Teaching Materials

South from the North: the Mexico-US Border and Beyond
Dr Niamh Thornton, University of Liverpool

Overview

Introduction

This teaching resource is made up of a series of clips and linked activities. The activities can be done in the order shown or as directed independent exercises followed by in-class discussions. The BoB Playlist has been created to encourage students to reflect on how travel from north of the Mexico-US border and further south from Mexico to Central America constructs those places as exotic, different, and other. The clips in the playlist are from programmes presented by British and Irish celebrities, comedians, and journalists, and illustrate how their public personas influence the tone and style of the visuals and the narrative employed. For example, Stephen Fry as a befuddled intellectual unfamiliar with Mexico, or Stacey Dooley as a risk-taking journalist eager to report on danger. The clips invite us to imagine the ideal viewer the programme’s makers construct and whether we can identify who that is. One common trope, for example, is crossing the border by car or foot. Most foreign travellers arrive by plane. More broadly, the clips provide an opportunity to engage in critical discussions about other forms of travel narratives on television, in film, and online.

Activities 1-4 are all focused on the Mexico-US border, and activities 5 and 6 are set in Central America. All have a similar emphasis on the exotic, but it’s worth comparing the differences that can be found in the personas of the travellers and the aims of their journeys.

Note:

All clips are in the following playlist - https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/playlists/349031

Sign-in to BoB once and then refresh the page; this will make all the clips on this page watchable.

  • The comedian and author, Stephen Fry, projects the air of an old-fashioned scholar, interested in but slightly out of step with the contemporary world. His accent, vocabulary, mannerisms, clothing, and accessories all help construct this persona. This clip is taken from the opening sequence of the series and shows Fry crossing the border between the US and Mexico by foot. Each episode in the series is named after the country or countries in which it is set. In this particular episode, there is a geographic error in the title: Mexico (alongside Canada and the US) is in North America not in Central America.

    Question 1.

    Fry gives a brief summary of the programme before the opening montage sequence. What is the effect of how he describes his decision to take this journey and how does he compare it to his US travels?

    Question 2.

    What is included in the montage sequence and what does it indicate about the type of journey he is going to take?

    Question 3.

    After the opening sequence, what words does Fry use about Mexico and what images are we shown? What is the effect of these editing choices?

    Question 4.

    We are introduced to Chito, the bus driver, and the bus Fry and the crew are planning to travel in. How does Fry and the filmmakers describe the bus, the driver and his plans for the journey? Is Chito given agency as a fully rounded participant in this journey? What consequences does that have in terms of class and race?

  • Stacey Dooley’s persona is set up as an investigative journalist who risks her personal safety to go to dangerous places. This is the opening sequence of a three-part series where Dooley travels across the border to speak to people impacted by the geopolitics of border crossing and the violence that results from the illegal drugs trade.

    Question 1.

    What is the version of US that Dooley, the visuals, and the music set up in the opening sequence?

    Question 2.

    As you watch the clip, consider how editing sets up the contrasts between the two sides of the border. Does Dooley’s narration determine how we are to understand the visuals?

    Question 3.

    Does this sequence set up a realistic portrait of the US? Should we, therefore, trust the version of Mexico that is portrayed?

    Question 4.

    What emotions does Dooley display as she travels in the car? What is prompting these emotions?

  • The British comedian Sue Perkins, with her characteristic sardonic and self-deprecating humour, invites individuals from different communities on both sides of the Mexico-US border to discuss how the frontier impacts their lives.

    Question 1.

    In the voiceover Perkins suggests that the programme is going to try and address stereotypes, yet there are various elements in the visuals (busy streets presented as chaos, colourful clothing, dancing disrupting traffic, traditional customs), the audio (traffic noise, voices), and the music (note the tonal shift between upbeat and downbeat throughout), that signal something else. Can you identify how these elements fit with Perkin’s stated intention?

    Question 2.

    At the end of the opening sequence and the start of the first episode, what words does Perkins use in her voiceover and what visuals are used to illustrate them? Make note of these details and consider what this sequence shares with the other clips.

  • Eliud Gabriel Porras, a voice actor and sound specialist based in London, provides the voiceover for this nature programme set in Chihuahua and Sonora, the border states between Mexico and the US. It is a dramatic sequence that ends with a little suspense.

    Question 1.

      Consider the representation of the natural world. How is different to that of those with people?

      Question 2.

        What is the effect of using someone with accented English to narrate this sequence?

        Question 3.

          Consider the word ‘wilderness’, what does it evoke? Could this be described as a wilderness?

          Question 4.

            Is there a style to this programme comparable to other nature programmes such as Blue Planet or Springwatch that the producer-director Stuart Armstrong also worked on? Why are people absent from some but not other nature programmes like these?

          • Levison Wood, a self-described ‘explorer’, is a former officer in the British parachute regiment. Walking the Americas, a four-part documentary, follows the journey by foot of Wood and the Mexican photographer Alberto Caceres. Subsequently, in 2018, Wood published a book by the same title in which Caceres is credited more as a ‘guide’ than as a professional photographer. In the documentary, Wood provides the voiceover and is usually the first person to be seen. The first time we see Caceres, he is feeding the monkeys.

              Question 1.

                What value does Levison Wood place on these islands in Nicaragua?

                Question 2.

                  How does his description of his private island fantasy compare with the reality of the people who he meets in this clip? Who is the ‘you’ in the sentence starting, ‘you could have…’? Who would identify with this and who is he implicitly addressing in this programme?

                  Question 3.

                    Why does he feel free to ask an older woman personal questions? Could you imagine him asking these questions to a middle-class English woman he just met? How do you interpret his response?

                    Question 4.

                      How would you describe his manner with those we see in this clip? How do class, race, and gender dynamics come into play in these interactions?

                    • UK-based Irish comedians, Dara O’Briain and Ed Byrne are presented here as having similar personas: affable, geeky, and chatty. O’Briain is better known thanks to his work as a host of high-profile comedy and science programmes. The clip in this activity is from the second episode, when they travel through El Salvador. More broadly, the series is about their journey by car from Arizona to Panama City following a similar trip made in the 1940s by Sullivan C. Richardson and two of his friends (nicknamed ‘the fools’) along the Pan-American Highway. Note: See The Plymouth [4 Cylinders] Owners Club for an in-depth illustrated overview of Richardson’s trip.

                        Question 1.

                          What is the effect of the repeated cutting to the archival footage from Sullivan C. Richardson with his voiceover in this sequence? Why do you think the programme’s makers decided to include it?

                          Question 2.

                            The musical choice is in a jaunty 1940s jazz style. Why was this music chosen and what does it evoke from the past? What mood does it give the clip?

                            Question 3

                              A visit to a newspaper is an unusual choice in a travel series, what does it tell us about the programme and the comedians’ personas?

                              Question 4

                                When they visit the market, what do you make of their behaviour, description of the place, and their response to it? This busy market is somewhere that the average person goes to buy food, groceries, and supplies. What do you make of the goods they focus on and the words and tone they use to describe the place?