In the Arizona desert by the Mexican border, the US simulates war and bombs fake Middle Eastern villages. Meanwhile, Border Patrol checkpoints push migrants walking across the border into these and other dangerous areas — and a group of volunteers from San Diego comb the desert monthly, seeking missing family members, friends, and strangers.
The motivation for me making this film is always having felt like an outsider in this country which, for better or for worse, is my home. Coming from a family of migrants and being racialized as Asian, I have always naturally identified with migrants, people of color and those who come from countries that are subjected to US foreign policies that lead to displacement and migration.
I started becoming involved in politics as a teenager, learning about the colonial foundations of global trade that persisted in free trade agreements and US-backed governance bodies like NATO, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. It was eye-opening learning about how facts of life at home — the drug war and crack epidemic of the 1980s in the Bronx, where I spent my childhood summers — were connected to anti-communist military juntas and corporate profits abroad.
When, in 2015, I first heard that Border Patrol checkpoints were pushing migrants from Central America into fake Middle Eastern “combat villages” in the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range in the Arizona desert where the military practices invasion and occupation, I felt a familiar bewilderment and horror that I remember from those years when I first began to read about history as a teenager. There was always something fantastical and surreal about the atrocities I learned about that left me with a feeling of deep unsettledness and hauntedness that no amount of clean, snarky prose from Noam Chomsky or leftist optimism from Howard Zinn could fully expunge.
My film is the counterweight to the written article that I published two years ago in Al Jazeera America. That piece was a “facts and figures” approach to exposing how the state of Arizona was not only sentencing migrants to die in the desert, but that also there were recordings of these last conversations between people dying in the desert and the disinterested representatives of the state — whether 911 dispatchers or Border Patrol agents. Whereas the article identified policies and cultures responsible for the deaths, the film examines no motivations and dwells instead in the brightly-lit reality of the absurd that exists in an almost-abandoned desert on a dirt road. To that end, I use many long, still shots of the combat village and the desert itself. My depictions of an exhausting foot search conducted by Latino men from San Diego stay mostly wide and far away. This isn’t a film about personalities or characters, but rather fragments from a collective nightmare of militarization, racism and permanent war.
I hope to bring to audiences something similar to the sense of shock that inspired me, as a teenager, to dedicating a lifetime to change the fact that so many people in our world are treated as disposable in surprisingly similar ways.