Rodrigo Reyes Battled Heat, Bed Bugs, and Early Morning Beer Drinking While Filming in the Desert

We already gave you “8 Reasons Why the Hauntingly Beautiful Documentary Purgatorio Will Blow Your Mind” but here we share with you an exclusive look at director Rodrigo Reyes’ travel diary. It is a first hand account of his 4 week-long road trip, of driving up and down the U.S.-Mexico border in a beat up, old Ford van in the searing heat to capture the images for Purgatorio. His documentary starts a national tour in New York on October 3 and plays other cities in the coming weeks.

SEPTEMBER 16, 2011

Six days left before we get on the road, and the nearly 2,000 miles of border hang in front of me like a specter. It feels almost as if it is smiling back at my curiosity — a long and irregular, rusty smile.

I know that there is something of a pathetic hubris behind what I’m trying to do. So many writers and artists have focused on the border, all of them trying to capture its size and weight with some sort of a definitive grasp. But it’s simply too much. And somehow the border seems to know this better than anybody.

Rodrigo Reyes, Director of ‘Purgatorio’
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More than any other place I’ve ever visited, on the border you can feel a pulse in the landscape, strange evidence of some sort of creature made up of the desert and the dreams and nightmares of human beings. The truth is that I’ve been working to make this for two years, but now that it’s really happening and all my savings are being spent up and the car is finally fixed, I’m still not sure if this trip will have the strength to hold up as a decent film, or if all this effort will be blown to pieces.

SEPTEMBER 28, 2011

It’s Thursday morning again, which means we’ve been on the road for an entire week. We’re sitting in the Oasis deli in Ajo, Arizona. The crew is looking at me a little weird because I’m the only one having beer with my coffee, but it’s the kind of moment when that’s exactly what must be done.

A few days earlier we had managed to get through our most brutal moment so far, getting stranded in a field of dunes south of Yuma. I had been chasing an image I found in the press of the border wall running through a sea of sand. I rented an all-wheel-drive SUV that immediately failed to make any progress beyond a few feet. There was only one option left.

Sure enough, an hour later we were trudging over the dunes, gear on our backs, swimming in sweat and misery. I tried to lighten the load by reassuring everyone that “we are only going just a little further.”

I remember that the sun set at exactly 6:39 pm. We had found the right place to shoot, and we started shooting, driven by that special energy that comes from knowing that you suffered for some sort of a purpose. Dusk began to settle when a Border Patrol agent approached, driving an all-terrain vehicle. He was a young guy who couldn’t help gawking at the camera. He let us continue shooting until we got right up inside the massive pillars of the border fence. The agent stopped us, obviously worried for our safety.

“I wouldn’t get so close if I was you. That over there is Mexico. You never know what can happen.” There was nothing but nightfall and a vast field of dunes on the other side.

OCTOBER 2, 2011

A word about our hotels. For example, El Dorado in Nogales has a ballroom, a restaurant and a bar — all closed. All you can get in the morning is hot coffee and some Sweet and Low. Econolodge in Tucson does indeed offer breakfast, but only from 7:00 am to 9:00 am, with the additional caveat that they toast their bagels ahead of time. I guess it keeps them from going stale too soon. El Norte in Mexicali was very thoughtful and gave me the only room with bed bugs out of the whole crew. Ironically, they kicked us out of the restaurant early on our first and only night, because they had to spray for ants and roaches.

We have not shared a room thus far and I intend to keep it that way. I’m pretty sure that if we did, the fragile balance holding together this production would collapse. Our rooms give us refuge, they are the only place where we can literally shut the blinds on the making of this film.

OCTOBER 12, 2011

In Juárez we connected with a veteran journalist, the hardy Miguel Perea. He connected us into the circuit of reporters covering the crime beat. The truth is that if you’re in Juárez with a camera, you want to catch a murder. But not just any old murder. You want something sensational and immediate, you want to be right up in there.

It was with this morbid spirit that we set out to tag along with one of Miguel’s friends last night. We were expecting lots of action since the day before had resulted in a body count of 16 to 17 murders throughout the city. Miguel had connected us to his friend Chava, who worked for a small local paper and new all the ins and outs. A call would come in and we would drive after it, I maneuvered while Chava manned a cell and simultaneously a Nextel radio, as well as a regular police radio. Transmission gears revved, red-lights were jumped and cars dodged, and we managed to be the first to arrive on the scene. Big deal, there were no bodies. It had been a levantón, which is basically when gangsters pick up a person or group of people, and these usually show up dead a short time afterward.

We drove back to the paper, a little sullen, hoping for better luck and wondering out loud when the four men from the car would show up. Just as we were parking, another call comes through and we’re off again. The location was a road running through a barren lot. Chava was in the passenger seat scouting the dirt: “Stop! There’s a bag back there. They must have cut him up in pieces.” I set my blinkers on and backed up slowly past a large dark lump. I left the headlights on and we all got off to take a look. Miguel walked around the body and mumbled: “I think it’s a dog.” And sure enough, it was a Rottweiler.

On the way back to the paper we had another report, which was soon confirmed to be some other pointless thing. Chava, Miguel, and the rest of the staff at the paper reassured us: “Don’t worry, it will pick up soon. This can’t go on forever.”

OCTOBER 17, 2011

Luckily, the dry spell continued for most of our visit. It seemed like murders were avoiding us on purpose in order to give us a chance to focus instead on the living human beings struggling to bring order to the madness.

We had the opportunity to visit a small organization made up of mothers and other family members of victims of violence. The running rhetoric in Mexico ignores the existence of innocent victims, claiming that most of them were involved in criminal activities. The truth is much more difficult. Often, people have been murdered for no good reason at all, simply because the vast majority of crimes in Mexico go unpunished. These victims end up swept under the rug of indifference and fear under the empty excuse of: “Well, I guess they must have been up to no good.”

I spoke with a grandmother who had recently lost her grandson. She had raised her grandson since he was a baby, and his senseless murder utterly devastated her. He was a college student, only 21 years old. Why do bad things happen to good people? The grandmother offered a piece of insight from her pain. “Forgiveness is an everyday effort. I’m not going to say that it’s easy. Some days it’s very difficult. But it’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, you tell yourself that you’re going to try for just one more day.”

OCTOBER 20, 2011

As I head home I’m not sure of what will happen. Will I find funding for the film or will I be forced to finish it myself? Will it be any good? Can I bring it together in the editing? It feels like the change is too sudden and somehow unfair. Now I have to wrestle the film from the computer and grant applications, instead of trying to capture it from the bustling outside world.

For more information on Purgatorio’s nationwide release visit