Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 14, 2017 9:14 pm 
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More crabwise intensity from Harvard Sensory Lab

The title of this "documentary" - a clumsy term for something so handmade and unique in texture - is drawn from a verse by Marxist revolutionary Spanish poet Rafael A;lberti. Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab person J.P. Sniadecki has collaborated with the Canadian Joshua Bonnetta for a most poetic treatment of their theme: the boundary in the Sonoran desert between Mexico and the United States that has swallowed up so many who have sacrificed everything to come to El Norte.

The film could have been a straightforward record of human tragedy, but it is more indirect. It begins and ends primarily as a record, on digitized 16 mm, flickering, grainy, gray and chiaroscuro, of the natural landscape, only indirectly of the human. It ends with a vast stormy sky over the grainy image of the flat, implacable desert. It is punctuated and populated by a rich sound record of nature and a few human voices telling sad stories but unseen. In a mid section, "Costas," it stops to linger over closeups of ID cards and a cheap phone in the sand, personal objects forgotten along the way.

Bonnetta and Sniadecki were inspired by a chance conversation with a border guard, and then by reading a book by Jason De León, The Land of Open Graves. They spent three years filming the landscape, recording its wildlife and talking to border rangers, aid workers and human smugglers ("coyotes").

The film's first section “Rio,” delivers a flickering landscape that seems to move because the camera is mounted in a car advancing at high speed: the bars of a fence create a beautiful abstraction. This is an exploration that, while being painful, transforms ithe nightmare territory of its focus into a beautiful hallucination of lights and colors.

There have been a series of crossovers in these Harvard ethnography laboratory-inspired documentaries, whose subjects have ranged wide but techniques and focuses have had common threads. (See Michael Sicinski's rundown of the main films concluding with El mar la mar in Arsenal "Berlinale Forum".) Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor made Sweetgrass (NYFF 2009); Sniadecki and Verena Paravel made Foreign Parts (NYFF 2010); Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor made Leviathan (NYFF 2012); Sniadecki and Libbie D. Cohn made the 2012 People's Park (ND/NF 2013). These have been well-seen and reviewed in international film festivals.

These are core works whose influence extends outward, informed by an ethnographic and anthropological focus. They are at once an intense physical experience and an exercise of detachment involving precise sound recording and unusual camera placement. The sound was recorded from a long distance in the sheep herding film Sweetgrass; in the marathon examination of factory fishing tiny cameras were attached to fishermen's bodies in Leviathan. This new look at migrations from the south eschews conventional documentary style. It swings from sweeping distant images to almost microscopic closeups of the ground. Auxiliary documentation of the human experiences buried in the desert is provided by voiceover. Some reviewers have found this partially abstract film, that has no conventional talking heads, an odd way to approach the subject of the US-Mexican border. But anyone familiar with the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab will find it very much what you'd expect, though it gets more explicit and political than before.

The Sonoran Desert is a daunting natural landscape and a human graveyard. Crossing it takes three to five days and in summer daytime temperatures exceed 104ºF. Remains of over six thousand dead reportedly have been retrieved by Border Patrol and thousands more may have been bleached away by the scorching sun before they were found. It's inhabited by cacti, poisonous insects, rattlesnakes and jaguars and it extends over a territory of over 100,400 sq. mi. along the US-Mexican border; the 1900-mile boundary between the two countries here is at least one third fenced, and has been heavily patrolled with men and drones since the Nineties. It's worth noting that illegal border crossings have dropped considerably, to perhaps a tenth what they were a decade ago. As has been frequently pointed out Donald Trump's extremely costly proposed continuous wall along the border, an outmoded and inefficient measure to begin with, would come at a time when it is much less needed than in the past. The filmmakers have pointed out that the border is designed to funnel illegal crossers through the desert and make desperate outcomes seem their personal choice. Voiceovers tell harrowing and tragic tales over a black screen with nothing to distract from them. Clearly Bonnetta and Sniadecki's sympathies are with the Mexican border crossers, but they don't demonize the US guards, who are heard from speaking in a sympathetic manner.

The final section, “Tormenta," is a kind of epilogue that carries the theme to the realm of the spiritual. It consists of the grainy distant stormy desert landscape (characteristically, both neutral and awesome), with the voiceover of a woman reading portions of various verses from Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. This is clearly the Sensory Ethnography Lab's most poetic and passionate film so far - though it may be just as off-putting to mainstream viewers.

El mar la mar, 94 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 2017 with two awards and one nomination; also shown at the San Francisco International Film Festival, as part of which it was screened for this review. Coming festivals include Hong Kong.
SFIFF SCHEDULE: Apr. 6, 2017 at 8:45 pm at SFMoMA; Apr. 12 6:30 pm at YBCA Screening Room; Apr. 16 8:15 at BAM PFA.

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