Director Maisie Crow on the making of new doc 'At The Ready'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If I bring up the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, what comes to mind? Are they the people keeping watch over the country's borders, keeping the U.S. safe from drugs, traffickers and other harms? Or are they a group of grown-up bullies acting out a racist political agenda? Or are they just people doing a difficult job for the same complicated reasons people do any difficult job? And when it comes to Border Patrol agents specifically, would it surprise you to know that many come from the same backgrounds as many of the people they are tasked with stopping at the border?
A new documentary called "At The Ready" asks all these difficult questions and more. The film follows a group of Mexican American teenagers living near the border town of El Paso, Texas, who are training to become law enforcement officers, including Border Patrol agents. As the film shows, they all have different reasons for being attracted to the work, and they all have to contend with the emotional fallout and the contradictions they face. The film's director is Maisie Crowe, and she is with us now to tell us more. Maisie Crowe, thank you so much for talking with us.
MAISIE CROWE: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So what brought this high school and this program to your attention? I just want to mention the film opens at Horizon High School, which is 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, and there are students in the school's law enforcement education program. I'm guessing it's a surprise to many people that these programs even exist, so what brought it to your attention?
CROWE: I am originally from Texas, and I was at a high school on the border near Laredo, Texas. And while I was there, I saw students running down the hallway with the red fake guns that you see in the film, and I was very taken aback and started asking, you know, what these kids were doing. And it was the law enforcement program at the high school. So they're learning how to do felony traffic stops, how to do drug raids, how to execute warrants for arrest, how to do hostage negotiations, how to take down active shooters. They're really learning the range of things that law enforcement officers are training to deal with.
MARTIN: You follow three students - Christina (ph), who is a recent graduate of Horizon, two seniors, Cassie (ph) - who now goes by Mason - and Cesar (ph). How did you decide to focus on these three?
CROWE: I really wanted to work with students willing to be vulnerable in front of the camera, and I just spent a lot of time with them and felt like they each brought something different to the movie.
MARTIN: Well, I think this is one of the other things. For people who live in the area, they probably know this or people who have some awareness of, you know, law enforcement, how it works or - this part of the country, this is not going to be a surprise. But I think that for people perhaps in other parts of the country, it may be a surprise that so many agents are Latino or Latinx.
MARTIN: And this is a big part of the conversation the kids are having for themselves. I mean, maybe it's not a big deal to them because it's just a fact of life, but they are confronting some of these difficult questions that we've talked about. Now, as part of the film, Christina interviews a Border Patrol officer as part of a class assignment, and she reads the class part of what they tell her. I'm just going to play that clip from the film, and we'll talk a little bit more.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AT THE READY")
CHRISTINA: Being Latino and living in the border city, civilians see us as the enemy, and they don't see the good we do for the community. We provide gifts for low-income families for Christmas and turkeys for Thanksgiving. Yet they see us as family wreckers. I've been yelled at, cursed at, spit on and punched at just because of what I do.
MARTIN: As her father points out earlier in the film, more than 50% of the Border Patrol force is Latino. Talk a little bit more about, first of all, why that is and how you think that - how does that kind of inform the story you're trying to tell here?
CROWE: Well, Border Patrol agents need to speak Spanish along the U.S.-Mexico border. So you have these career opportunities for students who are bilingual. Most of El Paso and the Juarez region is bilingual. And it's a really-well-paying career in a region where it's one of the largest industries. So I think that it's not a surprise, especially living in the region, that there are so many Latinos that are part of the Border Patrol. I mean, it's pretty reflective of the overall community.
MARTIN: I think many people will remember that period when people were - when families were being separated at the border.
MARTIN: This was a very traumatic experience for the people going through it and also for many people who were experiencing it. It is interesting to see the students grapple with this. I mean, Christina has a moment during the training that stuck with her. Let me just play that.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AT THE READY")
CHRISTINA: The door opens from the processing center, and there's like 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds. And they're just walking there. And they look at us. And we're like, oh, my God. Like, we thought it would be like adults or something, and no, it was like minors. We were really shocked because they were there because they were chasing a dream. So that's, like, one thing I don't like to just know that I'm cutting their dreams off.
MARTIN: You know, and Cesar also reveals that his father was deported, which was devastating, you know, for him and his family. And it's just interesting to hear that this is not kind of a remote philosophical issue for these - for the people you're following. This is something that they see right in front of their eyes and also something that many have experienced themselves, right? So could you just talk a little bit more about that, if you would, about how seeing this all play out, you know, what effect this had on the students and how they thought about all this?
CROWE: So much of what the students are grappling with exist in a very gray area. And Christina in particular had to work through so many of the contradictions that she was facing. She is one of the most caring, kindhearted individuals I've ever met. Yet she wanted to go into this career path surrounded by controversy that is hated by many. And she really broke down when child separations started happening, and that influenced so much of what she was considering at that time. And she then continued to wrestle with this decision the rest of the film.
MARTIN: What are you hoping people take away from the film?
CROWE: I hope that people leave the film wanting to discuss what they saw. And I hope that it challenges some of their own notions and encourages them to look further and ask questions like, why do we have these programs in schools? And what are these programs doing for students in the end? Are they beneficial? Are they not beneficial? What are the students getting out of it? And I think that it's important that people are aware of what our children are learning in school. And for these programs to exist in over 900 high schools in Texas and so many people not be aware of it, I think there's some problem in that. And I hope to bring awareness to this program and what students are learning.
MARTIN: Maisie Crowe is the director of the documentary film "At The Ready," which is streaming now on Amazon and other platforms. Maisie Crowe, thanks so much for talking with us.
CROWE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.