Desert of the Real

Travis Jeppesen at the 67th Berlinale

Joshua Bonnetta and J. P. Sniadecki, El mar la mar, 2017, 16 mm, color, sound, 94 minutes.

THE DESERT IS A LIVING ENTITY, a beast that threatens to consume all trespassers. Many who attempt to cross it on the journey from Mexico to the United States fail, leaving a trail of corpses—if the victims don’t disappear altogether. El mar la mar, one of the few highlights so far of the Sixty-Seventh Berlin International Film Festival, takes us beyond rhetoric and to the place itself: that vast, shadowless landscape littered with the detritus of those who have braved its hostile climes.

El mar la mar was made by J. P. Sniadecki, who, together with Joshua Bonnetta (who also has a desert-themed installation, LAGO, in this year’s Berlinale), is doing more than just about any other young contemporary filmmaker to reconceive the documentary. The project is collaborative on every level: Sniadecki and Bonnetta worked together on the audio—a haunting collage of borderland soundscapes and interviews with inhabitants and migrants—and the wandering visuals. Captured on 16 mm, the grainy images project a distant past, yet the living testimonies of those who have witnessed the death and desperation—their voices often isolated in the resounding darkness of a black screen—demonstrate how burningly present the subject is. Ultimately, it is the cruel topography that emerges as the film’s protagonist. As one of the interviewees comments, “It’s amazing to see how everything out here has evolved to survive this environment. Everything out here can kill you: animals, plants, the sun. Even the insects are poisonous. Everything has its own built-in defense mechanism.”

The violence hinted at in El mar la mar is explored full-force in La liberdad del diablo (Devil’s Freedom), Everardo González’s collection of interviews with survivors and witnesses of the carnage generated by Mexico’s drug cartels, military, and police—as well as with some of the perpetrators themselves. All the interviewees wear the same flesh-colored mask to conceal their features as a protective measure against the very real threat of retaliation.

“Americans love their country,” noted the late Charles Bowden, America’s foremost chronicler of the past decade’s chaos on the Mexican border. “But they can’t seem to stand it unless they’re stoned out of their minds.” The violence, depicted through the words of those who have experienced it firsthand, can be attributed not only to the United States’ ravenous desire for drugs produced in Mexico but also to NAFTA, which has decimated the lives of Mexican factory workers and small farmers who can no longer make a decent living, producing a culture of poverty that has, in turn, engineered a generation ripe for recruitment by drug cartels. Trump’s idiotic rhetoric about the wall serves no higher purpose than to deny the US’s responsibility for the violence that has destroyed so many Mexican lives.

This week also saw the premiere of Tania Libre, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s record of Cuban dissident artist Tania Bruguera’s conversations with trauma specialist Dr. Frank Ochberg in his New York office, filmed shortly after her passport was returned following her detention and subsequent interrogation by Cuban state security forces.

For Bruguera fans who are already in on the backstory, the film’s most revealing moment is when Ochberg prompts Bruguera to talk about her father, who, it turns out, once occupied a prominent position in Fidel Castro’s government. But good documentary doesn’t rest merely on compelling subject matter. As Sniadecki knows, it’s how the medium is advanced in the process of conveying that subject. Unfortunately, Tania Libre might pass in a white-cube setting, but less so in the context of an international film festival. Its flaws in editing and direction would be easier to overlook were this year’s Berlinale not plagued with technical, organizational, and programming blunders. The best part of the screening was the Q&A, for which, thankfully, the fiercely intelligent Bruguera was present to counterbalance the embarrassingly disengaged festival moderator, whose comical struggle to put together a question actually at one point provoked laughter from the audience.

This would be unremarkable were it not symptomatic of so much of the moderation. Add to that a deep display of incompetence—at the premiere screening of Jang Woo-jin’s Autumn, Autumn, for which the entire crew traveled to Berlin from Seoul, a broken speaker distorted the sound throughout the film to the point of distraction—and a troubling picture begins to emerge. Berlin is already behind Cannes and Venice in terms of prominence, but unless the next Berlin International Film Festival receives an infusion of new blood, the “international” in its title might no longer refer to its audience.

The Sixty-Seventh International Filmfestspiele Berlin runs February 9 through 19.