Tommy Davis’s documentary Wetbacks: Through the Night generates manipulative suspense over the matter Who will live? Who will die?, as did Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). But that was fiction. Davis teases us to wonder this about four actual persons.
     Davis, a U.S. southern border resident, accompanied four undocumented Mexicans as they crossed their northern border in hopes of finding jobs in the U.S. The film documents the danger of the men’s trek by foot through deadly desert and inhospitable weather. As counterpoint to this, a well-fed border patrolman adds his own commentary.
     Davis narrates. His narration is intrusive and rarely helpful; Davis might have better served his material by eschewing his love affair with the sound of his voice. But since he does narrate, he might have told us the fates of the men at the outset. It scarcely helps that he ends up delivering an inconclusive message on this score, insisting on his ignorance. With cold disregard for the outcome of these human lives, he devises an ending that unfolds all but one of these outcomes into a general possibility of death as a television news program reports the deaths of three anonymous Mexican “illegals” in a blast of terribly cold weather.
     Thank goodness similar material has been tackled by genuine artists with something to show and something to say: María Navaro, with the fictional El Jardín del Edén (1994); Chantal Äkerman, with the documentary From the Other Side (2002). Never mind the rank incompetence of Davis’s agitated video camera, with its unrealized desire that a series of shots framed off-center might prove correlative to the men’s god-awfully disorienting experience. What condemns this movie more is Davis’s personality. The Mexicans are full of humanity. Davis has none of his own.

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