J.P. Sniadecki is an American nonfiction filmmaker whose most recent movies have documented places or institutions in China (those films include People’s Park , Yumen , and The Iron Ministry ). Sniadecki’s latest film, El Mar La Mar , which is co-directed by Joshua Bonnetta, instead documents a setting on the American border. The new film primarily displays landscape footage of the Sonoran desert, while the audio track features interviews with numerous figures that have experienced the location firsthand—including immigrants who had just crossed the border, as well as some patrolmen who consider it their job to stop them. I spoke to Sniadecki following a screening of El Mar La Mar at the Camden International Film Festival. The film also screened at the Harvard Film Archive last weekend, with both of its directors present.
Your name has always been linked to the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, even with regards to films made long after you left the university. At today’s Q&A, the moderator suggested that your early work helped to set a template for the films produced by SEL students. And in their own notes on El Mar La Mar, the Harvard Film Archive suggests that it “emerges from the ethos of the SEL”. I was hoping you could tell me about your relationship to the group, and whether it’s something that continues in any way.
J.P. SNIADECKI: When I arrived at Harvard as a graduate student from the midwest in 2005 and 2006, that was when Lucien [Castaing-Taylor] was just starting the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Myself and a number of other graduate students—like Stephanie Spray, Toby Lee, and Diana Allen—were a part of that first core group [of the SEL]. It really started off as just a humble set of computers and cameras, and a lot of desire to experiment, to play, to be polemical … we were kind of wonderfully naive, in some ways, about what would be possible at the intersection of contemporary art, anthropology, and nonfiction film.
Well, I don’t know that any of us were really cinephiles, in that sense. A lot of us had been in an academic mode. And I think being able to just go and make something with these very humble but quite versatile tools was really exciting. Any act of creativity, any act of expression, any act of following the world in this way, [where you’re] letting the world indelibly print itself upon you, and the film, was exciting for us.
So it started off as a core group of people. SEL existed as a class, but also as a set of equipment, and as a group of people who collaborated and critiqued each other’s work. Verena [Paravel] and I made a film together (Foreign Parts ), Lucien and Verena made a film together (Leviathan ), I made a film with Libbie [Dina Cohn] (People’s Park), Tobe made a film with Ernst [Karel] and Pawel [Wojtasik] (Single Stream ) … so these kinds of collaborations were going on. I think the class is still being taught. And I still think of Lucien and Verena and Stephanie and Ernst and Toby and Diana as my colleagues and my interlocutors, although we don’t have as much time to spend together anymore.
So while your work is often characterized as still being connected to the SEL, that’s only true in an indirect sense.
Yeah, none of my recent films come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, that’s right. Earlier, I think that was the right context [for discussing the films], in terms of equipment and support. But all of us have our own particular aesthetics and approaches. And I’ve been graduated from Harvard for the past four or five years. The SEL … some people think it’s a really important movement in documentary filmmaking. That’s not for me to judge. Of course I value my time there, and I value my colleagues, but it’s not what it was in 2006 through 2010. That’s when we were really together, and bouncing ideas off one another. I don’t know what’s happening with SEL now … so it is strange to have a film premiere at the Berlinale, then have some writer say, “this is the newest film from the Sensory Ethnography Lab”, or to hear Joshua Bonnetta referred to as the newest member of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, when he’s never even been to Massachusetts.
On the subject of your particular aesthetic, I was immediately reminded of The Iron Ministry by the opening section of El Mar La Mar. Both films begin by taking physical textures and making them abstract, in a way that almost serves as an overture. In Ministry, we start by looking at the contours of a train in extreme close-up, while in El Mar La Mar, we begin by looking at a blurred rush of trees and wildlife as seen from a moving perspective.
I thought about [that scene in] The Iron Ministry as an overture in the classical sense, as something that would prime us for the film. The only thing it’s lacking is a shot of, you know, an ocean cliff being hit by waves or something. So these abstractions are perhaps a way to inaugurate the film and the viewer into a particular kind of relationship. To defamiliarized and disorient you, so that you can reorient yourself through your perceptual apparatus, and through your sensorium. You’re thrown into a space that you’re not able to decipher right away, but that makes you even more sensitive, and even more actively engaged in the film. So perhaps they are ways to set the tone for how I’d like people to come at these films—which is moving towards them, leaning into them, and being actively involved in discerning geography and space and time, but also in discerning meaning and significance.
After today’s screening, while talking about the rhythm of El Mar La Mar, you used the word “ruptures”. In the film, we have these tranquil moments of landscape photography, which are then interrupted—either on the soundtrack, or in the frame itself—by something loud, or something jarring, or something abstract. And the film seems to move back and forth between that.
Well there’s different ways to talk about rupture and dynamic range—first within the [editing] rhythm, and then within the overall sonic tone of the piece. I think that we have particular biorhythms that a lot of our aesthetic experience is based upon: the building of tension, and then the release. A lot of our experience of the world, both as biological beings and as aesthetic beings, comes from these particular biorhythms. So the film is playing with this development of tension: whether it be a crescendo of sound leading to a hard cut that creates a vacuum, or a particular kind of texture, or a unresolved note that pokes at you for awhile before it finds its resolution … I’m also really influenced by music, and by “loud quiet loud”, if we can quote the Pixies—by that kind of punchy dynamic range that came about from the late 80s and early 90s approach. And I think that’s true across all of art making—first the development of a particular kind of tension, then having that be counterpointed by a binary contrast like silence.
But we didn’t really necessarily think that the film was going to operate this way. We shot the film by spending a lot of time in the desert: hiking on the trails, carrying water, getting to know people, drinking in bars, sticking contact microphones inside of cacti, and on barbed-wire fences … it was only in the editing that we started putting things together. I don’t know if it’s just how Josh and I are predisposed, but we found places for these dynamics to be really effective, which allowed them to be in the film. So it wasn’t predetermined.
El Mar La Mar is structured around interviews you conducted about people’s experiences of the Sonoran desert, and those interviews are heard but not seen. It is clearly apparent that a significant amount of research was done for this film—but that research, beyond the content of the interviews, doesn’t seem to be represented within the film itself. Could you tell me about how you researched this project, and then, how that research did or did not influence the film’s actual shape?
We started off wanting to make a different film. And we ended up driving from New Orleans, where we were working on this other project. I had to go to a residency in San Francisco, at Headlands [Center for the Arts], so we’re heading west. As we were moving across Texas—through Marfa and whatnot—we got close to the border, and saw border patrol. And we’re in the desert, in west Texas, so the topography changed. It started to pull us in, like a tractor beam. We’re a yankee and a Canadian—I’d never spent that much time near the border before. So we started driving along the border of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. And we really became intrigued by that whole ecology—by the biology and the botany, but also by the political and cultural ecology that’s going on there. We started looking at the first 16mm footage that we shot as we got it back from the lab, and that footage really drew us in, just as the experience of being there had really drew us in. A lot of my films come from a response to a place. We didn’t go seeking for a film about the border, or about the borderlands, or about the desert, or about walls. It found us.
So you just happened to have 16mm materials on hand during this drive, and then the footage shot with those materials defined the project?
Well, we had decided to shoot 16mm together because we wanted to craft and compose together. And I had 16mm stock in my fridge. So we started on this other project, which was about Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, and us [J.P. and Josh] following in their footsteps. That’s why we had the materials in our camera, and in our cans, and in my car. We didn’t see the landscape and say, “this has to be 16mm”—it just happened to coincide with [the other project]. We did shoot video footage while we were down there as well, and we thought about a mixed-media approach, but in the end we decided to just stay with the 16mm stuff.
For me the shooting format was very pronounced in the experience of watching the film. For example, the white film specks that sometimes resemble the flashlights we see roaming in the distance of the desert. Or similarly, in the film’s third and last chapter, “Tormenta”, where a storm is filmed in black-and-white, and the grain of the film image seems to become part of the storm itself. I felt like this would be an entirely different movie had it been shot on a digital video format, even if all the compositions remained the same.
And I think that in addition to what you’re talking about, one could make the classic argument that the indexical quality of 16mm… that it’s a photochemical process, an imprint of light reflecting off a living breathing thing, onto another physical material… that has this interesting resonance with the materials that are left behind in the desert.
About the research … when we decided to continue making [this project], we went back multiple times. And we connected with an amazing anthropologist named Jason de Leon, who wrote a book called The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, an ethnography of the Sonoran desert about “prevention through deterrence”, which is this policy of funneling undocumented border-crossers into the most dangerous and rugged terrain, to sort-of outsource… basically, capital punishment, or state violence… to outsource it to the natural landscape. To make [state violence] seem like a consequence of nature, rather than actual policy. That’s connected with the title of the film—there are a lot of reasons why it’s called El Mar La Mar, which we can get to. But one reason is that we were cognizant of another natural feature that has been the graveyard of economic refugees, which is the Mediterranean. Both the Sonoran and the Mediterranean are convenient alibis for particular kinds of practices by states, both in Europe and in the North American region. So we connected with him.
We went down to Arivaca [AZ], where he had done a lot of his field work, and we met people there. We hiked with Tucson samaritans, brought water and supplies into Sonora, talked at migrant shelters, interviewed people in Chicago and Arizona and Colorado… and we did a lot of walking around the desert together. So our research was both digging from afar and connecting with people, but also walking the same trails that other people have walked. And not only spending time on those trails, but also just in the desert, finding regions and areas that were fascinating to us for whatever reason—geographically, or botanically, or politically.
The potential designation of El Mar La Mar as a “political film” is something I want to talk about. The Harvard Film Archive, for instance, has programmed it within a “Cinema of Resistance” series. And I can see why that is. That’s not an incorrect designation. But my own experience of watching your movie was not defined by ideology.
What was your experience?
It had to do with the aural and visual textures, more than anything. And the physical reactions I had to the contrasts therein. It’s probably wrong of me to project that onto your film—that’s maybe just representative of how I experience movies in general. But I am interested in the gap between the politics that we as viewers can perceive that you the filmmaker might hold, versus what’s actually represented there in the frame. Am I wrong to perceive that gap?
Yeah, not everything is in the frame, and that’s intentional. The ideal scenario is one where you bring a lot of your own interpretive work and your own phenomenological experience to the film, rather than it all being there in the frame for you to consume.
Given that, are there certain things you have to elide? So as to not show your hand?
I think we did make decisions where we’d remove context, or something that might be too forceful in its interpretive thrust, or its meaning. If something would be reductive, we’d try to avoid it. We wanted to maintain a film that wasn’t random, but that was open—open-ended, open to access, and open to interpretation. And that wasn’t trying to give the illusion of complete immersion in the desert. I was just talking to Eric Hynes about it, and I’m glad that he felt this: that the film “puts you there” at times, and does give you something of the Sonoran desert—its textures, its rhythms—but it also pulls you out, and never tries to give the illusion of “now you’re hiking through the desert,” or “now you’re spending all day and night with a migrant.”
There’s a sequence that, during the Q&A, you referred to as “the psycho-desert scene”. [It’s composed much closer-up than the rest of the film, more viscerally, and features sound design to match.] That was meaningful to me in this specific regard—I could feel something like a temporal shift happening. The shots in El Mar La Mar typically suggest a perspective that is, as you say, from the outside looking in. But in the “psycho-desert”, we really are right there.
But then immediately after that, you’re yanked out, to [a scene in complete darkness, where our only vision is from a wandering flashlight], with the sounds of a jeep and a radio. And you’re kind of in the perspective of the border patrol. The film is always from [the filmmaker’s] point-of-view, but we’re trying to elicit other kinds of experiences that make up this complex and crazy borderlands area. Some people might find that politically or morally reprehensible—that we include a moment that can be read as “looking through the flashlight of the border patrol” … but we’re trying to create a panoply. We wanted to get at the personal and textural experiences that people have had. We don’t tell you who these people are, we don’t give you their identity, we don’t give you their backstory, and yet you pick up a whole images and experiences from them.
When we first started doing the interviews, and setting them against black frames, we were interested in … what would it be like to have a film where you sit in the darkness and listen to someone? You’re in the dark, attending to voice and ambient sound—what would that be like? What kind of image track is generated within the mind of the viewer as these things are going on? We were interested in creating a chorus of … the kinds of violence that ripples into the everyday, that ripples into the lives of people in this space.
The interviews that do play out during black frames occur at intervals. And they’re part of the way the film’s rhythm transitions between tranquility and noise—with those frames being the most tranquil the film’s visuals ever get. How did you find the place for them in the film’s editing structure?
That came in after shooting, in post-production and editing. When we first started cutting, it moved too much like reportage, or like a “documentary”. And we didn’t want that. We wanted something more arresting, provocative, and destabilizing. The black frames [throughout all three chapters of the film] are actually not black frames—we’re shooting a thunderstorm, so that’s black-and-white footage of a thunderstorm, but you’re only seeing faint lightning bolts here and there. They’re very hard to see. But I think it works to create this insistence on attention to subtleties—subtleties like the shots of the mountains where you eventually realize that there’s a little figure walking through this space. I think those black intervals help us orient ourselves as viewers for that kind of film experience.
Once we started to do that, it opened up an idea of distribution and pacing. We tried to create a structure of loose intervals, knowing that we wanted to begin with the story of the Arivaca monster. Which is a story that’s actually been written about in the Arivaca Newsletter, and is told by this young man who was in the dumpsters looking for goodies and treasure among the refuse. We felt that set a particular kind of tone—of darkness, foreboding, the unknown…
And the mythic.
And the mythic, exactly. Tapping into the earlier history of the area.
I was just about to say that I’m remiss to have not yet mentioned westerns, as a film genre. Which is not directly connected to this film, of course…
Except for Johnny Guitar !
That’s right! [Score music from Johnny Guitar is played over one segment of El Mar La Mar.]
Johnny Guitar was shot in the Sonoran desert.
So the engagement with that cinematic history is direct.
The engagement with that cinematic history, and also the engagement with the avant-garde … with references to Bruce Baillie, Valentin de las Sierras , Peter Hutton, James Benning, Chick Strand … all of this is going on in the film, because those are our main references, and our main inspirations.
Since you mentioned it, let’s talk about the title.
El Mar La Mar means “the sea the sea” in Spanish, both masculine and feminine constructions. And the desert, for us, is like the sea, or like being lost at sea. You talk about signal and noise—it’s all noise, until you see a sign. Which is why we’re really interested in how people read and navigate the landscape. The undocumented people from Honduras, Guatemala, all over Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador … they’re not from the desert, just as we’re not from the desert. So for us, we’re all outsiders, and it’s like being lost at sea. And the treacherous and fatal possibilities of being lost at sea are all implied as well. Like I mentioned, while we were making the film, we were also very aware of the Mediterranean. And aware of how all these economic refugees are dying in the Mediterranean—just like economic refugees are dying in the desert. So there’s an echo or an association with “the sea” in that.
But also, El Mar La Mar, in bringing up the masculine and the feminine, raises questions about dichotomous ways of thinking: questions about binaries like masculine/feminine, good/bad, or north/south. In bringing that to the foreground, I think our film hopes to upset those dichotomies. When you draw a line in the sand—when you draw a border—you’re creating north/south, or east/west, or this side/that side. We wanted to flatten those boundaries out. We wanted to explore the borderlands as a space beyond those distinctions. Any kind of dichotomous thinking creates separations or reductions. And we wanted this film to be as complex and as open as was possible.