In the first minutes of the new documentary Disappeared in Brooks County, Eddie Canales slows down his truck along a long stretch of trees, bushes and barbed wire. A few steps away, a plastic barrel marked “Water” sits under a worn Red Cross flag, where Canales recovers some empty water jugs and replaces them with full ones. Here in Brooks County, a rural Texas community near the U.S.-Mexico border, summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees. A person could easily die of thirst here away from home and, while Canales is driving his truck on the road, he stops when he sees the outskirts of the city. “Wow,” he says, watching the birds as they circle. “They’re here.”
A raw, aged man, Canales climbs cautiously over barbed wire and sweeps through tall grass to discover what the hairs have already found. A migrant is lying on the ground, dead. The man looks up at the sky, his arms outstretched and his chest swollen.
Hundreds die crossing this suffocating landscape every summer to evade the state’s largest border patrol checkpoint in nearby Falfurrias. There is no infrastructure to help them: Canales is the only engine behind the small South Texas Center for Human Rights, which provides humanitarian aid wherever possible in Brooks County. Still, this nameless soul is one of thousands of missing migrants whose families will never know what happened to them.
Disappeared in Brooks County, a documentary by Connecticut-based filmmakers Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss, which is screened regularly in Texas and is currently airing on Laemmle virtual cinema, delves into this immense issue in a particularly dangerous area: Brooks County, 7,100 inhabitants, where there are supposed to be more than 2,000 migrants. have died since 2008. It is estimated that four out of five will never be found. Texas leads all U.S. states in the death of migrants, as it has now overtaken Arizona by dubious distinction. This film follows the aides, who have been clouded by controversy in other parts of the southwest: In 2019, humanitarian volunteers located outside of Tucson were charged with crimes for providing water and shelter to two youths strolling through the desert of Sonora. Here, volunteers have avoided legal harassment, but they are completely invisible.
The film takes the form of a portrait of the few human beings who carry countless spirits on their shoulders, who take the dead under their wing. Canales is one of them, and when relatives arrive at his humble office to ask for help, they pass between photo folders of the crime scene. It is a traumatic and ungrateful job, but it continues, often sleeping in a crib in the office.
If a migrant walks through the woods in Brooks County, he has already done so across the border into McAllen. The coyotes take people north and, upon arriving at Brooks County headquarters in Falfurrias, 70 miles from the border, face Texas’ largest border patrol control. The only way to evade the checkpoint is to walk 40 miles around it. Filmmakers are exorcising both federal and state officials over the humanitarian crisis that has occurred. Filmmakers are clear that federal deterrence policies, which date back to 1994 under the Clinton administration, are to blame for forging these dangerous paths and the consequent increase in deaths. However, they also blame Texas systems, or lack thereof, for not being able to track migrant deaths in any meaningful way.
Another of the film’s main characters is anthropologist Kate Spradley, who leads a Texas State University project to exhume unmarked graves, perform DNA tests, and reconnect mourning families of missing migrants with the remains of their loved ones. We see how Canales stays calm and keeps his head down to work to deal with it, but Spradley’s response is to build anger. She calls him about another funeral home that told him that, flooded with bodies, they started burying people everywhere with no background. “These are people, they are not received from those who lose track,” he expires.
The filmmakers do an expert job humanizing Spradley and Canales, but they could have spent more time with the grieving families of the migrants. They follow the families of Homero Román Gómez and Juan Maceda Salazar, shedding light on their stories, but they don’t have much screen time or exploration. Even so, Brooks County is missing he is left with a calm care in human moments. Four years of images have been distilled into a tense and intense hour and twenty minutes, a collection of scenes that illuminate fleeting traces of pain and memory. Often these scenes are mundane: we see Román Gómez’s brother and sister sitting in a simple hotel room, waiting for the phone, moved over and over to the county offices that won’t take them anywhere; we see research students gently and silently handle the bones of migrants excavated in unmarked graves. We learn that grave diggers and people mowing the lawn of the cemetery are often the only people who remember where the “unidentified” were buried. In a startling shot, Spradley shows us a room full of small cardboard boxes, so many that the camera frame can’t capture them all. “There is a person inside all these boxes. Everyone here has a family that wonders what happened to them. “
Viewers also see local residents and officials who seem to see migrants as less than human. A Border Patrol agent says he no longer calls migrants “people”; he calls them “bodies.” Farmers, some of whom strongly reject Canales ’requests to put water on their land, say shocking things to the camera. “I have my suspicions about Eddie Canales,” says one. “We are waiting to try to catch him by loading a little [people] up and sneaking them through the checkpoint. “He laughs at a photo of the Border Patrol in which three migrants hide in a tree of guard dogs. Another rancher, day vet, he finally invites the filmmakers to a surveillance deal he organizes with other elderly white men concerned about immigrants carrying “sleeping cells” and “cartel soldiers” to “advance us internally.” He is sitting at night, wearing night-vision goggles and full camouflage hunting gear, hoping to catch people he considers dangerous criminals.
Even in these bizarre and tinged moments of hostility, the tone of the film remains solemn. Brooks County Ranchers are delighted. At the conclusion of the film, however, there are still hopes to be found. Faithful people in Falfurrias often come to wish the families they are looking for. Crosses and statues of angels lie among the flowers in the cemeteries. “God bless you” is a common saying, the charm of the small town of Texas. At one point, a friendly couple distributes food to graduate students performing an exhumation. “We call this working for the Lord,” the woman says. “No one sends us, we just go around the city looking for things to do, we see where God is sending us and tonight He has led us to the cemetery.” Despite these acts of care, the film still ends on a quiet, desperate note in the Canales office. In the last shot, the flag of the Red Cross waves under a large moon, torn by the wind, hung.