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



Short Film Spotlight: Laura, Carlton and the Tijuana Bulls

A filmmaker told me recently that Vimeo’s process for selecting its coveted Staff Picks badges was pretty hit or miss. It’s just a matter of having the right amount of eyes on the court and a high rating. The sheer volume of shorts that are uploaded must be daunting and I guess their staff can only watch a limited amount. Still, a number of great shorts slip through the cracks, many of which were written here. It’s a bit of a miracle when something as low-key as “Laura, Carlton and the Tijuana Bulls” found its way onto the front page of Vimeo.

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

And yet, I watched everything.

I loved getting to know Laura and Carlton Moser and listening to their conversations about being a tourist. Of course, only someone close could have made such a documentary for them. The film was co-directed by their son, Bobby, and Michael Barth, who lay it all out in beautifully composed static shots as we hear the voiceovers of Laura and Carlton charmingly surveying their surroundings. A strange suspense sets in as we watch them visit the bullfight (will the bull jump into the crowd?) and the border wall (are they supporting the construction of this wall?). We also get a glimpse into their past as they share a family tragedy they are still dealing with.

I’m glad the Vimeo team found this movie and I’m glad they found me. I’m sure some will see it as “Mexico through a white person’s lens,” but isn’t that how we all talk when we visit somewhere on vacation? Do we all leave a place knowing how to articulate like a poet the effect it has had on us, if at all? Somehow, “Laura, Carlton and the Tijuana Bulls” achieves its own poetry without even trying. Even though my political views may not match theirs, I feel like I could watch a series of vacation videos from Laura and Carlton. They are certainly more convincing than mine.

Q&A with filmmakers Bobby Moser and Michael Barth

How did you decide for this to be a documentary and not just the usual holiday home video?

Michael and I wanted to do a movie together – something short, sweet and subtle that could be filmed in a few days and we thought of characters we could film and my parents came along. I feel like I’ve long recognized how cute my parents can be and I was so excited to share that. So we all planned an extraordinary vacation with them in Tijuana. They are both conservative South 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 whether or not their outlook would change, however small. I think they were surprised by a lot of things along their journey. They were more excited for the bullfight and it 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 the camera being on top of them like that?

I was nervous that they were too performative or didn’t have the goofy charm I’ve seen all my life. But we were planning on doing long takes assuming they’d kinda forget about the camera after a while and that’s exactly what happened. My mom kept asking between scenes if she was doing a good job and I kept saying there were no rules and everything they did was amazing.

What was their reaction to the final film?

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

Some of the plans here look meticulously crafted. Have there been any challenges with this?

Yeah, we knew we wanted a very patient, locked-in feeling throughout. We thought the locked wide shots would give my parents a sense of contrast in this unfamiliar environment and also give my parents time to familiarize themselves with each scene – to forget about the camera for a bit.

It was a bit difficult because we had a clear style that we wanted, but there were only two of us doing the sound and the camera. It was therefore difficult to configure each shot to be perfectly symmetrical or perfectly synchronized. Add to that all the uncertainty of shooting a documentary and not wanting to miss a moment then having to choose between a perfect shot or a perfect moment became a challenge.

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

It’s such a low-key movie. Does the response from Vimeo and its users surprise you?

I’m always surprised whenever someone wants to watch something I’ve done. And I think my parents are surprised too, they’re really modest people and being in any movie is kind of crazy for them.

What’s next for you?

Well, I hope to follow my parents on another vacation. Currently, I am editing a feature documentary on underground party culture in China. Michael moved to Rio De Janeiro to study Portuguese and work on his own film.

Collin Souter
Collin Souter

Collin Souter has been reviewing movies in Chicago for 14 years, including on WGN Radio where he was part of the weekly movie review segment on The Nick Digilio Show.

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