Women and Migration in Film

The Examples of The Border and El Norte



Films have exerted a powerful force in international politics, from Eisenstein's works exalting the new Soviet Union to Riefenstahl's paeans to the German Reich. Two American films, The Border (1982) and El Norte (1983), examine the plight of female Hispanics and the problematic relation between an individual's desire to maintain her cultural integrity and the economic pull of "the north." Despite their desire to portray immigrant women's plight in a politically liberal and persuasive context, Hollywood films resort to the standard conventions of film melodrama to convey their protagonists' dilemmas. Hence, a gulf emerges between the verisimilitude of the film and the realism of Hispanic women’s situation, with the consequence that a serious social problem becomes inevitably "Hollywoodized," despite the sincere intentions of the film makers.


Films about women migrating are not presentations of an event, they are representations of an event, and therein lies both a description of what happens when one makes a film, and a location of the problem of accurately relating the plight of women. For films, and in particular Hollywood films, do not present events; they place events in the context of a controlling genre, and it is the genre’s structure, and the audience’s expectations for the genre, that guide how a story is told on film. In what follows I will argue that the genre Hollywood chooses for the films in question is melodrama, and the structure is determined by the literary device of synecdoche. I have chosen two excellent films to illustrate this argument, Tony Richardson’s The Border, and Gregory de Nava’s El Norte.

First off, I love these movies. Not a week goes by that I don’t quote master thespianette of The Border, Valerie Perrine, as she presents husband Jack Nicholson with his TV dinnertime choices: "Hunrgy Man? Or Regular Man?" Not until 1990’s Journey of Hope have I seen a film with the emotional pull of El Norte’s brother and sister’s desperate attempts to stay together as a family. So, while what follows may sound coldly analytical, and it is coldly analytical, this doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t buy you a copy of these films just to make sure you see them.

What’s a melodrama? Here’s one definition:

In Western theatre, [melodrama is a] sentimental drama with an improbable plot that concerns the vicissitudes suffered by the virtuous at the hands of the villainous … The melodrama focusses not on character development but on sensational incidents and spectacular staging. EB

One of the most obvious examples of melodrama are TV movies-of-the-week. In those, we have kidnapped children, fatal diseases, life-altering drug abuse, and domestic physical abuse—all in all, just another day at O. J.’s house. However, I think that any Arnold or Sly movie fits this bill as well, and we may well want to ask just which Hollywood movies are not melodramas. While these movie experiences engage us emotionally—that poor mother has had her child stolen!—I think that the purpose of art is to present vicarious experiences from which we can learn and be more reflective, not pay to board emotional roller coasters. And if we’re talking art, we’re talking drama, an art form in which we recognize flawed people seeking to interact with their environment and gain a better understanding of their life and their surroundings. From their experiences we can learn how better to focus and control our own lives.

To decide whether these two films are dramas or melodramas, let’s look at some plot points:

1. Melodramatic structure

a) The Border

i) A couple gets caught in an earthquake, and the husband is killed!
ii) A single woman must journey north by herself to protect her baby!
iii) Her baby is kidnapped!

iv) She’s reunited with her child!

b) El Norte

i) Their parents are killed!
ii) They must crawl through a rat-infested tunnel!
iii) One of the characters dies a horrid death!

Clearly, we’re dealing here with two melodramas. But why aren’t they dramas? Why are they melodramas? Because melodramas sell tickets.

Someone once said that one can best understand a screenplay as an initial stock offering. People are being asked to gamble millions of dollars in hopes of making millions more. Investors, people who gamble for a living, are like true gamblers; they always want to put their money on a sure thing. And as an investment, melodramas are a much better sell than dramas. Consequently, when looking at a screenplay, investors want to see a structure they can recognize.

Richard Maltby has argued that that structure, the one that governs countless Hollywood films, can be understood as a form of regulated difference.

Hollywood’ s commercial aesthetic extends the principles of standardization, interchangeability, minor variation, and market placement that underlie the consumer industries of fashion and cosmetics into the cultural form of entertainment fiction. [Maltby quotes Steve Neale as saying that] this system of product differentiation [is] an aesthetic regime based on regulated difference, [contained variety, pre-sold expectations, and the re-use of resources in labour and materials. (62)

And, he adds later, "Movies were thus endowed with an affirmative cultural function that was dramatically at odds with a view of art as a vehicle of social criticism or negation." Hence, while we want to look at movies as art, art’s traditional role has been social criticism. Hollywood, on the contrary, wants to entertain, and thus affirm cultural values, not critique them. The Border, for example, follows the passage of Jack Nicholson’s character from descent into mediocrity and temptation, to a resolution wherein he is redeemed. The woman in question, who has had her child stolen, forms the agency for his redemption. This film follows the arc of the white male character, in a strong affirmation of the possibility of human redemption. While the Hispanic woman character undergoes a challenge—her baby is stolen, and she then gets her baby back—her character remains essentially unchanged. She remains the Noble Peasant Woman.

El Norte follows a more specific subgenre of melodrama, that of the domestic tragedy, played out across two countries. Unlike Classical or Elizabethan tragedy, the domestic tragedy concerns itself with middle or lower class characters. While we have some examples of "high drama" domestic tragedy, such as the plays of Henrik Ibsen or Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, El Norte plays these conflicts within a shifting domestic setting, placing the conflict not between the family characters, but between the family and the outside world. We’re rooting for the family to stay together; as we learn, however, villainous agents and events kill off one of the main characters.

My point here is that horrible things happen to women who migrate, but we cannot say these real-life women have led melodramatic, or even tragic, lives. Technically, women who experience hardship are living pathetic lives, that is, they have hardships visited on them regardless of what kind of people they are. They don’t deserve what happens to them, but what happens to them happens irrespective of the strength of their character. In the melodrama—in both these films—the characters are either upstandingly virtuous, or flat enough, in the case of Elipdia Carrillo’s character in The Border, to not be terribly, representatively human. They are instead the Noble Immigrants and the Aggrieved Mother. If we want to understand the plight of real women, we have to see them as real women, with strengths, flaws, healthy and unhealthy desires, sometimes greedy and other times self-abnegating. It’s part of being a person, not a character standing for a group of people.

Which brings me to my next point. Characters in films such as these are invariably synecdochic. That’s the adjectival form of a big word, "synecdoche," which means a "figure of speech in which a part represents the whole." I think of synecdoche whenever I think of the network news. For example, CBS wants to explain unemployment owing to corporate downsizing. They don’t tell you that some vicious multinational corporation has put thousands of people on the streets to satisfy its stockholders and its own corporate greed. Instead, we travel out to Hickville, Indiana, where we visit the poor-but-proud Smith family, out of work but getting by, and we get a solid close-up on their three kids at the dinner table, plate before them, staring blankly at a single, bunless hot dog. We leave Hickville with a indelible image of that tube steak, but no clear idea of the market economy and government collusion that sanctions putting loyal, hard-working Americans out of work to satisfy someone’s idea of a bottom line. That’s synecdoche in a newscast.

Analogously, in film, whenever we’re presented with a social problem, the main characters shoulder the burden of standing for the entire population of individuals suffering from the problem. This leads us, good liberals all, having seen El Norte, to leave the theater saying to each other, those poor Guatemalans, on our way to a diner for a decaf latte and a double chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. In a strange way, by using synecdochic characters, we become more distanced from the problem, in that it leads us to abstract the people into an image of these morally upright folks we’ve just seen on screen. I’ve been to Guatemala, one of the most wonderful countries on the planet, and I can tell you it’s no less full of drunks and good Christians, and thieves and hard working people than any other place. But that’s not what we get in a movie. What we get is similar to what we get when the conversation turns to multiculturalism: talk about quote Blacks and quote White European Males. While racism abstracts groups of people for the purpose of dehumanizing them and exploiting them, consciously or unconsciously the dramatic synecdoche in films abstracts groups of people as well, making them no easier to understand than whatever the heck a Black or a White European Male is.

While it’s true, you may say, that we can strive to make our melodramas into dramas, even though they may not sell as well, the issue of synecdoche isn’t so easy. We can’t make films starring the entire Mayan Indian population of Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. A viewer has to have a specific focus as a way of presenting a problem. Well, if Hollywood fiction films are by definition compelled to present genre pieces with their built-in constraints, perhaps we should abandon the idea of fiction and make a documentary about the issue of women and migration.

Documentaries have, by definition, the aura of "truthfulness." Unlike fiction, which is, after all, highly organized lying, documentaries purport to tell the truth. If we want to find out the truth about an issue, we don’t want to read an entire book with small print and no pictures; we can go watch a documentary and learn the facts.

Would that it were true. The "fact" is that, while fiction films are an imaginative construct, documentaries are an argument. Fiction films tell us a story; documentaries make an argument about a real state of affairs. And if they represent an argument, there always exists a counter-argument, which suggests that documentaries are inherently ideological in both senses of the term: they are about ideas, general moral ideas as they relate to actual human affairs, and they are inherently political.

Some of the greatest documentaries of the past few decades, such as 1974’s Hearts and Minds, or Barbara Kopple’s striking 1977 film, Harlan County U.S.A., or 1992’s Panama Deception, make strong and compelling arguments: the war in Vietnam is wrong; corporations who bust up unions for their own profit are evil, George Bush is a lying scumbag. The interesting thing about documentaries is how they achieve their argumentative effects, mainly through the order of the presentation of the images—editing. Frederick Wiseman’s superb documentaries, for example, use no voiceovers at all—the power of the argument rests solely in the arrangement of the image. And as a result, even sophisticated movie viewers are persuaded that they are watching a "factual presentation" of events. How images are arranged: who is allowed to talk next after we interview William Westmoreland, or what the next image we see after we see the strike breakers attack a man with a baseball bat, determine what the filmmaker wants us to think about these events. He or she isn’t presenting images; the images are used to make a point.

Documentary is often contrasted with propaganda. My argument here is that one man’s documentary is another man’s propaganda, because all documentaries are inherently ideological.

But, you say, I recognize that documentaries are ideological, but they are "real." And while El Norte and The Border are fiction films, they seem realistic. I’m sure if we toured California we’d find immigrants just like that noble brother and sister. However, irrespective of who we’d find, films can’t portray the real. They can portray what we might call cultural verisimilitude. Here’s Richard Maltby again:

  • The goal of realism is an illusion. Art cannot "show things as they really are," because the "real" in realism is defined as being that which is unmediated by representation. Since it is outside representation, it cannot be represented. (150)

And, if you consider all the techniques of film that are blatantly impossible perceptual experiences for us to have—the collapse of time and space through editing, the jumping through space using a zoom lens, hearing characters with perfect fidelity even though they are half a football field away, being right next to beautiful naked people when they are having sex—what movies provide us with is the thrill, not of reality, but illusion. As Andre Bazin has suggested, what movies offer in the way of realism is not fidelity to our perceived experience, but fidelity to the psychology of perceived experience: a "realistic" film is realistic because it feels realistic (151). And the fancy name for "feeling realistic" is verisimilitude.

Hence, while films can excite us emotionally about a socio-political issue, such as women and migration, they are a poor guide to the issue itself. Movies may have powerful political effects, as we’ve seen in the films of Eisenstein and Riefenstahl, but they are the effects of furthering an ideological point of view, not of presenting the issue in such a way that reasonable people can come to a conclusion about what the problem is and what to do about it. Shine, for example, may be an emotionally compelling film, but the sad fact is that, according to all reports, David Helfgott is a lousy piano player.

I’ve suggested that films about women and migration are inherently problematic because the issue inevitably becomes "Hollywoodized." Owing to market forces, filmmakers create melodramas out of facts, inevitably misrepresenting the source material owing to the constraints of the genre within which they work. Large social problems cannot be handled successfully in film, resulting in a "synecdochization" of the problem, reducing the social problem to the drama of a minimal number of characters. Documentary seems to offer a way around the problem of melodrama and synecdoche, but documentaries aren’t factual reports; they’re arguments. Ultimately, films can’t be realistic because they’re trying to do something they can’t in principle do: be an unmediated experience. Art is by definition a mediated experience. Hence, if we want to talk about furthering an ideological position by using the psychologically compelling medium of film, we can discuss how powerful these two films are. But if we are asking them to inform us about the problem, we’re asking of a film something it cannot do.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford