There are many reasons people mocked Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall across the American, Mexican border. One of them is the Sonoran desert. An arid borderland, where traditional rules of society are suspended, this vast desert stretches over a total of 260,000 sq km, covering large parts of Arizona, California and Northwestern Mexico.
Crossing this wilderness on foot takes three to five days, a journey exacerbated by temperatures that often exceed 40°C. However, that doesn’t deter those tempted by the prospect of a better life in the States; with the US border patrol reportedly retrieving over 6000 dead bodies a year. This vast frontier is the subject of Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar, a deeply unsettling study of what it means to exist within this barren terrain.
The word ‘border’ tends to connote a sense of man-made limitations and restrictions, but Bonnetta and Sniadecki’s mood piece, composed of a fragmented series of breathtaking desert landscapes interspersed with stories narrated from people living on both sides of the border, focuses more on the geographical, rather than legal boundaries; culminating in an ethnographic exploration of this highly politicised stretch of land.
Waving together immersive 16-mm shots of the desert’s weather phenomena and various wildlife as it pursues the faded tracks of the people passing through in search of a better life, El Mar La Mar seeks to capture interactions between movement and stillness, past and present, the living and the dead. “Everything out here is trying to hurt you!” states one interviewee whilst describing the terrifying range of flora, fauna and natural predators lying in wait “Everything has its own little defence mechanism”. Nature is a constant presence in the film, with the viewer hermetically sealed within the landscape by an onslaught of sound; with the eerie whistle of the wind and the ominous cries of the surrounding wildlife amplified to assert how nature has the upper hand.
The landscape is particular in its features but allegorical in its bleakness, with the use of wide angled landscape shot meaning the horizon constantly seems out of reach. Austerely beautiful shots of desert remains (the detritus of failed border crossings; clothes, plastic water bottles, a mobile phone) evoke a profound respect for nature whilst also suggesting a culture that is somehow broken. The power of these images helps paint a picture of desolation, one so vividly drawn that during the film’s multiple interviews, recorded on audio and played back over shots of complete darkness, this sense of detachment, coupled with the imagery scarred on the viewer’s mind allows the imagination to conjure up a far bleaker image than anything Bonnetta and Sniadecki could possibly recreate.
Occasionally the faint sound of a gunshot can be heard in the distance; but these solitary man-made sounds feel more like an exclamation of resignation than a final act of defiance. A film of unspoken force and urgency, El Mar la Mar is an anti-pastoral western in which the landscape looms as a volatile and unpredictable force with room for anything and everything except human beings. But it’s also a silent metaphor for the West’s response to the multitude of migrant crises across the globe, with the desolation of the desert plains just as unforgiving as the culture that creates the need to cross it.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble