The other side of the border - Elysium and The Plastic People

While Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium depicts a highly exaggerated science-fiction future, and Charles Shaw’s The Plastic People presents the grim conditions of the all-too-real present, the inspiration for both films came suddenly and unexpectedly from the same brutal streets of Tijuana, Mexico.

Brian Duffy
20 February 2014

This article originally appeared on Reality Sandwich.

While Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium depicts a highly exaggerated science-fiction future, and Charles Shaw’s The Plastic People presents the grim conditions of the all-too-real present, the inspiration for both films came suddenly and unexpectedly from the same brutal streets of Tijuana, Mexico.

In 2005, while taking a break from a San Diego commercial shoot, Blomkamp and his executive producer were enjoying a few beers in the tourist district of Tijuana. Suddenly, and without a word, they were scooped up by Mexican Federales and handcuffed in the back of a police car. For half an hour, they were driven further and further out of the tourist-friendly part of the city while the executive producer desperately shoved cash through the divider gate. Once their bribe was apparently deemed sufficient, they were unceremoniously released into the dark chaos of Tijuana, finding themselves a two-hour walk from the border. Blomkamp tells Entertainment Weekly:

''We're walking through these totally impoverished, insane areas with feral dogs and crying babies and people making fires, and on the horizon I could see floodlights from the U.S. shining into Mexico, and there were multiple Black Hawks flying the perimeter, and it was like science fiction on Earth,'' he says. ''Nothing has changed, but now you're on the other side of the border.''

Several years later, another filmmaker found himself on the other side of the border, although slightly more willingly. Charles Shaw tells the San Diego Reader:

“I went to Tijuana in October of 2011 in search of a story about the Mexican Drug War, which by that time had claimed over 50,000 lives. What I found instead--stumbled across, really--was this whole other issue of the mass-deportation of Mexican-American immigrants. One look at the streets of Tijuana and you see that this is a serious problem.”

Blomkamp and Shaw were each inspired by similar experiences to make two drastically different films. Blomkamp’s Elysium is a gritty and violent, epic summer blockbuster that imagines a future Earth that has degraded into one giant Tijuana, with the ruling elite escaping to a massive orbiting space station. Shaw’s The Plastic People is a guerilla documentary revealing the enduring humanity of the discarded deportees that struggle to survive in shanty houses and under bridges along the U.S-Mexico border.

Blomkamp retreated into his imagination to create an action-packed cyber-grunge dystopic allegory, full of rusted robots and graffitied spaceships, like Star Trek on dirty methamphetamines. Shaw stayed in Tijuana to expose the ongoing human rights abuses that are a direct result of an uncompromisingly post-9/11 US immigration policy. Blomkamp, as an affectation, favors a “shaky-cam” cinematography to lunge and weave the audience around a dingy ballet of high-tech ultraviolence. Shaw’s camera shakes because it’s illegal to film on the streets of Tijuana and he is constantly dodging the separate-but-equal threats of the corrupt local police and the ruthless drug cartels.

While fiction has the power to inspire audiences to consider new perspectives on life and society, it is more often non-fiction that gets audiences on their feet and ready to create change. The limitations of the Hundred Million Dollar Summer Blockbuster format were not lost on Blomkamp, as he explained at an advance press-conference for Elysium:

“...I realized that I was making a film that, in terms of global consciousness, fit into a CNN soundbite, and that upset me a little bit. I don't want them to be fast food that you can throw away, if that makes sense. I think that in the realm of commercial popcorn cinema, the amount of message or smuggling of ideas that you can get in there is quite limited (...) If I wanted to make something that made a difference, I'd make a documentary."

Several reviewers took issue with Elysium’s plot, deeming the characters and resolutions as overly simplistic and “failing to provide real answers”, as if it were the job of a neo-mythological pop-epic to prescribe a concrete to-do list for socioeconomic reform. The dance of allegories, however sidelined it may have been by Robots Getting Shot in the Face, is only meant to act as a bedazzled mirror for the moral sentiments and emotional landscape of the audience. The hero represents our best impulses of empathy and self-sacrificing courage, the villain represents our worst impulses of cruelty and self-serving indifference. In each character, we see a piece of ourselves. The thrilling cinematic battle is a neat-and-orderly microcosm of the completely-fucked-up macrocosm of our contemporary cognitive dissonance. Much like the characters, when our surrounding circumstances are accelerated to a point of systemic breakdown, we are forced to make a choice that could change everything.

The narrative arc of Elysium portrays the inevitable breaking point of an unsustainable scenario. When an imbalance of life energy is pushed to such a conceptual extreme as a Country Club Space Station ruling over a Planet-Spanning Mega-Slum, something has got to give. It doesn’t take much. The world of Elysium has been wound so tight that a simple door jam at a robot factory leads to a cascade of violence that culminates in the upheaval of planetary society. In a synchronistic choreography of reckoning and redemption (and explosions), each of the characters are simultaneously pushed through their own narrow tunnels of desperation, as if right on schedule.

Equal but opposite motivations feedback into each other from opposite ends of the social hierarchy, ultimately raising the stakes so high that the entire human system is thrown into a brief state of total vulnerability. As the convergence point approaches, the heroes evolve beyond their smaller ambitions for money and revenge, hatching an impromptu plan to liberate the downtrodden masses. Likewise, the high-society villains of the military industrial complex find their fascist coup hijacked by the chaotic whims of a psychopathic “rogue asset”. Elysium portrays in human terms the abstract events that occur inside a persons head as they wrestle with their own thoughts. Up until the climax, the end result of this “reset phase” is uncertain, the Sun might not survive the eclipse. Matt Damon’s Final Sacrifice to Save the World represents every individual’s need to continually expand their sense of self to include ever-wider circles of the entire human family. The liberation of the oppressed planet is the liberation of our wounded hearts. The myth is a map of our emotional landscape, tracing the fluid currents of our hopes as they smooth over the jagged rocks of our fears.


Back in the real world, we are approaching our own “reset phase” in the unsustainable tension surrounding the U.S./Mexico border. The injustice is less blatant than in Elysium, though no less urgent. The problem is that U.S. immigration policy has produced a massive population of men and women who have been condemned to existential limbo, leaving them unable to exist as either an American or as a Mexican. Shaw elaborates:

"There are nearly 400 people deported a day to Tijuana, and nearly 1000 people living in the sewers because they have no other place to go. Most are hunted down relentlessly by the police, or become fodder for the cartels. Their life expectancy drops precipitously the moment they step out of the Customs House and into the chaos of Downtown Tijuana."

Charles Shaw’s The Plastic People is a loud and clear rallying cry for immigration reform that reveals the everyday suffering behind the statistics. As Charles follows photographer Chris Bava into Tijuana’s notorious “Zona Norte”, it becomes immediately clear that the situation on the border is nothing less than a human rights crisis.

We meet a series of people who have lived almost their whole lives in America, having been brought over the border illegally as children, only to have a minor brush with law enforcement in later years automatically condemn them to deportation. Every deportee is stripped of all their possessions and dropped off in the middle of the most dangerous neighborhood in Tijuana, left to fend for themselves. Finding work is nearly impossible. Government assistance is practically nonexistent. Walking a few blocks in any direction leads only to harassment and violence from police officers and cartel members. Many deportees have no family or friends in Mexico at all. Compassion from the locals is rare, as the “plastic people” aren’t even considered real Mexicans. These people are left frozen in place right where they were dropped off, making shanty homes on derelict lots and along the border canal, literally living in the gutter. Violent deaths become commonplace. Drug addiction becomes inevitable.

In the middle of this living nightmare, the human spirit endures. The film features eye-opening interviews with social workers, volunteers and activists as they work diligently to expose the intolerable realities of U.S. immigration policy and provide material and legal support to the deportees. Shaw also spends time with Bava as they both risk filming illegally on the streets of Tijuana in order to get to know the "Plastic People." We spend the most time with two young men, one who has lived in El Bordo for two years, and another in the process of being deported. Their stories are heartbreaking, and the injustice is palpable. Charles puts a human face on the immigration debate, and the stories of this film serve to illustrate the real damage done to real families in the name of an imaginary border.

A documentary, at its best, challenges an audience to unpack their biases and face the facts on the ground. The camera remains the most effective arbiter of virtual presence. Its lens pierces through the obfuscating fog of distance and assumption, letting the truth shine through. From our comfortable positions in our own Elysiums, we step into the gutters of El Bordo, we squeeze into the dusty alleys between the squalid shanty houses. We witness the suffering of fellow human beings. We listen, we learn. Strangers become momentary acquaintances. Instead of calling for the mass deportation of “illegal aliens”, we are forced to look one young man in the eye and tell him that he shouldn’t be allowed to see his wife and child. In a real conversation, in real human terms, there is hope. This is something we can fix.

Life has no third-act resolution where the Hero only has to find the Courage to get the Thing to the Place, and then the problem will be solved. For us, there is no resolution without action, and there are no heroes but ourselves. For us, there is no script, only the blank page of possibility that we receive every morning when we get out of bed and make our choices. The Plastic People will make you angry. It commands your attention and demands your reaction. Elysium asks “What if?” The Plastic People asks “What now?” Both are commendable examples of the power of film, and the other side of the border will never look the same again.

View the trailer for Exile Nation: The Plastic People.

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