Bill Brown is coming to town with a tale of two road trips. One is a survey the filmmaker made of the U.S.-Mexico border between East Texas and the Pacific Ocean, exploring the cultural terrain surrounding immigration. Brown, 36, made that foray by car; on the second trip, a 1,600-miler by bicycle, he's screening "The Other Side," his essayistic film about the first, in cities and towns across the country.
Brown is an acclaimed independent filmmaker who often builds his short documentaries around his quirky travels. See, for instance, "Buffalo Commons," about North Dakota's decommissioned nuclear-missile sites.
In 2003, the native of Lubbock, Texas, began a series of trips along the southern U.S. border. Immigration wasn't the hot topic nationally it's become in recent months. But Brown found plenty of material.
Visiting El Paso, a city of immigrants, in "The Other Side," he observes that the idea of the U.S. there seems "up for grabs" ... not at all solid. There's a thumbnail history of both U.S.-Mexico conflict and of disastrous U.S. immigration policy, along with views of both anti-immigration vigilantes (the so-called Minutemen) and humanitarian-aid volunteers who leave water stashes for immigrants crossing the desert. The border, Brown concludes, is so porous that the Rio Grande doesn't divide two countries so much as traverse a third, an unofficial land where language and law are in constant flux.
While "The Other Side" takes us to places as relevant as a potter's field for illegal immigrants who perished crossing the desert, Brown's documentary isn't a news-show-style dispatch. His thoughtfully composed images ... often landscapes in medium-to-long-shot ... combine with his own conversational if well-researched voiceover narration in a distinctly personal vision.
Brown first planned his two-month bicycle tour from Washington, D.C., to Boulder, Colo., then worked in screenings of his 43-minute film. The Pedal Powered Movie Tour also includes shorts by other artists, including "Walking the Line," by Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest, itself a closer look at Arizona's Minutemen.
Brown, who'll visit Pittsburgh on Tue., Aug. 15, often tours with his films, but because of his backroads cycling route most of the roughly 15 venues where he'll screen this time will be in small Midwestern town seemingly far removed from the Southwestern border states where he shot it.
Then again, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado have their share of immigrants too, some more quietly than others. And if small towns don't have the microcinemas where he typically screens his work, they do have Unitarian churches, which double as community centers for politically progressive souls.
"There's definitely a Unitarian-church circuit out there," he says by cell phone from the Lincoln Memorial, as he prepares to pedal to Pittsburgh with a friend. "They sort of have a ready-made audience."