This is an interview with filmmaker Rory Kennedy about the documentary The Fence (La Barda). In Oct. 2006, the U.S. government decided to build a 700-mile fence along its troubled 2000-mile-plus border with Mexico. Three years, 19 construction companies, 350 engineers, thousands of construction workers, tens of thousands of tons of metal and $3 billion later, was it all worth it? The Fence (La Barda), Rory Kennedy's latest HBO documentary, investigates the impact of the project, revealing how its stated goals ??? containing illegal immigration, cracking down on drug trafficking and protecting America from terrorists ??? have given way to unforeseen, even absurd consequences. Kennedy follows her subjects through private ranches, protected wilderness, bustling border towns and scrub deserts for a revealing, often surprising look at the controversial southern U.S. border barrier.
Question: At what point did you know that the story of 'The Fence' was something that had to be told?
Rory Kennedy: I received a call from my friend Douglas Brinkley, who's a historian writer and was then visiting professor at the University of Texas in Brownsville. He had called me to talk about the fence, and he told me about how the University was proposing to put the fence right through the middle of campus, where students were going to have to use passports to get from one side of the campus to the other, from one classroom to the next. This seemed absurd to me, and he thought the fence lent itself to a documentary. We've always been a country that has opposed the idea of fences and walls ??? whether Berlin or China ??? and so for us to now be making this gigantic fence seemed in opposition to really who we are as a people. I thought that was worth exploring.
Question: It's shocking to me that there hasn't been more coverage on this and, as you said, people who are aware of the fence. Why do you think that it's been neglected so much in mainstream media and just public consciousness?
Rory Kennedy: I think the truth is that there have been a lot of major issues; we're fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which I think are also obviously deserving of a lot of attention, and then I think that there are issues around how information is covered in this country. Part of the reason I make documentaries is because it's an opportunity to shed light in a deeper, richer manner on issues that I think are often marginalized or not focused on in the mainstream media.
Question: One of the things I picked up on while I was watching was a sort of "call-it- darkly-comedic" thread of the film. Can you talk about that and talk about why you chose to use this in your storytelling?
Rory Kennedy: Whenever I approach a documentary, I try to reflect in the film the experience that I have as an individual in learning about an issue or understanding an issue. And when I jumped into the research what I kept finding myself saying was, "This is absurd ??? this is crazy that they're building this fence." And the premise of it ??? a 700-mile fence on a 2,000-mile border where people are going under and over it and then when they don't want to do either of those things they just walk around it because the fence continually stops throughout the entire border ??? it's so absurd as an idea. I felt that I wanted to convey that absurdity because, to me, that was a truth of this fence, and what it means to have constructed it. The fact that we've spent 3.7 billion dollars already and are going to have to spend billions and billions of dollars in the coming years to maintain it when our economy is plunging is absurd.
Question: Does local law enforcement work with the 'Minute Men' in the film? Or do they meddle with Border Security? And how does the local police feel about their involvement?
Rory Kennedy: Well, I can't speak for them as a whole, but I think that they have worked with Minute Men in order to help them understand what kind of role they can play that is helpful and legal. And, basically, that is to patrol the deserts and see if they can find anybody, and if they do find anybody to alert the local border patrol agents. But they're not allowed to hold them hostage or to put handcuffs on them or really to force them to do anything. They can tell them they need to stay there, but the immigrants could just walk away in theory. But I think it's not always communicated clearly that they're not in a position of authority and if you're an immigrant coming over the southern border, I think it's unclear to you who is in a position of authority and who isn't. So I think [Minute Men] kind of assume that role and the immigrants assume that they're in a position to tell them what to do. But it's a very large territory to monitor and so for the border patrol to have other people out there helping them, or alerting them, probably isn't something that they're opposed to per se.
Question: Do you think that the fence itself is doomed to fail or do you see the government pushing to have it completed?
Rory Kennedy: It is completed as far as what the Secure Fence Act was proposing. I mean, the Secure Fence Act always proposed a 670-mile fence on the 2,000-mile border so it is, in effect, complete. I think there's about 10 or 20 miles of it that haven't been finished because of legal issues where local citizens are opposed to it, and so it's caught up in the court system, but the fence as it was imagined by our congressional leaders is complete.
Question: What was the most impactful moment that happened for you personally while you were shooting this film?
Rory Kennedy: I think just going down to the border and seeing the fence was pretty extraordinary. I think there are so many people who don't know that this fence exists and so many people who don't understand what the implications of it have been. When I first went down to the border and saw this fence and what it says to the people of Mexico, and to the people of South America, that we don't want you - we're better than you, get away from here, we're fencing you out- that message was so heartbreaking to me. If you look back on our nation, as we hear so many times, we are a nation of immigrants - but that is the truth. When my family came to this country a hundred years ago, there were huge numbers of Irish coming here because of the potato famines and that group of people was ostracized, the Europeans were ostracized, because there were huge numbers that were coming in and they were threatening. Now, the biggest numbers of people coming into this country are the neighbors from the South and, of course, then people feel threatened by the neighbors to our south. But then you look back to the Europeans and the Irish and my uncle becoming president of the United States - I'm sure there are going to be future presidents coming in from South America, and future leaders, and future artists, and future scientists and people who create the fabric of our country. So to send that message - you don't belong here, we don't want you, get away from us - is not consistent with, in my mind, who we are as a people and where we've come from as a country.
Question: How long did it take you to actually shoot the film?
Rory Kennedy: Eight days.
Question: Why did you feel like HBO would be a good outlet, a good showcase, for 'The Fence'?
Rory Kennedy: I think HBO is willing to take on controversial subjects and address issues that other entities are unwilling to focus on. And I think that ['The Fence'] is ripe for controversy, as we see with the Arizona law. The film is consistent with where that law is coming from where you're kind of doing a makeshift, individualized approach to some of these very complex issues and I would argue largely a political response as opposed to a practical response. It's holding our legislators to account for how they're spending our money, it's dealing with the war on terror, it's dealing with the drug war, it's a hot-button issue and HBO is really the home for that type of filmmaking, I think both in it's fictional content as well as in it's non-fiction content. I've worked with HBO now for about 15 years and I love the executives there who I work with, particularly Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham, I think they're really talented filmmakers. They always make my films better, and I trust them, and I trust that they'll trust me and let me make the film that I want to make and support me every step of the way, which has been the case with this film.