texas, migrant workers heading across the border illegally instead have to travel along less populated and more dangerous routes. Thousands have died.
"It's just shocking that that could be happening with our neighbors to our south," says DeVivo, 28, a champion wrestler at Mount St. Joseph before attending Harvard and deciding to try filmmaking. "They're risking their lives to get here."
Not everyone in Crossing Arizona is sympathetic to the migrants' cause. Early in their research, Mathew and DeVivo came across Chris Simcox, a Tombstone, Ariz., newspaper publisher determined to stem the tide of illegal immigrants pouring across the border. What started as an isolated campaign in a small southern Arizona town has blossomed into the Minuteman movement, a highly publicized citizen-volunteer effort to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. While some disparage their efforts as vigilantism, Simcox and his followers insist it is simply patriotism.
"When we first met up with him, he was nobody," says Mathew. "He was running a small-town rag out of Tombstone, and on the weekend, he used to go out and look for illegal immigrants with his cronies. Almost a year later, we started seeing him on CNN."
The film also includes interviews with ranchers living along the border, men and women who find themselves in the middle of a war that few of them want. Before 1995, few if any migrants made their way across southern Arizona's ranchland; now, so many do that landowners are picking up thousands of tons of trash a week, to prevent their cattle from eating it and choking to death.
Even more tragic are the ranchers who speak of finding dead migrants on their property, bodies bloated from exposure to the sun and partially devoured by scavengers. When these ranchers talk, there's no anger in their voices, only frustration, and compassion.
"A lot of them have no beef against the migrants themselves," says Mathew. "They knew that it was a failed U.S. policy that was driving them through their backyards."
For a list of highlights at the Maryland Film Festival, see Page 2C. For complete listings, visit www.mdfilmfest.com or call 410-752-8083.