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Film depicts U.S.-Mexico border guard

March 15, 2004|Mark Olsen

Fueled by passion and politics, writer-director-producer-star John Carlos Frey gives "The Gatekeeper" an urgency and sense of purpose not entirely unlike Tom Laughlin's man-alone landmark "Billy Jack." Frey's film concerns a U.S. Border Patrol guard at the California-Mexico border who, fueled by self-loathing regarding his own Mexican American heritage, becomes involved with a militia-like anti-immigration organization. When a plan for the guard to cross the border as part of a publicity stunt for the group goes awry, he finds himself trapped in a world of drug cartels and forced labor while struggling to survive. He comes to learn firsthand the suffering and difficulties of the immigrant experience and gains a new perspective on himself, his life and his country.

Made for only about $200,000, "The Gatekeeper" was nevertheless able to gain permission to actually shoot right along the real border fence. As further evidence of the film's verisimilitude, a remote barn dressed to look like a crystal-meth lab for the film was nearly raided by police on an off-day of shooting. Though at times a bit overheated, the film has what critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called "an unvarnished clarity" in its steadfast, low-budget idealism and maintains the pure-beating heart of a classic B-picture programmer. In trying to deal with close-to-home contemporary issues, Frey has managed to create a film that is, if not exactly great cinema, strangely alive and affecting, more than the sum of its parts.

Having played the festival circuit since late 2002 (and picking up a shelf-ful of awards along the way), the film is finally getting a small commercial release. Portions of the box-office proceeds will be given to various charities, and on opening weekend there are a number of benefit screenings scheduled.

-- Mark Olsen

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