El mar la mar
[…] Extreme heat, volcanos, dryness, poisonous plants, and dangerous animals constitute an inhospitable environment for humans, but they are also fascinating elements in nature that inspire humans with legends, motivate their most improbable challenges and create mysteries.
[…] The presence of the people on the screen is rare and enigmatic: “El mar la mar” definitely favours the immersion into the (in-)human landscape, pushing the spectator to share the experience that the people of the desert live with.
The essence of any phenomenon cannot be delivered in the form of one item of information. With this statement we can go immediately beyond what for many appears as a limitation in Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki’s documentation of the Sonoran Desert, which lies between Arizona and California: the general lack of information about the phenomenon of Hispanic people trying to enter the USA illegally, walking on foot across the Sonoran Desert. Yet, El mar la mar is still a very accurate documentary on this phenomenon, insofar as it approaches the topic from the perspective of the place itself and its genius loci: the geographic, geological, biological, social and political place.
From the perspective of the Sonoran Desert, human affairs seem insignificant and foolish by comparison. The confrontation between the people and the desert reveals the despair of the Hispanic migrants as well as the loneliness of the American inhabitants of the region. This is the reality behind the statistic of more than 6000 casualties since the beginning of the Nineties, and behind the politics of fear of the American government. To this respect, the harsh conditions of life in the desert work as a remarkably precise detector of such a human – and de-humanized – realities.
Viewing the magnificent photography of the landscape, the project of the wall promised by Donald Trump sounds simply laughable. In the first images of the film, we realize that we are seeing a frontier fence only at the very end of a long shot in which we see only a moving natural landscape that is “disturbed” by an indefinite presence of vertical black lines. These images reflect the entire approach of Bonnetta & Sniadecki’s work: the political and conflicting elements always appear to be disturbing an already tormented natural environment. Extreme heat, volcanos, dryness, poisonous plants, and dangerous animals constitute an inhospitable environment for humans, but they are also fascinating elements in nature that inspire humans with legends, motivate their most improbable challenges and create mysteries.
The theme of the aesthetic beauty is thus constantly interwoven with the narrative theme of the search for traces and clues, that is, the search for stories. Whereas the first theme is delivered through the image layer, the voice-overs convey the second theme, witnessing the dramatic and often tragic stories of this desert. The presence of the people on the screen is rare and enigmatic: El mar la mar definitely favours the immersion into the (in-)human landscape, pushing the spectator to share the experience that the people of the desert live with. Here Sniadecki’s competence in experiential anthropology (at the Harvard Sensory Ethnology Lab) meets Bonnetta’s experimental work with images and sounds. The sound – nicely mixed by Josh Berger – mostly impresses us with its complexity and emotional impact, insofar as is able to create, for example, an interesting continuity between the natural elements – wind, fire, water, etc. – and the human elements, like radio communications and gunshots.
Even if the grand storm that closes the film seems to confirm the disproportion between nature and human beings, the admirable poem of Mexican poet Suor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Primero sueño” – which we hear in the voice-over – introduces the theme of the dream, and with it the possibility of a different alliance between nature and man. The desert is the place for the dreams and spiritual journeys that have befriended the night: the American dream and the Hispanic dream find in the reality of the Sonoran Desert their common folly.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: February 20, 2018
El mar la mar | Film | Joshua Bonnetta, J.P. Sniadecki | USA 2017 | 94’ | Filmpodium Zürich