At a mere 64 minutes, Tommy Davis' documentary debut seems more like a TV special than a film, and his single-handheld-camera dynamic adds to the sensation: When Mojados: Through The Night doesn't feel like The Blair Witch Project, it feels like an extended, commercial-free episode of Cops. Still, there's an undeniably filmic scope to Davis' remarkable story. To document the perils of illegal immigration, Davis joined four Mexican men on a dangerous 120-mile trek across the U.S. border and through the Texas deserta trip that kills hundreds of would-be immigrants each year. Living off moldering bread, sleeping in the open, and drinking muddy groundwater, they follow a route that keeps them away from the populated areas policed by the Border Patrol, but also offers little chance of shelter or help in case of emergency.
Davis briefly introduces his four subjects, touching on their histories and motives, but he does little to differentiate them. They all have families to support, and some of them have made the trip before, working in America for extended periods and returning to Mexico with the money; the others hope to follow suit. Nonetheless, they carry little food and water, and no map or compass, for fear that if they're caught, one of them will be charged with being a professional guide. So they rapidly run out of supplies, and eventually get lost.
The Blair Witch analogy extends beyond the specter of a group wandering lost and fearful in the wilderness. Davis' bobbing camera captures as much grainy footage of running legs, blurred grass, the backs of car seats, the sky, and other incidentals as it does of framed human faces. He has a distracting amateur-cameraman fondness for animals and minor random details. He keeps himself offscreen, but the physical unsteadiness of his images is a constant reminder of his presence, and of the venture's immediacy. As his subjects bolt across highways and scramble frantically over barbed-wire fences, Davis abandons calculated shot quality in order to keep up. The results aren't polished, but they are intense.
The behind-the-scenes story is nearly as fascinating as the film, but while Davis touches on its history online (at mojadosmovie.com), he keeps Mojados focused on his subjects instead of himself. He gets perspective from some American ranchers, and narrates to seal the gaps where he couldn't film, but mostly he just observes a horrifying situation, and makes the point that it's happening to hundreds of other people every day. It's raw but riveting front-line journalism. Like any good reporter, Davis knows a fascinating story when he sees one, and he goes to impressive lengths to put himself in the middle of it, taking his viewers along for the bumpy ride.