David Zurawik: ‘Blood on the Wall’ — this is what great documentary storytelling looks like

Tribune Content Agency

“Blood on the Wall” challenges viewers from its very first frames to put their preconceptions aside.

The National Geographic documentary about the caravans of migrants from Central America opens cinematically in an Arizona motel room at night with young men bundling rolls of hundred dollar bills and then sealing them in plastic. When they get to $100,000 in each of several bundles, they hide the rolls in their SUV and head for the border where the money will be used on the other side to buy heroin.

“How do you know my struggle?” one of the men asks in voiceover. “Have you ever slept in a park? Have you cried yourself to sleep when you were 5 years old? I’ve got five kids and I’m only 22 years old.”

As the screen shows him thumbing through a wad of hundred dollar bills, he says, “So, you tell me. Did I do wrong or did I do right?”

By the end of this film from the producing and directing team of Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested, you will understand how complicated the answer to that question is, and how little most Americans know about the reality behind that young man’s life or the lives of most of the people in the caravans of migrants coming from Central America through Mexico to the Southern border of the United States. As important as this story is to America, much of our media has done a poor job of helping us understand it. Some outlets have only added to the misinformation and confusion about it.

Fox News talked a lot about a caravan made up of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala in 2018. The coverage peaked just before the midterm elections, as the network politicized the migrants for Republican ends. If you watched Fox News and believed what the morning show “Fox & Friends” or prime-time hosts like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham told you, the caravan might have seemed like a menacing force heading our way.

On Oct. 22, 2018, Pete Hegseth, a weekend host on “Fox & Friends,” cited a claim on-air that Guatemalan officials “caught over one hundred ISIS fighters in Guatemala using this caravan” as cover to try and make their way into the United States.

And that disinformation went straight from his mouth to the ear of the number one fan of “Fox & Friends,” President Donald Trump, who tweeted while the show was still on the air that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the migrants.

There was, of course, no proof of this, but when did that bother Trump who was still pushing the alleged life-or-death importance of his wall in keeping migrants out?

Two months later, Carlson was still banging away on migrants saying they make us “poorer” and “dirtier.”

The caravans were covered by Fox News like a dangerous hurricane headed toward Florida. The network could cut to images of the mass of humanity steadily making its way north whenever the producers felt one of the channel’s shows needed a quick hit of xenophobia or fear to keep viewers engaged.

After you see “Blood on the Wall,” you will understand that even the cable news channels that were trying to report the story of the caravans honestly didn’t go nearly deep enough to give viewers a true sense of who was in them, how they came to be and what they said about life in Guatemala, Honduras and especially Mexico.

No one can accuse Junger and Quested of not going deep. It feels as if members of their team were embedded with the caravan from beginning to end. And they made great choices in where to focus their cameras in order to humanize the migrants and engage viewers emotionally in their journeys.

One of their best choices is in following Ludy, a 17-year-old Honduran girl.

“I wasn’t planning to leave my country,” she says. “But when I saw the caravan leaving, I gave it a thought. I don’t have family in Honduras. I have no job or place to sleep. I should leave. Maybe my life will change there. I just turned 17. I truly hope my life will change there.”

Viewers meet the teen as she is starting to panic at not being able to find her boyfriend as the caravan is stopped alongside the Suchiate River waiting to gain entrance to Mexico. She is traveling north with him and a group of other boys and young men with whom she grew up. She is the only female in the group. Describing herself as a victim of rape, she says she feels vulnerable without him. Her anxiety gives way to smiles and kisses once she finds him.

“This is serious border love,” he says with a smile as the two hug and kiss.

Ludy is a force of optimism, energy and hope in the film. It is impossible not to root for this teenager who seems both tough and naive. It is through the toll that the march northward takes on her that viewers come to understand in a concrete way what it feels like to be in that caravan that neither Mexico nor the U.S. wants.

Another great choice is in tracking the journey within the caravan of Sara, who leads her children and grandchildren to the Southern border after a life spent in Guatemala. A sequence involving some of Sara’s family members that takes place along Trump’s wall is breathtaking.

“Blood on the Wall” is great documentary filmmaking. The personal stories like those of Ludy and Sara are placed within multiple layers of context on the history of 20th and 21st century Mexico and Central America. Institutionalized corruption and a mind-numbing gap between the rich and the vast majority of citizens have left millions in grinding poverty.

As Junger and Quested wrote in a letter accompanying a book of photographs from the documentary, “No child dreams of fleeing in a migrant caravan, growing up to become a cartel hit man or collecting the ‘rent’ for a street gang. People take these desperate actions when they have no other options.”

The filmmakers take viewers deep into the drug world, one of the more viable options for those willing to risk their lives. The cameras chronicle the narcoculture from poppy fields to jungle drug labs and the houses and motel rooms where cartel soldiers make their deals and prepare their weapons for battle. This chronicle is filled with dead bodies, lying in the streets and hanging from walls as warnings to rival gangs.

It is impossible to comprehend the danger and vulnerability of migrants like Ludy and Sara without knowing the horrors of the worlds they are trying to escape. And the gangsters are only able to control these worlds because elected officials and law enforcement authorities have systematically betrayed the citizens — in some cases for generations. After the politicians, drug gangsters and corrupt police take their greedy shares, there is nothing left for the people.

That’s the story of the caravan, not the false narrative of ISIS members allegedly concealed in its ranks. That’s a very hard and complicated story to tell. But Junger and Quested are more than up to challenge in “Blood on the Wall.”


“Blood on the Wall” premieres at 9 p.m. EDT Wednesday on National Geographic.


(David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.)


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