When readers ask me, “What was it like reporting along the border with Mexico? Were you scared?”

I pause before answering. A feeling comes to mind, but it’s hard to describe.

The short answer is “Yes, I was scared.” The long answer is much more complex. While walking through the streets of Matamoros in March and of Ciudad Juarez last month, I had an eerie feeling I simply couldn’t shake. A lucrative drug war is being fought in the cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. There’s destruction, violence, death and human suffering. But the stories of the people who live and survive in these cities are beautiful.

That feeling came back last week, as I watched the documentary “Purgatorio: A  Journey into the Heart of the Border.” Director Rodrigo Reyes was in  Chicago last month to promote it at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The documentary captures the striking beauty of the border while giving viewers an unexpected—and often complex—look into the lives of the people who live there. Reyes described it perfectly during a recent interview. He said his documentary shows “beautiful images of terrible moments.”

“I wanted to indirectly capture the spirit of this place,” Reyes told me. “I wanted it to be an emotional experience of this place … I’m not really concerned with keeping up with the facts. I’m concerned with a poetic truth.”

Reyes features the stories of a drug addict, immigrants trying to cross the border, an environmentalist who also supports immigration restrictions, murdered police officers and a humanitarian worker, among others. Despite the fact that violence is present in the film, it is only addressed indirectly. The film doesn’t focus on the violence, rather concentrates on how the people who live along the border are affected by it.
“It doesn’t have to be present to know that it’s there,” he said. “I wanted them [the audience] to feel the impact of the inequality. It is so brutal and raw.”

Reyes funded the documentary. The self-taught filmmaker works as an interpreter in California’s Merced Superior Court. He spent four weeks traveling with a crew of two, soundman Jose Inerzia  and cameraman Justin Chin, from Tijuana to Big Bend National Park in Texas. The film is filled with striking images but the characters make the film unforgettable.

Reyes has a special talent when sharing the stories of the people in his film. The characters are not just one dimensional. Take the story of the environmentalist who opposes immigration—and has a connection to the Minute Men, a militant group patrolling the border.

“His goal is to stop immigration. I knew he was really intense. He had a lot of arguments … and some of them made sense,” Reyes said of the man in his film. “He’s not a bad guy. He’s just protecting his country.”

This man’s words were strong. And they made me think.

 “I would like to see the Mexican people build up their own country. They have all the mineral wealth. They have copper. They have silver. They have gold and oil. What’s the problem? Why are they coming up here? Why don’t they overthrow their corrupt government and build up their own country,” he said in the film, while collecting garbage on the side of the road near the California-Mexico border.

Mexicans are already fighting against corruption and as Reyes pointed out, “He doesn’t know that’s going on [in Mexico] but he gets it.”

“Other characters [in the film] made the same point but I wanted the most conflicted character to say that,” Reyes said.

Despite its cinematographic beauty, the film had many heart-breaking scenes.  The audience, not only in Chicago, but in other cities has had a vocal reaction to a scene in which workers in an unnamed Mexican city on the border capture and euthanize stray dogs.  I looked around the theater and saw Chicagoans were visibly disturbed. I heard many “wows” and “awws.” Viewers closed their eyes and even used their hands to cover their face.

I found myself particularly disturbed—not by the scene but by the audience’s reaction. How could this group of Chicagoans react like this to a dog being euthanized but not to the image of a dead body, a funeral, a woman describing police brutality or a car crash triggered by a father and a son trying to flee kidnappers? After the crash the father was kidnapped.
“The audience shows more compassion for a dog dying?” I asked myself.  But Reyes sees it differently.

“The scene becomes like a question that turns on you,” Reyes said. “We’re used to seeing violence against humans …that’s something we’ve learned to justify …  maybe they deserved it? We make up reasons to excuse the violence. But when you see the dogs you can’t make up any of those reasons.”

Maybe he’s right.  We are so used to hearing about violence along the border that we’ve become desensitized to it. It took the image of a dog being euthanized to remind us of it.

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...