On the American Avant Garde, the Politics of Non-Narrative Film, and Shooting the Sonoran Desert in 16mm

Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar is a unique film that draws both on Sniadecki’s background at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (his previous feature was the excellent documentary The Iron Ministry, shot onboard Chinese trains) and Bonnetta’s expertise in sound design. As you can see from the following interview, its directors insist that it’s an avant-garde film, not a documentary, but like many films that have played festivals recently, it rests on the boundary between the two fields. Using extremes of dark and lightness with a contrapuntal soundtrack, it paints a portrait of the Southwest’s Sonoran Desert and its inhabitants, including undocumented immigrants who risk their lives to cross into the U.S. (None of them appear on-screen, although their voices are heard.)

This interview was conducted last September during the chaos of the New York Film Festival’s opening weekend; Sniadecki joined the conversation halfway through.

Co-director Joshua Bonnetta on location.
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

StudioDaily: Coming from Canada, how did you and J.P. Sniadecki meet up?

Joshua Bonnetta: We met at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013. I had an installation piece in the festival. I think he was there for [2010 documentary] Foreign Parts. We had mutual friends. And the reason our friends introduced us was that they found out he had taken a teaching course in Ithaca, where I was teaching. We met up, and then I helped him find a place to stay in Ithaca. After a while, having mutual interests in the same kind of cinema, art and sound, we decided we were going to make a film together.

How long did it take to get from that idea to completing the film?

JB: Both of us teach, so we worked around our academic schedules. It took three years of shooting. We were able to shoot in the summers and our holiday periods. It was a very fragmentary process. But, because we were shooting on 16mm, we had time to get the film developed and see what we had shot. It was a very slow process.

Still from <i>El Mar La Mar</i>

Still from El Mar La Mar
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

I didn’t realize the dark images were actually shots of a thunderstorm. Were you afraid of a film with so many extremely dark images?

JB: No. Dennis Lim [one of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s programmers and a member of the New York Film Festival selection committee] mentioned it in his intro for the screening of the film you were at. This is an area that is overly represented in all forms of cinema and public media. We wanted to expand the dialogue around that. One thing that’s not allowed in most forms of media is a place for the sound to just exist. So that’s something we wanted to push.

Do you think your film can reach people who think of undocumented immigrants as “illegals,” and that they’re just bringing drugs and crime to the U.S.?

JB: That’s an interesting question. Our film is challenging and takes an open-minded person to watch. If they’re open to new forms of cinema, maybe they’d be open to thinking about new ways of thinking about the world. I think maybe a person who thinks that way would find our film very frustrating.

A still from <i>El Mar La Mar</i>

A still from El Mar La Mar
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild

There’s both a formally and politically radical quality to your film, which is in several recent documentaries, like Travis Wilkerson’s Did You See Who Fired the Gun? and Theo Anthony’s Rat Film. This seems to be growing, after a period where people’s idea of political documentaries was something like Michael Moore. Do you perceive this too?

JB: I can see what you’re saying. I haven’t noticed it personally. For me and J. P. as well, we don’t see our film as a documentary per se. There’s elements of documentary in it, but there’s also elements of experimental film. There’s elements of narrative cinema. Mixing documentary and fiction, challenging representation, and creating political cinema has been a longstanding concern. More challenging ways of viewing characterization and looking at sound and image do seem to be influencing the greater paradigm of documentaries.

I assume the film will be distributed digitally. Were you thinking about that the whole time you were shooting in 16mm?

JB: We always knew we were working in a hybrid way. To project on 16 and distribute on 16 is not practical if you want the film to reach a greater audience. We always knew it would be distributed digitally. Also, the sound for 16 is mono. The dynamic range, with what it can represent, is not that good. Given that the sound is just as important as the image, we always knew it would come back to digital. 16mm is a way of working that’s slower and more analytical. We were editing as we were working. We could work in dialogue. For filmmakers who had never worked together, it was important for us to have a dialogue. Working in 16mm helped slow things down and created that space.

Did you sit down and think about the balance between the English and Spanish language?

JB: It was one of those things we discussed ad nauseam: the balance of who gets to speak. All these things were considered. Working in an area like this, not everyone wants to speak to you. Ideally, you would have equal representation always, but it’s not always possible.

Was it hard to gain your interview subjects’ trust?

JB: It was not as hard as it would’ve been had we come to the project cold. We came across a book by an anthropologist, Jason De Leon, who wrote a book called Land of Open Graves. He has been documenting migration. Because we were interested in his work [and] contacted him and he vouched for us, we were able to talk to more people. We were also associated with institutions, and this was clearly not an exploitative documentary.

[At this point, J.P. Sniadecki arrived.]

Co-director J.P Sniadecki
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

To play devil’s advocate, were you afraid of inadvertently dehumanizing immigrants by leaving their visual images offscreen?

J.P. Sniadecki: We talked a lot about representation in this film. We can’t make a movie as open-ended as this film and say that none of those interpretations are valid. There are some specific reasons why we left people’s images out, especially in the post-Trump era. It was a wise move not to connect people indexically to their voices, images and stories. We also felt that listening to a voice in a darkened space, leads to a different intimacy. A lot of audience members have said they feel more attuned to these voices because they’re not standard talking heads over images acting as B-roll.

Eventually, the film will be released on DVD and Blu-ray. I don’t like this, but as a critic, I constantly have to preview films on my laptop. I think this film would be unwatchable on a laptop. I’m sure you were also aware of these issues as you were making it.

JB: I would agree with you. Seeing it in a theater with proper projection and 5.1 sound is a completely different experience from seeing it on a laptop. But at the same time, not everyone has the privilege to visit the New York Film Festival, other film festivals or see it in the theater. It might not be the best way to see it, but at least it makes it accessible to people who might want to learn more about it. We’ve been really trying on our own to create situations for screenings that do make it more accessible in situations beyond festivals and cinemas.

A still from <i>El Mar La Mar</i>

A still from El Mar La Mar
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild.

Joshua, you’ve come from Canada, and J.P., you’ve lived a long time in China. Approaching the subjects of immigration and the Sonoran desert, did you feel that you had an outsider’s perspective that might be different from someone who lived their whole life in the Southwest?

JPS: Absolutely. Our filmmaking process is not trying to disavow or mask our outsider status. But we return to the land. We try to engage with people. Despite the fact that we’re outsiders, other people’s experiences shape and mark the film. It’s not constrained solely by our own experience. I keep saying we’re outsiders, but in the process of making the film, all these different perspectives mingle. It’s a social process. We didn’t make a film in a vacuum about the border. In fact, we weren’t even trying to make a film about the border. We were trying to make a film about the desert. It just so happens that there’s a border that crosses it. We were out to understand this space.

A still from <i>El Mar La Mar</i>

A still from El Mar La Mar
Courtesy of The Cinema Guild

Did you have any models for alternative ways of representing the desert or talking about politics?

JPS: It’s all out there in the ether. You [speaking to Bonnetta] are probably more of a cinephile than me.

JB: It was coming from avant-garde and experimental film. James Benning was an influence. The last part of the film is very much influenced by Peter Hutton. In terms of the sound design, we were thinking about musique concrète or anecdotal sound. What else?

JPS: Bruce Baillie, Chick Strand. Westerns. Deborah Stratman, Sharon Lockhart. Nicholas Ray. I like Johnny Guitar. We play the song “Johnny Guitar” in the movie.

How did the three-part structure evolve?

JB: Our way of working was very process-oriented. The structure came about during the editing. As we were creating it, we originally intended it to be a multi-channel installation. We intended parts to exist in space. The way the pieces came together in editing, they came together in three distinct parts. The sequences came together in three discreet parts, and we didn’t want to try to force them into something coherent.

A still from <i>El Mar La Mar</i>

A still from El Mar La Mar
Courtesy Cinema Guild

You seem a bit distant from the documentary world, but your film is playing the Documentary Sidebar at the New York Film Festival. It’s being released by the Cinema Guild and, frankly, non-narrative films just don’t get theatrical releases in the U.S. I have a feeling that when it gets released, it will be forced into the documentary world. How do you feel about that?

JB: I think it’s great. In the area where J. P. is working, there’s a lot of overlap between non-narrative and documentary, film and video art. They aren’t discreet genres. The Cinema Guild is distributing it, but they could turn people on to something new. It could just as easily have played in the Projections section, and films in Projections could just as easily have played in the Spotlight on Documentary section. These distinctions are curatorial ones. As far as artists are concerned, we’re not thinking about things these ways. The Projections section is really incredible. You know you’re going to see something really challenging. I was surprised this was in the Spotlight on Documentary section, not Projections. Maybe people who have gone to see it there have been surprised.

El Mar La Mar opens Friday for a one-week run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and plays at the Downtown Independent Theater in Los Angeles February 27. Future engagements are listed at the film’s official web page.