'El mar la mar’: Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlinale
Trippy, but barely there.

Documakers Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki explore Mexican-U.S. border crossings in a poetic, elliptical mood piece.

What attracts the viewer first to the mysteriously titled, and even more enigmatically shot, El mar la mar is its timely subject: border crossing and migration in the American Southwest. Yet the Mexican immigrants who risk their lives to cross into the United States (“They’re dying to come in”, as one rancher fittingly pronounces) are never seen in the film. They are invisible presences trudging through the Sonoran desert and hiding in the brush with rattlesnakes and coyotes; disembodied voices recounting their harrowing experiences in tears. It’s an original and, in its own way, effective tactic by multihyphenate directors-producers-cameramen-etc. Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki to approach the ongoing crisis, but very hard to imagine playing outside of festivals where its compassionate, humanist outlook will be appreciated as a given.

Filled mainly with wide open spaces and infinite skies, the film is slow-paced and sad, beautiful to look at on the big screen and enriched by a mood-making polyphonic soundtrack. Closer to an imagist film poem in the Apichatpong Weerasethakul vein than to a hard-hitting investigative doc, its concentration on the natural world brings to mind Patricio Guzman’s masterful meditations on how human bones and artifacts disappear, in the end, into the topography of the landscape. However, Bonnetta and Sniadecki rely too much on the audience’s ability to put a thin handful of clues together into a meaningful whole. Most viewers will find it simply hard to sit through.

The “mar” in the title recalls Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), a glancing exploration of the immigrant crisis on an Italian island through the eyes of a boy and other island residents. Here there are no characters to hook the audience and give narrative continuity and meaning; there are only the low, brooding sounds of nature which create a unsettling, abstract context.

It’s obvious that Bonnetta and Sniadecki, who are both veteran documentarians and skilled in their art, are out to privilege the mood-creating and the poetic. An example is the first offscreen narrator, who in a down-home accent peppered with expletives describes his incredible encounter with a mountain monster 15 feet high, an “inexplicable beast” known to the Indians. Followed by seething shots of volcanic lava and accompanied by a rumbling, menacing soundtrack, it makes a good ghost story but remains weakly connected to the main subject of Mexican immigration.

The story only gets into gear when a woman, again offscreen, narrates how a shivering young man came to her house one day and asked to warm himself. “People often lose their guide,” she notes. Rosaries and water jugs hanging from rocks furnish other traces of what is going on, unseen, offscreen.

After watching so much desert scrub and so many scuttling clouds, it’s a relief to see a few human figures in the landscape. The size of an electric pole is given by the appearance of a miniscule workman climbing it. The weather-beaten face of a man (rancher? patrolman?) in a big white hat offers a possible narrator for a long and moving story about how he was on his way to shoot a cow that had fallen in a hole, when he found a man burned black in a brush fire. First he takes care of the cow, then delivers the man for medical attention. Other harrowing stories follow.

A comment heard several times is that the uninhabited Sonoran desert is “a trippy place”. Terrifying heat and silence permeate it, and it’s packed with poisonous insects, vipers and rattlesnakes, vultures and mountain lions, any of which can spell doom to the exhausted foot traveler. The poorest Mexican immigrants chose the desert route to the U.S., and many lose their bearings and wander in circles for days until they are found by patrols or die. All this is told, not seen, of course.

The film was shot largely on 16mm film and then digitalized into buzzy, atmospheric images of sky and desert. Nowhere is there any sign of a sea, as the title, with its Spanish variants of “the sea,” would suggest. Until the very end, that is, when a thunderstorm bathes the sand with a massive downpour and the wash leaves the desert full of puddles of water. It’s the kind of pregnant image that never quite coalesces into meaning. One would like to think it sounds a note of hope in a very bleak world.

Directors-screenwriters-producers-directors of photography-editors-production designer: Joshua Bonnetta, J. P. Sniadecki
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)

94 minutes

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