Filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga Portraits ‘Other’ Realities of the Border

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Whether it’s a giant fence separating Mexico and the United States or a less tangible barrier like language between people, borders are evident in most of director Guillermo Arriaga’s films. His latest, The Burning Plain, is set in the city of  Las Cruces, New Mexico near the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We’re tired that this is just a place of drugs and immigration. It’s also a place of love stories,” said Arriaga, at a press conference for a screening of his new film in Las Cruces. “Of course, there are also tensions because of it, but they are not the only reality.”

Arriaga has made a career telling the stories of ordinary people whose lives are intertwined in ways they never realized. The Burning Plain is no different and follows the story of several different people in different parts of the country. In The Burning Plain, the stories of Sylvia, a woman in Oregon with a dark past; Mariana and Santiago, two teenagers piecing together the shattered lives of their parents in Las Cruces; Maria, a little girl who crosses the border to find her mother; and Gina and Nick, a couple, each who are married and having an intense affair.

Arriaga has used the border as a backdrop for his stories in the past. A previous film he wrote, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was also shot in New Mexico, off of Interstate 10. He has long had a self-proclaimed love affair with this part of the southwest. To prove it, he took out his phone and read a message he received from his daughter: “Wow! I would be so excited to go back to Las Cruces! I love that place!” Arriaga pointed out that his daughter was currently in Paris.

Filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga at a press conference in Las Cruces (Arthur Perez/Borderzine.com)

Filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga at a press conference in Las Cruces (Arthur Perez/Borderzine.com)

The border influence is evident not only in the setting of the film, but also in the music. Omar Rodriguez of the Mars Volta (an El Paso native) worked with Hans Zimmer to score the film. “We made a film together before,” said Arriaga. When asked, during the adaptation of one of his novels, The Night Buffalo, who he’d like to do the music, Arriaga chose the Mars Volta. Since then he has become good friends with Rodriguez. “Now by obligation, he has to do the music of anything I direct,” joked Arriaga.

Lately, several films have been shot in Las Cruces, among them, both “Transformers” films and most recently “Due Date” starring Robert Downey, Jr.

With an estimated population of about 93,000, Las Cruces, while the second largest city in New Mexico is not the most well known. After seeing that Albuquerque’s terrain was no what he was looking for, Arriaga went searching for another place to shoot.

“We drove 600 miles everyday,” said Arriaga, in describing their search for the perfect place in New Mexico to shoot “The Burning Plain.” “We were mesmerized by Las Cruces.”

The locals appreciate it when a film is shot and set in their city. “They use Las Cruces. Not like ‘Transformers’ where they use White Sands for something else,” said Jeff Berg with the Mesilla Valley Film Society, referring to White Sands standing in for Iraq in the Transformers films. “They use the Kmart on El Paseo (St.) as a Kmart.”

Filming in Las Cruces seemed to be a very organic experience, for Arriaga.  “…we always say ‘we’ wanted because this is not my film. This is a film made by a group of people. It’s not mine.” It is evident, when this group of people come together to tell a border story that is isn’t just a story about drugs or immigration, that it is the product of where it was made and the people who made it.

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Related links:

New Mexico State Film Office

Mesilla Valley Film Society

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