The Book: Border Witness
What a century of border films teaches about the real and imagined worlds of the US-Mexico borderlands—and how this understanding helps build better relations across boundaries.
Michael Dear’s Border Witness: Reimagining the US-Mexico Borderlands Through Film is an account of cultural collision and fusion between Mexico and the United States, as seen on the ground and in films from the past hundred years. Blending film studies with political and cultural geography, Dear investigates the making of cross-border identity and community in the territories between two nations.
Border Witness introduces a new “border film” genre just now entering its golden age. A geographer and activist, Dear adopts an accessible and engaged perspective, combining the stories told by these films with insights drawn from his own decades-long research and travel. From early silent films to virtual reality, and from revolution to the present global crisis, border films provide fresh evidence for real and imagined politics and for envisioning future transborder architectures carved from in-between spaces. In an era of global geopolitics that favors walls and war over diplomacy, Dear’s insights have relevance for borders around the world.
About Michael Dear
You could say that Border Witness is the culmination of a lifetime’s learning about the borderlands based in personal experience and representations in film.
I grew up with an inexplicable childhood attachment to Mexico. It was nurtured by watching ‘cowboy’ films set in Western landscapes and I became habituated to seeing Mexico and Mexicans through film. After arriving in the US, I lived in Canada for over a decade, spent a year in Australia, and became a US citizen. Always I returned to Mexico. In 2006 I started a journey of 4,000 miles on both sides of the US-MX border, taking 4 years to complete. I began scribbling notes about border film when my curiosity was piqued by the gap between what I saw firsthand in the borderlands and what filmmakers portrayed onscreen. The notes grew to hundreds of pages; there was a lot more to say than I anticipated.
I am author/editor of eighteen previous books and have published widely in popular media. My work is translated into many languages, and I’ve lectured in over 20 countries on 4 continents. I helped prepare amicus briefs relating to US-Mexico border issues before the US Supreme Court; and my research led Europe’s largest cement manufacturer to refuse supplying cement for constructing border walls between the US and Mexico.
The term ‘genre’ is generally understood to refer to types of film that share common characteristics relating to theme and style of filmmaking.
Here is a list of my 15 favorite border films in chronological order, including many “classics” of the genre. Most films are easily accessible, but some might require a deeper search.
What people are saying
“An important primer discussing the role that cinema has had in shaping an understanding of the stereotypes, misconceptions, and realities of the border on both sides.”
—Ronald Rael, Chair of the Department of Art Practice and Professor of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley
“This fresh look at border cinema constitutes a new piece in the complex puzzle of interpretations regarding the meaning of border life and its representations.”
—Norma V. Iglesias-Prieto, Professor Emerita, Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, San Diego State University
“A gripping account in which fiction, real life, and lived experience intertwine to illuminate how the US-Mexico borderlands are portrayed and imagined. An original and persuasive journey along that shared space crisscrossed by enduring connections that no wall will ever break.”
—Christophe Sohn, Co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of Borderlands Studies
“This exquisite book is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the way that cinema functions and the inspiration that it draws from reality. It has deep relevance for border filmmakers and audiences around the world.”
—Amos Gitai, Architect and Film Builder
June 6, 2023 | Whose City?
Whose City host Larry Herzog talks with geographer and border scholar Michael Dear about his pathbreaking new book Border Witness, which uses film to better understand the changing Tijuana-San Diego border region.
June 2023 | Borders in Globalization
In this interview, Michael Dear speaks about Border Witness and the construction of mental, cultural and artistic representations of borders and their complex links with reality.
April 17, 2023 | KJZZ The Show
Michael Dear talks about some of the border films he sees as most important and why he chose to focus on films after a career studying and writing about the border.