Monday, February 20, 2017

as the desert runs into the sea

When you’re left dehydrated for four days in a desert, you begin to lose sense of direction, walk in circles and eventually starve yourself to your inevitable end. US border officials know this too well and are often left collecting corpses beyond recognition of those who desperately try to make it across the ruthless Sonoran Desert. That, or they encounter them during their journeys and take them away, but not all those journey-makers prefer this latter outcome. Exploited by traffickers on the Mexican side of the border, if they can manage to complete their perilous walks, they hope to find a safe haven, and sometimes find themselves knocking on strangers’ doors, only to hope that they’d extend a helping hand rather than turning them to the authorities.

As fatal as they are, deserts can be incredibly inviting geographies; with no end in sight, an infinite depth of field and an offer of wilderness that us humans have long let go of our lives, which immediately draws one’s gaze. Borders on the other hand, especially those with walls, fences or any other invisible apparatus of control are usually repulsive. In the case of Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s “El Mar La Mar”, these attributes are reversed; or rather merged: the Mexican-US border at once draws the pair in to tread a careful and sensitive excursion around it. They were taken by both the landscape and the hard border on a trip from New Orleans to San Francisco and started to storyline what is truly an intense documentary of survival and expulsion.

Shot on a Super 16, the film is a visual feast of landscape imagery, combined with some incredible and innovative sound design. As the southern Arizonian images of nature, wildlife and cowboys blend into whitened- and blackened-out images, uninterrupted testimonial interviews with border officials and journey-makers alike are mixed with field recordings, sometimes in their raw format but most times manipulated with additions of reverb or stretching out of frequencies. Hardly any of this comes as misplaced as they create an environment that is both very impressionistic but also abstracted to such extent that Mexicans' heart-wrenching stories create the incredible tension that the film rests on.

The film is split into three sections titled: “Rio”, “Costas” and “Tormenta”. I had my own interpretations but also went to ask the directors why they did not translate those titles, to which they replied they wanted the audience to keep engaging with the film by researching them if necessary and that they had only finished editing 5 days prior to the screening! But as a contextual point, the film's opening title "Rio" begins with a flickery image recorded from a moving vehicle, which, as the camera zooms out, slowly morphs into a recognisable image of a metal fence. It is one of the most dynamic scenes of the entire film, as the rest is very much made of a static (and stunning) visual language. But, despite that slow pace, the film is anything but stasis. The directors did an incredible job of marrying their audio-visual interpretations with people's testimonials and allowed for these to speak for themselves, and safely stayed away from taking a stance.

The shortest description I could make for the film would be “excruciatingly beautiful”. As I arrived in Berlin on Sunday late afternoon, I was still filled with certain inspirations I had acquired over the weekend. Ending up at strangers’ house late on Friday night, finding myself playing percussion in an impromptu house jam session, and meeting the same incredible people who had put out an exhibition at St Pancras Parish Church’s Crypt Gallery the next evening had already filled me with much anticipation, as if the prospects of going to Berlin, one of the most special places in my life, was not enough.

Titled “CAPUT”, that exhibition that displayed works from artists from France, Greece, Italy, Senegal, Turkey, the UK and the US not only responded to its own setting so intelligently, but also portrayed the interplay between life and death, the dynamic and the static. Everything I saw at El Mar La Mar seemed to have this incredible point of reference to works I saw and experienced at the exhibition. Can’s video installation complimented by sound recordings from the materials he used was as genuine as Bonnetta and Sniadecki’s mix of the harsh audio-landscapes, metallic surfaces and the soft human touch of border-gazers. Beyza’s poetry and grainy video footage were almost a response to the filmmakers’ own use of artistic language, through blur and abstraction. Having experienced a monochromatic part of her video, I could not help myself but remember how El Mar La Mar’s brutal black or white backdropped scenes of testimonials merged into the landscape photography. And Merve’s three paintings, with a varying tones of red, green and beige from vivid to pastel had defined my interpretation of the exhibition: although she refers to themes of harvest and blossom, their spatial features and subtle lines gave me an immediate feeling of rugged but tested landscapes and borders. Her painterly abstraction did not give me a feeling of exclusion; on the contrary a sense of invitation and intrigue.

So, it was almost hardly a coincidence when the Berlinale presenter on stage addressed her first question to the filmmakers about the painful beauty of the film and how its poetry-like structure almost made Sonoran Desert an appealing place. My second question was about the two men who walked for 8 days and ended up at knocking at the ranch the filmmakers were staying at. They connected them with humanitarian focussed organisations, while receiving their testimony of the journey. The men were very tired, sleep and water deprived over the final few days of their walk and had almost acquired a totally indifferent feeling to the emotions they were suffering from, except, when they talked about a fellow female traveler who died as they had to leave her behind, one of them started sobbing. I wanted to know how the directors approached these men about a story so traumatic and had just taken place: apparently, the men wanted to put their story out and the filmmakers were, by this point, experienced enough to create the optimal distance that allowed them to investigate deeply with true interest but remain emotionally stable as not to take a subjective stance. That's why this film was so powerful. So human, despite very few humans seen in footage.

Writing this text took me longer than I anticipated. In between the 11 films I saw, friends I met, very different environments I have been in (both physically and spiritually), my initial feelings towards El Mar La Mar stayed the same. If anything, they have been supplemented by various inspirations through the week, culminating with an unexpected approach on the dancefloor at the end of a long clubbing night (and morning) with the statement “can I dance next to you; you look so happy and make others happy” — something you don’t expect to hear much in Berlin, the ultimate individualist capital of hedonism.

But, that was also reminder of how much we seem to strive for these interactions and the need to really understand and communicate what we individually and collectively go through, whether this be with complete strangers or our neighbours. In fact, often is the case that the more we connect, the less rigid those definitional boundaries become. Like the first scene in El Mar La Mar where the fluid image turns into a hard fence, or the weekend in London that prepared me for my journey to Berlin… with gratitude to everyone who keeps inspiring, old and new alike.

No comments: