El Mar La Mar (The Cinema Guild, NR)

El Mar La Mar (The Cinema Guild, NR)

P eople who don’t like art house movies often charge that they court obscurity for its own sake, denying the audience traditional cinematic pleasures like story and character while offering little or nothing in their place. You may find no better example of a film that could be cited as exhibit A for this charge than El Mar La Mar, a documentary directed by Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki about the Sonoran Desert and the relationships various people have with it. Some live on or near it, some work there, and some are trying to cross it to enter the United States without going through the usual procedures and checkpoints.

I just gave you more exposition that you will find in this entire film, so if you’re looking for a traditional documentary with a clear narrative, this is not the film for you. On the other hand, if you’re up for something more experimental, that is willing to observe patiently and unobtrusively, and which is more interested in collecting and juxtaposing different elements (auditory as well as visual) than it is in constructing a traditional film, then you will probably enjoy this film. While the desert may appear as an obstacle to those wishing to cross it, and a wasteland to those only interested in land that can be exploited for economic purposes, it can certainly be beautiful if you’re willing to accept it on its own terms. Of course, everything you see on screen is there because the filmmakers chose for it to be: the act of filming, to say nothing of editing, is never neutral, although it may come off that way on screen.

Given the current state of our southern border crossings, El Mar La Mar has a certain timeliness about it—in particular, if you think people try to cross the border illegally on a whim, this film should disabuse you of that notion. But it’s not an issues documentary, although it’s clear where the filmmakers’ sympathies lie, and it certainly does not offer a straightforward introduction to issues of immigration control and what our responsibilities might be toward those born outside the United States.

El Mar La Mar scooped up several awards, including the Caligari Film Prize and a Special Mention from the Ecumenical Jury at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival, so it’s clearly registering on some people. I have to admit that I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it, mainly because the truly interesting sections are too few and far between to justify the time it takes to view it (to put it another way, I don’t find the directors’ collection of materials, or the ways they have assembled them, to be all that special). But if you’re a fan of the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard (where Sniadecki studied) or are just up for an immersive film experience, this may be just the film for you. | Sarah Boslaugh

El Mar La Mar will be screened at 7:30 pm on July 13, 14, and 15 in Winifred Moore Auditorium (470 E. Lockwood Ave, St. Louis, 63119) on the Webster campus. Tickets are $7 for the general public, $6 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $5 for Webster University staff and faculty, and free for Webster students with ID.

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