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"Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject, and so is like the Tao."

Tao Te Ching, 8 (Feng)


The Art of Survival: Life and Death on the Tinaja Trail

Illegal Immigration. Politics. Humanitarian Response. Art. Technology. Poetry.

The Project:

At the border, the difference between humanitarian service and illegal activity is not always black and white.


Reaching well beyond politics, this full-length documentary film will go deep into the heart of an unusual and fascinating humanitarian response to U.S.-Mexico cross-border migration: a high-risk, highly mobile and highly sophisticated network of volunteers from the north side of the border that is caching water supplies, distributing recycled cell phones running encrypted GPS trail-finding software, even sending transmissions of haiku poetry—- to keep trans-border migrants from dying in the desert.  To some, it is a dramatic, selfless and inspirational effort that gives new and poignant context to the phrase “the Art of Survival.”  To others, such action irresponsibly induces illegal border crossing, tantamount to aiding and abetting unlawful conduct.  This project approaches this controversial topic on the premise that the line between inducing illegal activity and providing true humanitarian service is not as clearly delineated —- not as easy to draw—- as either side might claim.

The film will examine the social, legal, and humanitarian aspects wrapped up in this difficult topic.  It will tell the stories of immigrants crossing the border and of the volunteers attempting to save their lives (some of whom have been arrested and prosecuted for their conduct), all while seeking to discover where true “humanitarian service” ends and where irresponsible conduct begins.  Help us examine this emergent facet of the exploding international controversy by assisting in this pre-development phase of a scheduled full-length documentary film. We have begun an initial period of filming, including b-roll at the border and interviews with humanitarians and activists. This material is currently being used to develop the promotional trailer and other materials in support of the larger funding campaign for the full documentary film production.  The project is fiscally sponsored by the Center for Independent Documentary ( and is eligible to receive tax deductible donations under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code.

The Art of Survival: Life and Death on the Tinaja Trail will establish a journalistically balanced context for the many viewpoints surrounding trans-border migration into the U.S.A. But its focus will be the humanitarian perspective that sets this story apart from the rest: people are dying in the desert and others are trying to save their lives. Read more about the Tinaja Trail below, then, please, help us produce this powerful, groundbreaking story that is ultimately about persistence, creativity, and compassion.

And please, don’t just make your donation, help us share the word. Use the social media tools above to share the Art of Survival with others. Thanks so much! We look forward to building our relationship with you as we make this powerful story come to life.

The Context:

Natural water sources in the American Southwest are extremely rare and, where they do exist, often extremely hard to get to (think: bottom of the “Grand Canyon,” for instance). For centuries, survival in this unforgiving land has hinged on one’s ability to locate natural cavities or wind-carved cisterns in rocks called tinajas (tee-NAH-hahs). Capturing rain during the rare desert storm, and shaded from the sun, these catch-basins— often only inches across, centimeters deep, and teeming with insects and their larvae— are precious, lifesaving treasures to desert-dwelling animals … and desert-traversing humans.

It seems reproachfully paradoxical, then, that this region would today host the primary trail of hope for thousands of people seeking gainful work, physical security, and the promise of a future free of fear. It’s a desperate journey— one that has cost the lives, and ended the hopes, of an estimated 600 people per year since 1995.

It is likewise a politically supercharged arena; a legal, moral and political maelstrom poised like a flame near a tinderbox of sentiment.

For years, individuals and organizations have dropped water containers along popular routes of migration (and been arrested for “littering,” or for trespassing on federal land), have searched the desert for dying immigrants, and provided other forms of lifesaving aid, including supplying the occasional transport to emergency medical facilities (where they have been arrested for assisting another’s illegal entry into the country). 

But the latest tool in this humanitarian effort is clearly the most unusual; a technological tinaja: modified cell phones running encrypted, live, virtual-mapping software. Being developed as “a Mexico/U.S. Border Disturbance Art Project” by the b.a.n.g. lab, a group of researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Michigan, the shape-shifting transmissions will guide desert-crossing immigrants to water stations and the safest route through the desert while reciting inspirational poetry for aural stimulation.

Please help us produce this powerful, groundbreaking story about persistence, creativity, and compassion.