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May 9, 2015

Movie Review: Exile Nation: The Plastic People (2014)

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Directed by Charles Shaw

The subject of illegal immigrants and deportation in the United States remains a raw, very complex issue. The topic has bubbled up like lava in such states as California, Texas – and especially Arizona, where law enforcement has taken a nearly “no tolerance” policy towards illegal Mexican immigrants. As the searing documentary Exile Nation: The Plastic People points out one in five Mexicans will at one time work, visit or live in the U.S.

Which brings us to the documentary at hand: The United States recently began a tough, no-nonsense policy of deporting illegal immigrants found breaking the law here, dumping them across the border in Tijuana. Many of these deportees, who do not speak Spanish, wind up homeless and take up residence in Tijuana’s dreaded “La Zona Norte,” a place of knee-high rubbish, no jobs, less opportunities and nonstop substance abuse. A humanitarian crisis that is rarely acknowledged, La Zona Norte stands as a stark reminder of the failure of U.S. deportation policies.

The film focuses on the work of photographer Chris Bava, who fearlessly documented the plight of Tijuana’s “Plastic People,” castaways of both American and Hispanic culture. Creating a series of starkly beautiful portraits, Bava would become personally intimate with his photograph’s subjects, collecting a series of individual failed life stories. (Much of the footage presented here was clandestinely filmed with Smartphones, under the eyes of the Mexican police, who wouldn’t want their less-than-humane methods made public.) 

While well intended, Exile Nation has some serious flaws that obfuscate larger parts of the narrative. The film focuses on various deportees and shows the dire circumstances behind their homeless status in a foreign land. We soon learn that the majority of these people were kicked out of the U.S. on account of violent crimes and drug trafficking … are we supposed to feel bad for them for breaking the law? It can be argued that deportation policies unjustly kick criminals out of the U.S. to live in Mexico in lieu of filling up the nation’s prisons, but still ….

One of the main interview subjects said he never became a naturalized citizen, as he just never got around to it while in high school. Who's fault is that, then? A vast majority of the “plastic people” have taken to alcohol and hard drugs such as heroin to cope with their plight. Again, whose fault is that? While it’s important to feel compassion for other human beings, should we feel sympathy for people who knowingly and willingly turned to addictive substances? Should this compassion be turned, towards the family down the street unable to make ends meet in lieu of the junkie who breaks into homes to steal in order to feed their habit?

Narrated by Edward James Olmos, Exile Nation is a strikingly beautiful film – but offers up lots of pat answers to deeply complicated questions. Whatever your own personal feelings on the topic, Exile Nation provides lots of material for contemplation … 

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