The U.S.-Mexico border stretches 1,954 miles. Walking, I've covered a couple miles of it. Driving, maybe two dozen. Flying, about 50. Still, the size of it remains incomprehensible.
On Wednesday, artist Josh Begley released a new film called Best of Luck With The Wall, which is a mesmerizing attempt to understand this vastness. Executive produced by Academy Award-winning MacArthur genius Laura Poitras, Best of Luck With The Wall takes a satellite eye view of the border, stitching together 200,000 close-up scenes from Google Maps.
"The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography," Begley writes in a text accompanying the film. "By focusing on the physical landscape, I hope viewers might gain a sense of the enormity of it all, and perhaps imagine what it would mean to be a political subject of that terrain."
The film follows the border. There are no interviews or voiceovers. We just see the terrain, without labels, speeding by, mostly left to right.
In the west, the linearity of the border strains against the folding of the terrain and the upthrust of the mountains. To the east, the meandering of Rio Grande takes our view through bend after wobble, turning and turning until it's not always clear which country is which.
Buzzing around the film—maybe even in the score by Jace Clayton (DJ /rupture) and Andy Moore (The Ex)—is the specter of surveillance. Civilians might only be able to grasp the enormity of the border via satellite and computer processing, and the same is true of the governments on both sides of the border. The Border Patrol stitches together data in a similar way, but from even more sensors on the ground, to make sense of and control the flow of people and goods.
One thing that makes this film interesting is that we cannot make sense of anything from the flow of images. There isn't time to interpret, zoom in, or process. We can only look with our human eyes and watch these images go by, knowing they are a part of our world, as it is seen from space-based cameras.
Visually, it reminded me of Stan Brakhage's experiments gluing pieces of moths, leaves and grass directly to celluloid. In Mothlight, below, the stuff of the real world flips back and forth between abstraction and the-thing-as-it-is. Sometimes, a leaf is a leaf and sometimes it is just green.
The same is true of Begley's use of the border. Sometimes, the border is recognizable as political entity—a line demarcating separate domains—and sometimes it is just a beautiful line of color.
"Might simply looking at a place that has been so heavily politicized — a place abstracted into a sound bite — give a small amount of texture and meaning to a phrase like 'build that wall'?" Begley asks.