La Frontera: Building an Intercultural Bridge Through Documentary Filmmaking and Scholarship

In Cuidad Juárez, they call the border: la frontera, a word that describes the imaginary line in the sand drawn between two cultures. The physical bridges in and out of Juarez enforce certain limits—trade, vehicles, and usage restrictions—on intercultural commuters, not the least of which are language barriers and cultural biases. In the documentary, Señorita Extraviada (2001), Lourdes Portrillo traverses the border between the United States and Cuidad Juárez and investigates the imposition of the maquiladora industry on Juárez and the femicide said industry has provoked among its residents in an effort, on behalf of the filmmaker, to spotlight the victims’ stories and share them across the cultural divide. Attempting to locate the figurative bridge between truth and meaning, film scholars such as Irene Mata and Trinh T. Minh-Ha examine the space that exists between documentaries like Senorita and their audiences, and explore the possibilities of intercultural documentary truths.

In her essay, “Documentary Is/Not a Name,” Trinh T. Minh-Ha uses the term, “interval,” to describe the space between two separate realities: meaning and truth. Trinh views the interval as the “break between the meaning of something and its truth” (76). A close study of Trinh’s theory illustrates how meaning and truth are not the same, but more like two different access points that are understood differently and coexist alongside the interval. This triad of comprehension illuminates the hidden corners of cinema and film theory by offering scholars and critics the opportunity to consider and examine what is shown and what is not shown, the visible and the invisible. Trinh writes, “what is put forth as truth is often nothing more than a meaning” and the interval between truth and meaning is “a break without which meaning would be fixed and truth congealed” (76). Therefore, the interval is a transitional plane between truth and meaning where understanding can occur. Neither truth nor meaning could exist without the other, as Trinh believes, yet the interval is the place where one can decide which is which.

There is a pivotal point in Señorita Extraviada (2001), where Portrillo documents Maria—a victim violated by police officers in Juárez—as she gives a more detailed account of what she observed at the police station. She describes an album of photographs shown to her by an officer that depicts the rape, mutilation, and immolation of several women by a group of men that includes the officers who raped Maria. In her article, “Documenting Feminicide: The Importance of Teaching Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita Extraviada,” Irene Mata praises Portrillo’s decision to dismantle the states’ narrative of what happened to each victim by relying “on the experiences of others to cast doubt on the state’s investigations and findings” (116). Mata claims Portrillo’s choice to “offer counter narratives,” decentralizes “the state as a source of information” (115). Likewise, and in the film, Portrillo herself admits her own frustrations with the conflicting accounts from state officials in her investigations that compel her to rely more on the personal accounts of the victims and their families.

Mata praises Portrillo’s documentary as a film that “works to dismantle the frontier that location creates” (121). The interval of understanding between two different cultural perspectives provides the possibility of bridging gaps and deepening relationships between north and south, east and west. Our expectations of documentaries are as important as our interpretation of them in helping us map the meaning, the interval, and the truth, of documentary films. Acknowledging our own preconceptions helps us understand the context of each scene and develop a more multifaceted perspective for absorbing the material. Analyzing the visible and the invisible can develop empathy across any frontier.

Recently, the United States elected a reality TV star—who campaigned on a platform of misogyny and xenophobia—as its next president and many members of the media have scrambled to understand what feminists and people of color have been trying to tell fellow citizens for decades, namely, that a vast contingent of the population is still racist and sexist. As marginalized members of society, this has been their reality for centuries. As the current media landscape continues its death spiral, a new generation of film scholars and filmmakers—trained on the scholarship of people like Mata, Trinh, and Portrillo—will be the first of their families to graduate college and go on to have professional careers in media and media scholarship. Even though opportunities exist, there are still very few filmmakers who are willing to smuggle stories in and out of places like Juárez in an effort to help other marginalized members of society speak their truth to power. It is scholars like Mata and Trinh, who elevate these films in the halls of academia, that will inspire a new generation of filmmakers to follow in Portrillo’s footsteps. Now more than ever, we need new scholarship and new films that build upon the work of previous generations in order to finish constructing a limitless, intercultural bridge that may help us all reach across these great divides.


Written by Jonathan Ayon Alonso.

Mata, Irene. “Documenting Feminicide: The Importance of Teaching Lourdes Portillo’s Señorita Extraviada.” Chicana/Latina Studies 10:2 (Spring, 2011): Pages 92-127. Pdf.

Trinh, Min-Ha, T. “Documentary Is/Not a Name.” The MIT Press (Spring, 1990): Pages 76-98. Pdf.

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