A conversation with Sonja Wolf: director of The Vertical Border

The Vertical Border focuses on forced migration from Central America, the director tells us about the issues and artistic inspirations for the film

Renzo Szkwarok
10th May 2022
Image credit: The Vertical Border (film) on YouTube
I sat down with the director, Sonja Wolf, ahead of the university’s screening of her debut documentary The Vertical Border to discuss the issues raised in the film, artistic inspirations, and the desired impact of the project.

The documentary tells the story of forced migration from Central America towards the US-Mexico border. Fleeing economic precarity, climate disaster, as well as state and criminal violence – most are in search of a liveable life.

We begin our conversation discussing the motivations behind making this film, and why now.

Recognising film as a more accessible medium than academia (Wolf’s Day-job), she makes clear from the start that she does not see herself as an artist, rather an academic diversifying their output. Hidden underneath this modesty, however, is beautifully shot and put together film. Going on to state that, although others may interpret this as an artistic project, The Vertical Border was made with the intention of changing the conversation surrounding forced migration, and it should be used for “education and awareness raising”.

Frustrated with the limited social impact academic research often has, Wolf deserted the confines of traditional paper publishing to create a documentary with lasting impact. In this sense, the intended legacy of the project was considered from the start. Bridging the gap between film and previous research on Central America, The Vertical Border illuminates a situation that has been worsening in recent years and isn’t predicted to improve soon – we share little hope that the Biden administration will adopt a more humane approach to migration.

Repressive security policies and restrictive migration policies are impacting migrants everywhere, especially Central America. Here, these issues are compounded with the involvement of cartels taking advantage of a situation that the US and Mexican governments have manufactured. By closing safe and accessible routes, governments funnel migrants in to the arms of cartels who operate illegal routes across the border.

Video credit: The Vertical Border (film)

Wolf revealed how this insecurity affected filming options and locations. As the situation with the cartels could be dangerous, access to places and people proved challenging: interviews with migrants conceal their identity to protect them, and on occasion archival footage and photography is used in place of original work. Included in this archival footage is the work of Christian Poveda.

His work was an inspiration to the production team, but his death in 2008 sadly highlights how dangerous filming in Central America can be. Upon the release of his highly influential documentary La Vida Loca, the Salvadorian gangs portrayed in the intimate film were not happy with their depictions, later ambushing him in his car. Including this work was of great importance to Wolf, having met Poveda in El Salvador whilst completing her doctorate. Photography by Donna DeCesare also features in the film, whose critically acclaimed projects document life and oppression in Central America.

Drawing parallels between the current refugee crisis and the recent Netflix film, Don’t Look Up, Wolf (rightly) believes popular public and government response has been to ignore the issues faced by migrants, and to shun anyone who attempts to speak up for them. Governments in Europe and the US need to face up to their role in creating environments people flee from.

War and climate change are set to worsen a global migrant crisis already at tipping point, but the team behind The Vertical Border hope this project helps to apply pressure to governments to bring about change by allowing the film to be shown at universities and schools, as well as cinemas.

The documentary is being shown May 17th, 2-4pm in room 3.38 of the Armstrong building, and film festivals around the world. Sign up to come along using this QR code!

QR code to sign up to the event!
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