The desert covers the US states of California and Arizona and the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California. It’s big and hot and biodiverse. It’s one of the dangerous crossings that migrants from central America traverse when they attempt to enter the US.
Bonnetta and Sniadecki’s film shows rather than tells, and when the visuals embrace clarity they flatly show the inhospitable truth about the desert and its terrains.
The visuals are also often experimental, but always in the attempt to capture the experiences of the people who find themselves in the non-places of the desert.
You watch disorienting light flares in the darkness and flickering shots of border barriers as well as long, largely fixed shots of desert landscapes.
You sometimes listen to migrants and desert dwellers telling their stories in audio only, accompanied by a distressed black screen. The stories are pretty terrifying, partly because there is a weary stoicism to all of them. They are all in a situation they can’t climb back from, the ranchers and nomads of modern life as much as the migrants.
Meanwhile, field recordings pick up and amplify the sounds of the desert. The rumbles of thunder and static of radio transmissions create an immersive environment for the viewer.
There’s even wild swimming on show, both pretty chilled and disturbing extreme varieties.
This is a film that presents non-human environments in a way that initially seems traditionally contemplative, in other words with a slowness in which the viewer’s time sense slows to experience the desert expanse and its relative lack of human activity. You know, laid back.
It is the experimental style that takes the film in a different direction. When it is disorienting, it gives the viewer a sense of the quality of the experience of the desperate migrants. When it is contemplative, it reflects the experience of those who feel the desert to have less hostile impact on their lives. But both styles also relate to a non-human perspective in which film technology reflects certain qualities of the desert.
El Mar La Mar is an intriguing watch, but do yourself a favour and watch on the biggest screen you can with good audio.
El Mar La Mar is out on Blu-ray from 30 January 2023.