El mar la mar

A documentary about border crossing seen from a new perspective

Based at Harvard University, the Sensory Ethnography Lab have been responsible for some of the most challenging documentary releases in recent years, pushing the boundaries of the form into refreshing and explorative new places. Their experimental style has produced films like Leviathan, a wordless documentary set on board a fishing trawler, and Manakamana, which spent two hours inside a cable car observing the human behaviour of the changing faces.

It’s more a collective than a set group of directors and their new release, El mar la mar, continues in the same vein, immersing the viewer into the expanse of the Sonoran Desert on the U.S.-Mexico border. The subject matter of immigration couldn’t be more timely, although directors Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki are more interested in the human experience rather than politicising the narrative.

The film was shot over a number of years, a time period that reflects a terrain covering over 260,000 sq km, which on average takes five days to walk across in extreme temperatures. None of those attempting to gain entry into America are shown on camera, but we hear their voices, recoil at the tales of horror and see the endless paraphernalia left trailing across the landscape, each one a ghostly reminder of the hundreds of people that die there every year.

Bonnetta and Sniadecki divide the film into three sections – Rio, Costas and Tormenta – the middle chapter the most lucid and lasting for over an hour. Many times the screen is set in low late evening or early morning light, sometimes even pitch black, while locals, migrants and trackers recall their own experiences.

One man speaks of coming face-to-face with a 15-feet giant believed by local Native Americans to roam the land, while a female hiker remembers stumbling across a decomposing corpse, along with countless stories of people found wandering deliriously in circles after losing their way. A tracker calls the desert a place where “everything is trying to hurt you,” fascinated at how nature has found a way to survive in such an unforgiving environment, where the snakes, lizards, insects and plants develop their own unique defence mechanisms.

The 16mm stock used by the directors adds a graininess to the already thick ambience with shots of the desert capturing its relentless power and an almost spiritual aura that permeates the atmosphere. There are no recurring voices, faces or lengthy journeys undertaken with any of the migrants as the seemingly never ending land remains the dominating character. It’s a place where time stands still and any evidence of movement and existence is quickly reset under the shifting sands and gusts of wind.

SEL’s abstract and avant-garde approach is well suited to such strange and dangerous territory. It lends itself to the sense of disorientation and unfamiliarity felt by those who attempt to conquer, work on or live nearby to the desert. You can only imagine what people must be leaving behind to put their lives in the hands of such a brutal form of nature, making their way across a region resistant to emotion or any desire to find a better life. But such is the severity of the task ahead of them, even if they do make it out alive, they’re likely to lose something of themselves along the way.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Aug 02, 2018

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