We all know that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We all know that many of those have come from Mexico, making an incredibly arduous border crossing on foot or in the backs of trucks. What most of us don’t have is a visceral understanding of what that’s like.
According to “Undocumented,” the new movie by writer/director Chris Peckover, what it’s like is being kidnapped by a racist group of faux-Minutemen and systematically executed.
“Undocumented” follows a (fictional) documentary team who is tryingil to film a group of Mexicans crossing into the United States. But immediately after crossing the border they are captured by a masked group calling themselves “The Patriots,” who decides to use the documentary team for another purpose—to film a warning.
This premise makes for a bizarre experience, because it opens with the (again, fictional) premise that “We are about to tell you the true story of what is happening.” But then it dives deep into bloody suspense horror. The result is brutal and strangely affecting.
I talked about the genesis of the movie to Peckover and his producers, Keith Walder, Jess Wu, and Josh Finn, in the Highball’s Tiki Karaoke room, where Fantastic was hosting interviews.
So my main issue with this is that it’s conceit is that it’s a documentary, describing real events surrounding a real, politically charged issue. But then, obviously, you guys go someplace different.
Keith Walder: Well, I want to be clear—no one’s saying this is happening. No one’s saying that patriot militias are kidnapping and executing Mexicans on the border. What we’re trying to show is, more, is what it means when we talk about these issues.
Chris Peckover: Yeah, there’s a reason we don’t open with any “found footage,” title screen, like in The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. We don’t say anywhere that this is based on true events. What I would say, instead, is that it’s based on “True sentiments.”
CP: Yeah. I first got the idea for the film ins 2006, when illegal immigration suddenly exploded into a national issue. And all the rhetoric around that was unbelievable, the things people would say—
Josh Finn: Not so different from the things that [‘Patriot’ leader] Z says in the movie.
CP: Yeah. My writing partner and I were bouncing around ideas for—well, at that time it was a serial killer movie. And he said, “You know, if you were a serial killer, and you wanted to kill someone in this country and get away with it, you should go after the homeless.” But the homeless do have people who care about them—there are the aid groups, the churches. What about undocumented workers crossing the border? They’re homeless, and friendless, and constantly vilified in the media.
So that was the germ of the idea.
CP: Yeah, that was the breakthrough. We started thinking of the project in those terms.
How do you do a project like that without it veering off into exploitation?
KW: Very carefully. By painting everyone honestly, so that you have real characters. The character crossing the border is constructed as a real person, with real desires. And the Patriot group is mimicking real fears, even if it’s in a monstrous way.
How far out do you think this premise is?
JF: Well, it’s fiction. But I don’t know how far out it is—there are militia groups patrolling the border. There are people who have said—we don’t know if they’re serious—that if they see people crossing, they’ll shoot them on sight.
CP: Back when I was working at Google, I was screening videos people were uploading. And there was this one video—it was maybe thirty seconds, taken down by the border, of a rifle-mounted camera. And the guy filming was firing at people on the other side and laughing. I don’t know if it was real, but I do know that our movie is on the other side of a really thin line.