Truth can be scarier than fiction. That’s the case with Missing in Brooks County, a new documentary that’s aired on PBS as part of its Independent Lens series and is now available for streaming on the PBS Video app. The film talks about how many would-be immigrants have disappeared in the South Texas county, 80 miles north of the border between the United States and Mexico.
Filmmakers Jeff Bemiss and Lisa Molomot recently joined me to discuss shining a light on these missing-persons cases that have largely gone unheralded and how they spent literal years working on the project alongside community activists and family members. Learn about the film in our conversation and then watch it for yourself through PBS.
Brittany Frederick: This issue isn’t something a lot of people know about. So how did you first become aware of the story, and what made you want to pursue it as a documentary?
Jeff Bemiss: Lisa and I met in Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. We were both teaching film there and we wanted to work on something together. We heard a radio documentary about a forensic scientist [Lori Baker] at Baylor University in Texas who was exhuming anonymously buried migrants in Brooks County, and we were just really moved by the story. Lisa’s lived in Mexico; I have family from Mexico. So we reached out to Lori and she invited us out to Texas. She took us down to this place, Falfurrias, which we thought was the border but it wasn’t. And as soon as we learned that it was nowhere near the border, the film started to pivot. It became something else. It ended up being a four-year endeavor to document what was happening there.
BF: Knowing that it’s going to be new to most people, where’s the balance for you in providing all of the necessary facts, but also not overloading the film with exposition?
Lisa Molomot: That is a tricky balance. It’s one we thought a lot about as we were shooting the film, but also editing the film. I think a lot of that is research. Sitting down with someone and interviewing them was valuable just for us to get our heads around this, but we really wanted to make a verite film. We really wanted the audience to experience Brooks County the way we were experiencing it…We really wanted it to be an experience for them because, for us, the stories of the family are the key. It’s the emotional piece. You can read about migrant deaths. You can read about other issues along the border. But it’s really the stories of the families that we wanted to highlight in the film.
BF: Are there particular aspects of Missing in Brooks County that you want the audience to be looking out for or paying close attention to?
JB: One thing that we’ve noticed is even after watching the film, sometimes people don’t understand that the checkpoints featured are nowhere near the border. It is a border story, but it doesn’t take place on the border, and I think that’s important. The other thing is the numbers. The numbers that are officially published are so massively undercounted to be almost meaningless, because the land is so vast [that] most people are never found.
To move the conversation forward about how many people we’re really talking about, Lisa and I felt we needed to talk to experts who could make projections so that we get a real idea. The number we put in there, 20,000, is actually considered to be very, very conservative. There are groups who say it’s as much as 80,000 [people who are missing].
BF: You mentioned that the production of this film took years. What was that like for you as co-directors and producers, to live with a subject this intense for that long a period of time? As it seems that’s the trend now in this genre, is these years-long projects.
LM: First you’re confused and you’re trying to understand it, and then you’re really angry. It’s difficult. Luckily Jeff and I spent a lot of time in the car in Texas, driving from one place to another, so we could talk through stuff. It’s important when you see the things you see or have these experiences to talk about it and work through it. Kate Spradley, who is a forensic scientist in the film, definitely had a similar journey of she’s pretty angered and frustrated at this point, and she does a lot of thinking and talking about it. It’s not easy stuff.
BF: Did you worry about that with the finished product at all? That the film might be so heavy that it’d be harder for it to connect with audiences?
JB: No. We made the film because we felt that if people could meet the families of the missing and hear their stories that they would feel differently about the policies that we’re creating for our border. Especially lawmakers. That they would understand the impact that their policies are having. So we’re hoping that it actually does make an impression. We don’t people to feel hopeless, but we do want them to feel like this cannot stand. That people shouldn’t be dying. I don’t care what anyone’s views are on immigration; there’s no reason for people to be dying brutally in the desert like this.
BF: Missing in Brooks County could have easily blown up into a film about illegal immigration and how hotly contested of a topic that is. How did you keep it focused on the specific story you’re trying to tell and not go too far into those broader issues?
LM: What was important in the editing process—because that was during the Trump Administration—was that we make a human film and not a film that’s divisive. That’s what was going on in the world as we were editing, and we didn’t want to make that film. We wanted to make a film about human beings and that was really key for us.
BF: What was it like working with the families and getting that first-hand knowledge of what they’d been through? What was their reaction to the project?
LM: We had this website early on in the filming for fundraising purposes, and the Romans actually found us through our website. We got an email and the next week we were in Texas meeting them at Starbucks, and we told them about the film. They told us about their situation and they went back and talked with their parents as a family and decided okay, we want to do this. We want to participate in this film. And they’ve been on this journey with us the whole time. They provided us with amazing archival pieces for the film—the recordings of the phone calls with border patrol and the coyote, and all sorts of things.
[They] really were wonderful to work with, and continue to be wonderful to work with. They came to the premiere in Houston and did a Q&A. For me, the most gratifying moment of this whole journey was after we showed them the film and their reaction to it. They were really, really thrilled to be part of it and were really moved by what we had done.
BF: What did you walk away from the film with? Presumably you’re different filmmakers, if not different people, now after going through such a lengthy and intense experience.
JB: Lisa and I talk about this. Both of us agree we were a little bit probably happier than before this film than we are now. But I also think that any policy that results in over a thousand people dying every year needs to be examined. And that’s why we tried to make the film in such a way that it doesn’t lecture. It doesn’t preach. It just gives you a 360-degree view of what’s happening. We treat the audience as intelligent and capable of making up their own mind about what kind of border they want to have. What kind of country they want to have. But in order to do that, they have to witness. So I actually feel quite gratified that we were able to bring that to people who had no idea. Who don’t see this in their daily lives.
BF: So what’s going to make the film a success for you? Is it just getting the story out there, as we’ve talked about, or something specific you’d like to see in the future?
LM: I hope the conversations around immigration can be more humane. Any way that people can get involved in their communities in a way that helps their neighbor or helps someone, I think that that’s a step in the right direction where we see each other as neighbors and community members. What’s really interesting about our film is that the family that’s featured, they’re in Houston. They’re not in Central America. They’re not in Mexico. They’re here in the United States. It’s an American story. Hopefully we can begin to have more meaningful conversations around immigration and really come together and look at all of this in a different way.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.