March 21, 2008

Why Did Bordertown Do a Belly Flop?

By Mark R. Day

When superstar Jennifer Lopez took the stage last month after the screening of her new film Bordertown at the Berlinale (Berlin) Film Festival, she must have taken a deep breath. Moments earlier J-Lo was beaming to photographers. But after the credits rolled, there was loud booing and muted applause from the audience, a response that brought the star to the verge of tears.

¿Oye, que paso? Here was a bankable star whose role in Selena catapulted her to fame. Lopez was working with the same director, Gregory Nava, and with co-stars Antonio Banderas and Sonia Braga as added attractions. Besides starring in the film, Lopez also produced it.

Lopez plays Lauren Adrian, an ambitious Chicago newspaper reporter sent to Juarez, Mexico to investigate the deaths of scores of young women working in the city’s maquiladoras (assembly plants). She attempts to team up with Alfonso Diaz (Antonio Banderas) her former lover who now edits a Juarez newspaper and has his hand on the pulse of the murders and disappearances.

He spurns her offer, but the sudden appearance of Eva Jimenez (Maya Zapata), a survivor who has been raped by a bus driver and left for dead in the desert brings the three together to seek out the murderers. Adrian goes undercover as a maquiladora worker, is herself assaulted by the bus driver, but manages to escape.

Jennifer Lopez (right) as Lauren Adrian with Maya Zapata as Eva Jimenez.

Jimenez, fearful of testifying against the assailants, gets smuggled into the U.S. by a coyote, but is deported and later reunited with Adrian. During all the turmoil, Adrian uncovers the macabre connection between Juarez high society, the maquilaora owners, corrupt police and underworld characters.

Adrian gets her story, only to find out that her editor, George Morgan (Martin Sheen), has killed it because of pressure from free trader politicians.

The background of the film is well documented in every aspect. It is a politically correct fictionalized account of what has been happening in Juarez for the past 10 years. So what’s the problem? What went wrong?

To start with, Nava’s script is ham-fisted and simplistic. It repeats the tired cliché of the American savior who literally flies into a complicated mass of evil to rescue the poor, bedeviled Third Worlders from themselves and their exploiters.

Besides, the action-adventure production design and fast cuts would have been a better fit for a Lethal Weapon film. Bordertown called for less Hollywood sensationalism and a more serious story and character driven film with restraint and subtlety. How do you develop empathy for characters that are simply running around in chase scenes and having breathless conversations?

Nor did it help that according to insiders Lopez strutted around the set like a prima donna, demanding that the production pay for her $10,000-a-day hairdresser, a luxury trailer and a villa to rest up at between shoots—hardly the fare of an indie production.

No less pompous is Nava who said the inspiration for Bordertown came from “the Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the social dramas of Charles Dickens.”

Say what, Greg?

Cost overruns and a tepid box office have caused the film to fall into debt with its funding source, the New Mexico State Investment Council. NMSIC has agreed to take 10 per cent of the movie’s profits.

Then there were major logistic problems. Nava said he received death threats in Juarez. Moreover, executive producer Barbara Martinez Jitner, said that police harassed locals who worked on the production, $100,000 worth of camera equipment was stolen, and police beat a production assistant to find out where the camera crew was shooting.

Nor has the film done well in distribution. MGM and New Line have reportedly pulled the plug on a U.S. theatrical release, and co-star Maya Zapata told a Mexican newspaper that the Mexican government has banned the film for political reasons. This charge was denied by Pedro Armendariz, head of Mexico’s Radio, Television y Cinematagrofia (RTC).

Despite the film’s problems, it’s hard to knock Nava and Lopez for courageously making a film that sticks up for exploited workers and the dead and disappeared women of Juarez. The movie failed to capture the coveted Golden Bear at the Berlinale, but Amnesty International presented Jennifer Lopez with its “Artists for Amnesty Award” for her role in examining the deaths of hundreds of women in Juarez.

And Lopez took to the stage at the Berlin festival with the mothers of some of the young victims of Juarez. They told their stories and asked that their daughters’ murderers be found and punished.

Bordertown, available on DVD, is a film worth seeing.

Mark R. Day is a filmmaker and journalist

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