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October 31, 2004

Cacti and Crying: Looking at Fire Escape's Latest

Two ostensibly documentary films—the latest from the student producers at Fire Escape Films—were shown this past Wednesday. One of the films, Lines in the Sand is a very good documentary; the other, Spilt Milk, while a perfectly fine video art piece, is not a documentary at all.

Lines in the Sand is a beautifully filmed portrait of a small Arizona border town called Ajo. Next to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Park—voted the most dangerous American national park—and to the north of a town called Gunsight, Ajo is a world away from metropolitan Chicago. The film concentrates on the effects that illegal border-crossings from adjacent Mexico have on the Ajo townsfolk.

To take this as a documentary about the endemic immigration problems faced by the United States would be a mistake; the film's true appeal lies in its human subjects. The film's characters are arrayed on all sides of the immigration question. There's a sympathetic—if not exactly rollicking—bleached-blond and thoroughly sunburnt American couple that speak with their arms around each other's waists. There's a slug-like Ajo border patrol officer whose grey glasses cover half of his upwardly tapering face. There's an attractive young female park ranger who describes a violent murder. And this film does, in fact, describe the immigration issue in some detail, bringing us to understand the people of Ajo as well as various residents of Ajo's over-the-border counterpart in Mexico. With all of the color and human interest, if none of the drama, of Lone Star—John Sayles's great film about a fictional Texas border town—Lines in the Sand uses a motley bunch of people to bring forth many facets of an important political issue. The incredible thing is that they're all real.

As we move from anecdote to anecdote we learn of the plummeting number of barbershops in the town. We move to the proud efforts of our ruddy American couple to provide yoga lessons for a housekeeper's ailing relative in Guadalajara. We hear the macabre story of a murder driven by the drug trade. The film steps through these episodes with a smooth rhythm, avoiding for the most part the repetitiveness that mires many documentaries.

Even with all these anecdotes, Lines in the Sand has no problem following a single, coherent thread through the ups and downs of Ajo's recent history. To no small degree, the movie owes this to Paul Kolak's contributions on the soundtrack. The fitting refrain of his music ties the episodes of the film more tightly together. What's more, the stories are told with visually strong, honest images, and little of the dizzying and contrived contrapposto camera angles that plague many student films. All in all, this is easily one of the best films to come out of Fire Escape in the past couple of years.

Spilt Milk has no story to tell or opinion to push. Instead, it moves between a bunch of subjects in their twenties who ruminate on crying. In the tradition of Andy Warhol's video projects, Spilt Milk portrays various people responding to