When they began shooting "Bordertown," the new Jennifer Lopez film about the hundreds of murdered women of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, director Gregory Nava and executive producer Barbara Martinez Jitner expected that their movie would stir up strong reactions. Already, they allege, those reactions have included death threats against Nava and the cast, stolen equipment and intimidation of a film crew member during shooting in Mexico.
Since 1993, the bodies of more than 400 female victims, many raped and mutilated, have been found in the area around Ciudad Juarez, a sprawling metropolis where many poor women work for maquiladoras (factories). Scores of additional women throughout the region, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, have been reported missing.
Speaking by phone recently while en route to the Berlin Film Festival, where the film will have its world premiere Thursday, Nava said he's not surprised by the film's hostile reception in some quarters, given the issues that "Bordertown" raises and the blame for the murders that it assigns not only to the Mexican government but to the United States and to the multinational assembly plants spawned by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"There are very powerful forces involved, you're going to be attacked," said Nava, a Mexican American who was born in San Diego. "I expect the Mexican government to get very upset about it."
"Bordertown," which does not have a U.S. release date, stars Lopez as a U.S. reporter investigating the murders and Antonio Banderas as a Mexican newspaper colleague. The cast also includes Martin Sheen, Sonia Braga and Maya Zapata as a young Indian woman factory worker whose plight exposes the crimes of Juarez.
Nava and Lopez previously worked together on "My Family" (1995) and on the biopic "Selena" (1997), about the Texas tejano singer, which helped catapult Lopez to fame. Nava said that he approached Lopez in 1998 about joining on with "Bordertown" and she agreed.
"I felt it was really something that was screaming to be talked about and brought to the surface," said Lopez, speaking by phone from Madrid. "What we hope to do with the movie is just getting people aware of what's going on down there."
Much of the film was shot in and around Albuquerque, with additional shooting in the Mexican border town of Nogales, Sonora and in Ciudad Juarez.
However, said Martinez Jitner, who also is the movie's second-unit director, principal actors were kept out of Juarez because of death threats against Nava and the cast. On the first day of photography in Juarez, a movie production assistant was arrested and questioned by local police, Martinez Jitner said. According to the movie's production notes, the police then began threatening local people who were assisting the production and to stalk the crew. Her hotel room was broken into, Martinez Jitner said, and a camera truck also was burgled and $100,000 worth of equipment was stolen.
While the filmmakers did file a complaint over the stolen equipment, they decided not to speak publicly at the time about the other incidents. "If we made a big stink, the people who would pay the price were these women," Martinez Jitner said. "Now that the film is coming out, this is the proper time."
Luz del Carmen Sosa, a spokeswoman for the Ciudad Juarez secretary of public security, said she had no record of any arrest of a movie production assistant and said it was not true that anyone had been harassed during shooting. "We totally respect freedom of expression," she said. "The city is very damaged, and it doesn't deserve to be demeaned for nothing more than personal enrichment, because truly we are making an enormous effort to clean up the image, in order to work for the benefit of the citizenry."
Over the past 13 years, the atrocities committed in Ciudad Juarez have evolved into an international scandal and a major embarrassment for the Mexican government as well as for state and regional legal authorities on both sides of the border. While suspects have been detained, and Mexican law enforcement agents have claimed success in investigating the crimes, the vast majority of the murders remain unsolved, according to human rights groups.
One group, Amnesty International, says it has documented numerous investigative delays, inadequate evidence gathering, sloppy forensic examinations, falsification of evidence and allegations of torture by Chihuahua state police in obtaining information and confessions in connection with the murders. The cause of the Juarez women has been prominently taken up by actresses Salma Hayek, Jane Fonda and Sally Field, playwright Eve Ensler and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, among others.
In the absence of conclusive investigations about the cause of the murders, a wave of speculation has arisen regarding the motives and identities of the killers. Nava, describing Juarez as a "city out of control," said the "enormous clash of cultures" along the border and the relative powerlessness of the Juarez factory workers has bred a situation ripe for violent exploitation of women.
"It's the only place where the first world and the third would meet, and that point is radioactive," he said. "I think that there are serial killers, I think that there are snuff films, I think that there's organ trafficking, I think there's gang initiation."
"Bordertown" is being endorsed by Amnesty International, which reviewed draft versions of the screenplay and provided feedback on the movie's factual accuracy, said Bonnie Abaunza, director of Artists for Amnesty, an L.A.-based program of Amnesty International USA that works with artists and entertainers to raise awareness of human rights issues.
In an interview, Abaunza said that although the movie is told in the style of a thriller, it is rooted in hard, disturbing facts. A prologue at the beginning of the film gives context to the story of the murders, and a number of scenes, including one shot inside a Mitsubishi television plant, lend authenticity to the story's socioeconomic setting, she said. Though she believes the movie will be "accessible to the public," Abaunza added, "this is not 'Star Wars,' this is not 'Lord of the Rings.'
"There are some very hard political statements made in this movie, about NAFTA, CAFTA, about corporations," she said, referring to the free trade agreement among Mexico, Canada, Central American countries and the United States.
Abaunza will be giving an award to Lopez in Berlin in recognition of her work on the film. Lopez is also being recognized by Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Bring Our Daughters Home), a support group for mothers and other relatives of Juarez victims. "Hotel Rwanda" and "Rabbit Proof Fence" are among the films that Amnesty has given its seal of approval to in the past. Several of the Juarez mothers will be attending the event.
"This is my opportunity and the opportunity of these mothers to speak truth to power there," Abaunza said.
Abaunza and others hope the movie will spur the Mexican government to act to protect women along the border.
But first, someone has to see it.
The Mexican Embassy in Berlin said it never received an invitation to a gala screening held for the film as part of the festival activities. Lino Santacruz Moctezuma, who handles media for the Mexican Embassy in Berlin, said instead that Mexican Ambassador Jorge Castro-Valle Kuehne "plans to watch the movie later in a private setting."
"If the embassy would get invitations, many of us would be happy to see the movie," he added.
Upon hearing that, a spokesman for the German distributor, Falcom Media, said they'd immediately send one over.
Times staff writers Carlos Martinez in Mexico City and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin and special correspondent Clare Aigner in Berlin contributed to this report.