EL MAR LA MAR
El Mar La Mar (Joshua Bonnetta/J. P. Sniadecki, 2017, USA, 94 min, Digital)
Joshua Bonnetta in attendance!
Produced along the increasingly fraught and militarized border between Mexico and the United States of America, Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar is an immersive portrayal of a landscape more often debated and imagined than seen or heard.
Shot on grainy Super 16mm, here the largely depopulated Sonoran Desert is seen to be at once vast, calm, disorienting, and eerie, with visual traces of the treacherous crossing undertaken by countless groups and individuals augmented by oral testimonials from both travellers and American locals.
A refined wedding of the two artists’ distinct practices, including Sniadecki’s association with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and Bonnetta’s work in both experimental film and sound art, El Mar La Mar is a film that reveals while testing the limits of the senses and documentary form.
Friday 15 March 2019
Doors 6:30 PM | Screening 7:00 PM
$7 General Admission | $5 Students
Jackman Hall (317 Dundas St W.) - McCaul Street Entrance
Joshua Bonnetta (b.1979) is a Canadian artist and filmmaker who works primarily in analogue film across installation, performance, and theatrical exhibition. His film works have been exhibited at the MOMA NYC, ICA London, BFI London Film Festival, Whitechapel Gallery, Berlin Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival, AFI amongst various other festivals, museums and galleries throughout the world.
J.P. Sniadecki, assistant professor of radio/television/film, is a filmmaker and anthropologist active in China and the United States. whose work explores collective experience, sensory ethnography, and the possibilities of cinema. His films are in the permanent collections of New York's Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and have screened at festivals such as the Berlinale, Locarno, New York, AFI, Edinburgh, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Viennale, Torino, BAFICI, RIDM, Cinema du Reel, FICUNAM, and Beijing Independent Film Festival, as well as at venues such as the 2014 Whitney Biennale, the 2014 Shanghai Biennale, the Guggenheim, Vienna’s MAC, Beijing’s UCCA, and the Shenzhen Biennale. Coorganizer of the traveling film series “Cinema on the Edge" and "China Now," which showcase new cinema from China, he has written articles and interviews about Chinese independent filmmaker for Cinema Scope and contributed essays to Visual Anthropology Review and the edited volume DV-Made China (Hawaii University Press).
Tess Takahashi is a Toronto-based scholar, writer, and programmer who focuses on experimental moving image arts. She is currently working on two books, Impure Film: Medium Specificity and the North American Avant-Garde (1968-2008), which examines artists' work with historically new media, and Magnitude, which considers artists' work against the backdrop of Big Data and data visualization. She is a member of the experimental media programming collective Ad Hoc and the editorial collective for Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media.
El mar La mar
El mar. La mar.
El mar. ¡Sólo la mar!
¿Por qué me trajiste, padre,
a la ciudad?
¿Por qué me desenterraste
En sueños, la marejada
me tira del corazón.
Se lo quisiera llevar.
Padre, ¿por qué me trajiste
- Rafael Alberti
The sea, The sea
The sea. The sea.
The sea. Only the sea!
Why did you bring me, father,
to the city?
Why did you dig up
to the sea?
In slumber, the swell
yanks my heart.
It would like to take it away.
Father, why did you bring me
Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki's El Mar La Mar
By Tess Takahashi
Vertical Features brings Josh Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar (2017) to Toronto mere weeks after Trump’s declaration of a “national emergency” at the Mexico-U.S. border. El Mar La Mar defines the real emergency.
The opening act of El Mar La Mar, translated as The Sea, the Sea, plunges us into the borderlands of the Sonoran Desert with a heart-pounding rush of long green grass and dark posts. The first of three acts, “Rio” speeds us along the partial border wall in close up, with a long take of throbbing vertical flashes. The Rio Grande, of course, is the river whose natural boundary comprises much of the border between Mexico and the United States. This pulsing “wall” of metal posts forms an extension of that river border. “Rio” thus at once orients us to this space of separation and disorients us.
“Costas,” the middle and longest act, drops us into the sea of the desert, a space without clearly defined boundaries, whose magnitude can feel endless and unnavigable to all but the most seasoned traveler. Translatable as both “Coasts” and “Costs” in English, this section clearly evokes the human consequences of U.S. border policy. While an experimental documentary with ties to the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, this “film plays out like a horror movie,” as Jordan Cronk writes. Throughout we hear stories, sometimes over a black screen sliced by the artifacts of hand-processing, sometimes over a shimmering desert horizon. These include a confrontation with a 15-foot monster that inhabits the desert, a young shivering man who appears at dawn out of the darkness, a man with red teeth found wandering in a circle for seven days, and an encounter with the body of a young woman, face-down and still clutching her water bottle. We hear weeping men tell of having to leave friends, old men, women, and children in the desert when they could no longer walk. We hear that this is a place where everything is trying to hurt you, where there is no shelter from the sun, where the bugs, plants, snakes, and lizards are all poisonous, where coyotes and cougars will eat you if given a chance. Here, the factual intersects with legends and uncertainties. While we never see the bodies of the people who traverse the desert, we do see the material remains of their passing; we see footprints in soft brown dirt, abandoned shoes, a tangle of red, white, and blue clothing, faded backpacks, ID cards, pink rosaries, and once-green water bottles bleached by the sun. When we do see faces, they are never synched with the tales we hear. This makes the stories specific to their tellers, even as they become emblematic of a host of stories still untold. They are like grains of sand in an endless desert, or drops of water on an endless sea.
This middle section imparts knowledge to its viewer in a series of waves and ruptures of information, surging across the intricately juxtaposed audio and video tracks of the film. Like the backwards and forwards movement of ocean waves, what we hear informs what we have just seen, and what we see forces us to reflect on what we’ve just heard. This organization only becomes clear to the viewer at the halfway point of “Costas,” in much the way that a structural film gradually teaches its viewer how to read it. Here, the sound-image relationships variously create anticipation, dread, suspense, and shock. As Cath Clarke writes, the filmmakers “put microphones inside cacti and on barbed wire fences to create the soundtrack, a buzzy wonder of sounds.” We hear a complex mix of crickets, bats, wind, the whining crackle of radio static, a raging fire, footsteps, sudden downpours, and babbling water that lets us drift until a crack of thunder crashes over us. We are carried back and forth, making sudden connections between a new piece of information and a seemingly ordinary image or faint sound that floated past us mere minutes ago.
After the colourful images and rush of sounds that characterize the first parts of the film, El Mar La Mar’s final act, “Tormenta,” unfolds in four long, slow, grainy black-and-white shots of an almost unworldly landscape. The dark heft of a mountain faces off with the strange geometry of a white cloud. Here matter meets the ephemeral. The medium of film meets the ghost of its image. Knowledge meets uncertainty. We realize that despite the time we have spent there, this desert is, as we hear, “a landscape still unknown, yet certain.” On the soundtrack, a woman’s voice intones the words of “Primero Sueno,” (1692) written by the 17th century nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, urging us to reflect on all we have seen and heard. Despite the concrete banality of its horrors, the space and sound of the Sonoran desert escapes us in its physical and emotional magnitude. If “Tormenta” is “Storm” in Spanish, this section also evokes the wrenching torment of those who pass through it. As the film draws to a close, de la Cruz’s poem ends with an invocation for the viewer, expressing the hope that it may have functioned an “affirmation of light that left the world illuminated. And me awake.” El Mar La Mar leaves its viewer wide-awake.
 Cronk, Jordan. “El Mar La Mar Review: A Shape-Shifting Portrait of the US Desert Border, Cloaked in Dread | Sight & Sound.” British Film Institute, September 14, 2017. Link.
 Afficianados of the North American avant-garde will recognize the debt to the work of Hollis Frampton, particularly the tripartite structure of Zorns Lemma (1970) and the backwards reflection on what was just seen and heard in (nostalgia) (1971).
 Clarke, Cath. “El Mar La Mar Review – Haunting Images of Life on the US-Mexico Border.” The Guardian, August 2, 2018, sec. Film. Link.