How ‘Borderland’ directors used a morgue to tell migrants’ stories

by March 11, 2014 12:37PM ET

Filmmakers Ivan O’Mahoney and Nial Fulton focused on stories behind the statistics for an original documentary series

While crossing train tracks in Mexico, the production crew for “Borderland” films Alison Melder, one of six participants in the series, to tread in the footsteps of migrants who attempted to cross the border.
Al Jazeera America

“Borderland” premieres Sunday, April 13 at 9E/6P

When award-winning Sydney-based documentary filmmakers Ivan O’Mahoney and Nial Fulton heard about a desert morgue in Pima County, Ariz., that has held the bodies of some 5,500 migrants who died attempting to cross into the United States over the past 15 years, they were convinced they had found a meaningful way to illustrate an ongoing human tragedy.

“It felt like the morgue is the third act of any story,” Fulton explained of their decision to abandon some conventional storytelling techniques and use the morgue as the opening scene of “Borderland,” the first original series to premiere on Al Jazeera America. “We were desperately trying to find a way into the story — a more immersive way.”

The duo brought the idea to Al Jazeera executives and said, “‘Look, we want to do a series on immigration, and we want to set it in a morgue in Arizona.’ It just seemed like such a ludicrous proposition at the time,” said Fulton. But that idea has become “Borderland,” which is premiering in a year when immigration promises to be one of the most debated and divisive issues in the U.S.

They decided to start with the case files in the morgue and retrace the journeys of three migrants who perished attempting to come to the United States. To do so, they tasked six Americans with following the migrants’ journeys. To make the story relatable, the filmmakers said participants on the trip faced the same dangers as the migrants whose stories they were charged with retelling.

“We wanted to expose them and immerse them with the families and the people that lived on the other side [of the border], including relatives and friends, and include random interaction on the way,” explained O’Mahoney. “If you manage to make a personal connection to a migrant, it becomes a meaningful part of your world.”

The “immersive” approach helps counter what O’Mahoney called “viewer fatigue” derived from coverage focusing primarily on the din of Washington policymakers, where big issues “never quite get resolved.”

Becoming immersed was a specialty of both directors even before they joined forces in 2013 to launch In Films. O’Mahoney shot the 2008 HBO documentary “Baghdad High,” which follows an academic year of four teens in a war-torn country; “How to Plan a Revolution” kept him close to peaceful democracy activists trying to shake things up in Azerbaijan in 2005. Fulton garnered storytelling expertise through projects often focusing on retelling real-life dramas, such as 2009’s “Solo” (also known as “Solitary Endeavor on the Southern Ocean”), about an Australian adventurer’s kayak crossing of the Tasmanian sea.

All provided useful skills for “Borderland,” a film shot in Arizona and Des Moines, Iowa, as well as in locations in Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador.

With security and other issues to tackle, Fulton and O’Mahoney needed more hands on deck and contacted old friends Darren Foster, Jeffrey Plunkett and Alex Simmons, also award-winning filmmakers, with Los Angeles–based Muck Media to co-produce the project.

Each took on one migrant’s story. Foster, who has documented migrant routes as a journalist, connected with his friends’ approach. “If you can get to the humanity of any story, people will see beyond their personal viewpoints,” he said of the Americans who were dropped into the migrants’ shoes.

And it worked. “They certainly understood we are talking about human beings and lives, not statistics,” Foster explained.

Casting was a balancing act, O’Mahoney said. “Of course you can never get the slice of such a large country through six people, but [we hoped] the audience can say, ‘Oh, I have an uncle or aunt like that’ and help connect the issue we are getting across.”

Still, filming about a hot-button topic with people of divergent beliefs was by no means drama-free.

“Arguments happened quite a lot, and from a production point of view you can’t have the same argument rehashed,” Fulton said, adding that even the most hard-line of participants ended up “crying his eyes out.”

As the four-part series goes to air, O'Mahoney — who has a degree in international law, studied journalism at Columbia University and did a stint as a U.N. military policeman in Bosnia — said his background gave him a “firsthand taste of what it was like for people to flee war zones.” He understood that. What surprised him was that each generation in Latin America tends to follow the previous one in leaving for the United States, despite the dangers involved.

“It’s ‘Mom went, Dad went, sisters went … when will I go too?’ Very often the question comes up, ‘Why don’t they come legally?’ That isn’t the mindset. You just go north.”

Fulton, who grew up in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, near the border with the Republic of Ireland, said he is naturally drawn to border issues. “What changed me personally was the kind of heartbreak. What really hit me is it’s so ingrained in the national psyche; even though they know the risks, they’re still willing to take them. We should all be angry with what’s happening there.”

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