Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
In the spring of 2010, Roger Ebert championed “45365,” the directorial debut from Ohio-born documentarians Bill and Turner Ross. The 4-star review, which claimed that one exquisite shot contained “all human life,” would change their lives irrevocably—Roger had a tendency to do this, to unexpectedly alter one’s course. For the Ross brothers, that course has taken them back to Sundance with “Western,” a sumptuously shot and profoundly told documentary reminiscent of a Frederick Wiseman affair.
We open with Chad Foster, the universally beloved, stately mayor of Eagle Pass, TX, sitting behind his desk in his modest office. Two women have come asking for his assistance with a committee they’re running. They want him to be the president. It’s in these opening moments that we learn everything we need to know about Foster: if the people of Eagle Pass could have it their way, Chad would be in charge of everything. He works with diplomacy and pragmatism, two features that have seemingly escaped DC.
It’s through Foster that we become enveloped in the core conflict of “Western”: a mere 2.6 miles away from Eagle Pass is Piedras Negras, one of the more violent areas in Mexico. For generations, the people that inhabited these neighboring lands peacefully coexisted. The film even opens up with a festival celebrating their non-violent unity. But it doesn’t take long for the Ross brothers to shift their focus as life changes in Eagle Pass. As the cartel continues down their torrid, destructive path, the bond these adjacent societies once shared begins to disintegrate. With the mounting death count and increased border control, we’re introduced to Martin Wall—a fifth-generation cattleman whose business is dependent on the tranquility of Piedras Negras. Crime is bad for business on Wall’s mind. But he’s not so cold and calculating about it. Wall and his fellow ranchers just want to do the work they’ve been doing their entire lives. The Ross brothers deftly capture this precarious state of influx.
The film, which contains no talking-head interviews, infographics, or any other conventional documentary device, presents a vexing portrait of a changing landscape. Contrary to filmmakers like Michael Moore or Alex Gibney, the Ross brothers are not interested in propagating a specific message. Why would they? To do so would be to claim this is as their story. And it’s not. It’s ours.
The political and social undertones of the film only come to the surface because of the people we’re watching. This is life, captured. Cultures are colliding. Innumerable agendas and desires are plastered onto the screen, all by people speaking from the heart—petrified of the specter of uncertainty residing over their native Texan land. One side is drenched in blood, journalists and politicians being slaughtered with terrifying regularity. The other side, which is all but a 10-minute car ride away, is in constant fear of the savage barbarity inching closer and closer.
The blood may be out of sight for the citizens of Eagle Pass, but it is never out of mind. Like a pack of imperceptible coyotes howling in the distance, the sonically assaultive sounds of gunshots—and the lives mercilessly stripped away by those gunshots—never subsides.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
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