The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez, 90 mins.
Directed by Kieran Fitzgerald
Produced by Brendan Fitzgerald
On May 4th, 1970 four students were shot dead and nine more wounded at Kent State by poorly trained Ohio National Guard soldiers who clearly over reacted to a relatively small protest against the Nixon administration’s recent bombings in Cambodia. The response to the tragedy took the nation by storm and, one could argue, that event turned the tide of American involvement in Viet Nam.
It would be twenty seven years until another American citizen is shot by the U.S. military, on U.S. soil, May 20, 1997. Only this time, the nation’s reaction was far less severe. Perhaps that’s because hardly anyone heard about it. An explanation for this may be found in the new documentary, The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez, which I was fortunate enough to catch at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Ballad is the first feature-length film by director Kieran Fitzgerald and his brother, producer Brendan Fitzgerald. Kieran was 17 years old when Esequiel, a young Mexican-American was shot by the team leader of a four-man US Marine unit that was patrolling the border in search of drug traffickers. The 18 year-old Esequiel was herding goats close to his home when he was mistakenly taken for a hostile. The director heard about the incident for the first time in the fall of 2004 from actor & director Tommy Lee Jones who himself was preparing to shoot The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Jones’s narrative film was inspired by a number of real life border tragedies including the Hernandez shooting and Jones ended up providing the voice-over for the Fitzgeralds’ documentary.
The passage of ten years between the incident and the release of the documentary has its advantages. Other than the shooter, who refused to speak to the film makers, the Marines -still in their twenties- spoke about the incident for the first time, giving Fitzgerald copious access, with unexpected results. One Marine became a police officer, started a family and seems to have come to grips with what transpired that day while another, clearly feeling profound guilt for his part in the tragedy, fell into a personal spiral of drugs and despair. The image of this man, once a proud and healthy soldier, is one that stuck with me long after I left the theater. Even as he struggles to make sense of what happened and his part in it, a dark cloud continues to hover above ten years later.
I couldn’t help thinking that had the victim of this more recent tragedy not been a poor Mexican-American but, instead a middle class white person, the outrage would have been quite different indeed. As it is, the investigation into Hernandez’ shooting resulted in the military being banned from patrolling the border. That is until May of 2006 when president George W. Bush reversed his own father’s policy and sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border as an attempt to better resist the flow of illegal immigrants.
NOTE: For a podcast interview with director Kieran Fitzgerald, click here.