Into this chaos, in the fall of 2003, arrived two college students from upstate New York. They were carrying a bulky camera and slim savvy about what makes the border tick. Two years later, Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest have emerged with Walking the Line, a stylish, sophisticated documentary look at Cochise County's rollicking vigilante movement.
Behind this film is a precipitous learning curve. "Originally, we came (to Arizona) because we'd heard about these crazy guys with guns chasing illegal immigrants," says Levine. But their aim quickly turned "away from the sensational, and into the much larger issue that's happening down at the border, which is immigrant deaths." Another surprise, says Van Soest, is the bitterness this region provokes. "There's the extreme right-wing and the extreme liberal, and not much in-between. Meanwhile, nothing seems to be getting done."
Their narrative cuts right to the chase, as an old woman rumbles into view atop a dusty ATV. She says vigilantes just showed up on her land one day. So she called them useless as the U.S. Border Patrol, and ordered them to depart post haste. If they doubted her resolve, well ... Then she pulls a fat pistol from her lap, and waves it at the camera with dazzling nonchalance.
Welcome to the border.
Soon we're shuffling through a series of familiar border faces, from Rep. Raúl Grijalva and No More Deaths' Rev. John Fife to Isabel Garcia of Derechos Humanos. But it's vigilantes who really drive this film. Sometimes they simply emerge as predictable and goofy and faintly pathetic. At other moments, however, their fanaticism is blunt. One such moment occurs when Ranch Rescue founder Jack Foote explains his philosophy toward immigrant families he scours the desert to find. "The fact that criminals are desperate doesn't make me feel any better that they're on my property," he says, eyes flat. "You do it by drawing that hard line."
We see Chris Simcox, head of the Tombstone-based Civil Homeland Defense, excitedly chomping a cigar when his nighttime patrol stumbles across an immigrant group. American Border Patrol's Glenn Spencer talks to the camera as video surveillance monitors flash and snarl behind him ("He actually video-taped us video-taping him," says Levine). Later, Foote rattles on bitterly about a former colleague, revealing internecine struggles for leadership of the group.
They also relished toying with the young filmmakers. "We kept trying to get reassurance from them," says Levine, "but they told us that this would be dangerous, that there would be scorpions, armed military people from Mexico, armed drug dealers--and they said they'd do their best to protect us, but they couldn't guarantee anything."
When Levine and Van Soest first arrived, they were camped in the Douglas, Ariz., Motel 6, awaiting a connection with Casey Nethercott of Ranch Rescue. "We were to call a phone number," says Levine, "and two of their guys were going to come and check us out." If the pair passed muster, they'd be led to the headquarters. It was ultimately much ado about nothing: "When we gave them a call, they nonchalantly gave us directions," Levine says. "So when we pulled up at the compound in our rental car, there were guys with semi-automatic weapons and army camouflage at the gate, and they just let us in."
Inside his concertina wire-laced compound, Nethercott quickly fired up an intimidating swagger. Harassment hit a fever pitch one night, when Levine was stuck with Nethercott and his Rottweiler while the others were out on patrol. Nethercott feigned barely keeping his attack dog at bay. Then he simply glared. "At that point," Levine recalls, "Casey says to me, 'I just want to stab you in the side and fuck you in the wound.'"
This "soldier-of-fortune" moment doesn't appear in Walking the Line. And that highlights its prime strength: Levine and Van Soest resist easy opportunities to simply poke fun at these erstwhile warriors. Instead, the militia men talk freely to the camera, and they are hanged--or not--on their own words. "We wanted to avoid taking things out of context," says Van Soest. For example, "the first cut had some things that were heavy-handed, going out of our way to make these people look wrong. But then we went back and just let people speak their piece. We tried to give everybody the benefit of the doubt in the final version."
As a result, viewers get the expected dose of propaganda. But we also glimpse those rare moments--sometimes only seconds--when bravado vanishes and the guard is dropped. One such peek occurs when Simcox and colleagues discover several illegal immigrants in the darkness. The militia leader is exuberant and cocky. Awash in the full thrill of a sick moment, he suddenly loses his taciturn media countenance, enjoying this game as migrants sit amid desert brush, their heads bowed.
"That scene was very strange for us," says Van Soest. "This was the climactic scene, and there was a lot of tension in the air, even though people were laughing. It felt like a game."
Levine remembers "this wave of adrenaline passing through us. Then you realize these (illegal immigrants) are people. They're human beings, and it was really, really uncomfortable to stick a camera in their faces."
He pauses. "In a way," says Levine, "we were in the same boat as Simcox and his group. We were out there looking for immigrants. And if we kept going out and didn't find any ... that would be telling in one way, but it also meant we would fail with our documentary."
Months of planning had led to that moment, Van Soest adds, "and it was immediately bittersweet. It was very depressing situation."
But there was a surprise bonus: "We could never get (militia members) to use the word 'vigilante' on film, and they supposedly hate the word ," says Van Soest. "Then as soon as Simcox apprehends these people, the first thing out of his mouth is 'A vigilante has got you!'"