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Short Films in Focus: Laura, Carlton and the Tijuana Bulls

I was told recently by a filmmaker that Vimeo’s process for selecting their coveted Staff Picks badges is quite random. It’s just a matter of having the right amount of eyes on the short, and a high rating. The sheer volume of short films that get uploaded must be daunting and I suppose their staff can only watch so much. Still, a number of great shorts fall through the cracks, many of which have been written about here. It’s something of a miracle then that something as quietly unassuming as “Laura, Carlton and the Tijuana Bulls” found its way onto Vimeo’s front page.

We’ve all known people like Laura and Carlton Moser. We’ve all been subjected to dull family vacation videos. For all there is to know about “Laura, Carlton and the Tijuana Bulls,” there’s no reason to expect something truly compelling. Laura and Carlton are simply nice people. On a vacation to the south of the border, they visit a strip club, Trump’s border wall, a bullfight, and some restaurants. Then, they go home. Their insights on their visit might be particularly profound (Werner Herzog, for instance would have put the weight of the world behind witnessing a bullfight), but we share in their observations and discoveries. Again, this sounds like someone’s vacation video.

And yet, I watched the whole damn thing. 

I loved getting to know Laura and Carlton Moser and eavesdropping on their conversations about being a tourist. Of course, only someone close to them could have gotten such a documentary like this out of them. The film was co-directed by their son, Bobby, and Michael Barth, who present everything in beautifully composed static shots as we hear voiceovers of Laura and Carlton charmingly observing their surroundings. A weird kind of suspense takes hold as we watch them visit the bullfight (will the bull jump into the crowd?) and the border wall (do they support the building of this wall?). We also get a peak into their past as they share a family tragedy that they are still processing.  

I’m glad the Vimeo staff found this film and I’m glad it found me. I’m sure some will view it as “Mexico through a white person’s lens,” but isn't this how we all talk when we visit a place on vacation? Do we all come away from a place knowing how to articulate like a poet what effect it had on us, if at all? Somehow, “Laura, Carlton and the Tijuana Bulls” achieves a poetry of its own without even trying. Even if my political views might not align with theirs, I feel I could watch a series of Laura and Carlton vacation videos. They’re certainly more compelling than my own.

Q&A with filmmakers Bobby Moser and Michael Barth

How did you decide on this being a documentary and not just the usual vacation home video?

Michael and I wanted to make a film together—something short and sweet and subtle that could be filmed in a few days and we thought about characters we could film and my parents came up. I feel like I’ve recognized for a long time how cute my parents can be and was really excited to share that. So we all planned out an out-of-the-ordinary vacation with them to Tijuana. They’re both conservative Southern Americans and we wanted to see what would happen if we took them to a politically charged place like the US/Mexico border. We wanted to see if their perspectives would change or not change—even minutely. I think they were surprised by a lot of things throughout their trip. They were most excited for the bull fight and that ended up being their least favorite part of the trip, they had more fun chatting with the artist at the border wall. 

How did your parents take to the camera being on them in this fashion?

I was nervous going in that they’d be too performative or not have the goofy charm that I’ve seen all my life. But we planned to roll on long takes assuming that they’d kinda forget about the camera after a while and that’s exactly what happened. My mom kept asking in-between scenes if she was doing a good job and I kept reiterating that there were no rules and everything they were doing was amazing. 

What was their reaction to the final film?

They really liked it! My mom shared it on Facebook (a very big deal for her)! My dad just laughs every time I bring up the film. I think more than anything they thought it was a fun experience to have with their son. 

Some of the shots here seem meticulously designed. Were there any challenges with that?

Yeah, we knew we wanted a very patient, locked off feeling throughout. We felt the locked off wide shots would give a sense of contrast to my parents in this unfamiliar environment and also to give my parents time to ease into each scene—to forget about the camera a bit. 

It was a bit challenging because we had a clear style we wanted but it was just the two of us doing sound and camera. So setting up each shot to be perfectly symmetrical or perfectly timed was difficult. Add on top of that all the uncertainty of filming a documentary and not wanting to miss a moment so having to decide between a perfect shot or a perfect moment became a challenge. 

The most challenging part was the bullfight, where the grandstands were so rickety that the camera was shaking the whole time even on a tripod. As people moved around in their seats the whole structure would move. So trying to keep the camera as still as possible was a challenge. Additionally we didn’t expect how traumatic the bullfight would be. The soundscape felt as intense as it does in the film—with the bulls whining and crying and panicking. It was very intense and upsetting for us and it felt weird to focus on filming when this bull is ten feet away from you panicking for its life.

It’s such a quietly unassuming film. Does the response from Vimeo and their users surprise you? 

I’m always surprised anytime anyone wants to watch something I’ve made. And I think my parents are surprised too, they’re really unassuming people and being in a film of any kind is kind of wild for them. 

What’s next for you?

Well, hopefully following my parents on another vacation. Currently I’m editing a feature documentary about Underground party culture in China. Michael has relocated to Rio De Janeiro to study Portuguese and work on a film of his own.

Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing films in Chicago for 14 years, most notably on WGN Radio where he has been a part of the movie review segment every week on The Nick Digilio Show.

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