“Why Did You Bring Me Here?”: The Films of the Sensory Ethnography Lab

by Michael Sicinski

Michael Sicinski is a writer whose criticism is regularly published in Cargo, Cinema Scope, and Cineaste. He also teaches in the English and Art departments at the University of Houston.

Previous Sensory Ethnography Lab works SWEETGRASS, YUMEN and LEVIATHAN screened at past editions of the Forum and Forum Expanded. LAGO, EL MAR LA MAR and SOMNILOQUIES are all showing in this year’s programme.

SOMNILOQUIES by Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

SOMNILOQUIES is a film produced by two people known for their documentary work. In fact, they have collaborated before on one of the decade’s most well regarded, if controversial, documentary films. So, based on that context alone, we would approach SOMNILOQUIES as another documentary. But is it? The film is based on found audio of one Dion McGregor (1922–1994), a man whom science has dubbed “the world’s most prolific sleep talker”. Without this knowledge, the recordings would sound exactly like any other raving lunatic. McGregor variously speaks about a place called “Midget City”; getting cut open from his trachea to his crotch (“vivid-section”); a woman getting her vagina ripped open by giants; an exhibitionist neighbor named Mrs. Dangerfield; and something called the “Friday Fuck Wagon”. 

In tandem with these strange thoughts, the filmmakers show us ambiguous, soft-focus bodies writhing in slow motion, high-key white figures against a black background. In time we realize that these figures in close-up are in repose, sleeping. But they are abstracted through camera position and chiaroscuro, so we never know immediately just what we’re looking at. Woman or man? Elbow or breast? Head or buttock? This visual treatment very much resembles certain films by the French avant-gardist Philippe Grandrieux, especially his painterly, non-narrative works “White Epilepsy”(2012) and “Meurtrière” (2015). In other words, the connection between the McGregor tapes and the original images is metaphorical at best.

Is this documentary?

The Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), established in 2006, has been changing not only the very concept of ethnographic film, but documentary more broadly conceived. As avant-garde film scholar Scott MacDonald has observed in his study of the SEL, part of the radical shift in the Lab’s approach to anthropological film came not only from an adoption of certain techniques from experimental cinema. The men and women of the SEL also chose to pursue certain lines of inquiry within ethnographic film itself, ones that had previously been seen as unproductive. The work of Robert Gardner in particular serves as a touchstone for the ideas the SEL aims to embody in their films.

As MacDonald puts it, these ethnographic filmmakers aim to “record … at least some of the sensory elements of culture ... evoking the complex, multifaceted experience of being present within that culture” (Avant-Doc”, p. 374). This is in direct contrast, of course, to traditional modes of ethnographic cinema, starting with Flaherty, which adopt an expository mode and presume a basic transparency of representation. In terms of this problem of the depiction of cultural “Others”, we have seen avant-gardists explore the question in ways that relate to the SEL’s practice to varying degrees. The films of Trinh T. Minh-ha, Robert Fenz, Chantal Akerman, and Mark LaPore come to mind.

But the SEL is probably the first collective effort to formulate a new approach to ethnographic practice. This collectivity helps define the SEL, and we can see this in the various pairings and groups who come together for each new production. EL MAR LA MARis a collaboration between SEL veteran J.P. Sniadecki and a newcomer to the group, Joshua Bonnetta. On the other hand, SOMNILOQUIES is co-directed by two of the most prominent members of the Harvard group, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. Over the past ten years or so, Castaing-Taylor, Paravel, and Sniadecki have emerged as the foremost film artists associated with the Harvard Lab, although others, like Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, co-directors of the Nepalese study “Manakamana”,have made SEL-associated films have gained significant critical attention.

But if one single film announced the arrival of the SEL, it was 2009’s SWEETGRASS(Castaing-Taylor, co-directed by Ilisa Barbash). A poetic invocation of the workaday lives of contemporary shepherds in rural Montana, SWEETGRASS departs from most of the rules of good anthropology, and even good cinema. Foregoing explanatory narration, Castaing-Taylor and Barbash choose instead to enter the flock, observing the world of these cowboy-shepherds from down below. The dominant sound throughout SWEETGRASS is the clanging of the cowbells hung around the sheep’s necks, along with the rush of a nearby stream. Over time it becomes maddening, but it is necessary to enter the shared lifeworld of the cowboys and sheep, to understand the symbiosis that allows them all to partake in a ritualized existence. 

Shortly after the success of SWEETGRASS, Castaing-Taylor began working with Paravel. Together they are the filmmakers behind what is to date the SEL’s best-known film, LEVIATHAN(2012), an intensely tactile, immersive portrait of the process of commercial fishing. Part of the extreme intimacy of LEVIATHANwas the result of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s use of GoPro cameras, then a brand new tool. With its extreme close-ups, rapid shifts of viewpoint, and frank examination of aquatic viscera, LEVIATHAN owed as much to Brakhage’s “The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes” (1971) as it did to earlier seafaring documents of the industry, such as John Grierson’s classic “Granton Trawler” (1934). Despite the significant achievement of SWEETGRASS, LEVIATHAN was the film that announced the SEL to the world as a major creative force.

Sniadecki has directed or co-directed several of the best-known of the SEL documentaries, including “Foreign Parts” (2010, with Paravel), a study of gentrification in Queens; “People’s Park”(2012, with Libbie Dina Cohn), an examination of goings-on in an urban Chinese park, conducted in a single take; YUMEN(2013, with Huang Xiang and Xu Routao), an anthropological study of an abandoned Chinese oil town; and most recently “The Iron Ministry” (2014), an impressionistic view of central China from the perspective of passengers on a cross-country train.

Bonnetta, for his part, has worked primarily in experimental film. His two key works thus far have been “American Colour” (2011), a study of the properties of Kodachrome in tandem with the particular color temperatures of the U.S. landscape; and STRANGE LINES AND DISTANCES(2012), a two-screen work that juxtaposes abstractly related views of the natural world, often through graphic rhymes, sympathies of shape or movement, or complementary visual tone. Both of these films feature soundtracks notable for their electronic density and unique timbres, befitting his dual identity as a sound artist as well as an avant-garde filmmaker.

In fact, Bonnetta is presenting a sound-based art installation in Berlin, in tandem with the world premiere of EL MAR LA MAR. The exhibition, part of Forum Expanded, is called LAGO and is appearing at the Marshall McLuhan Salon of the Embassy of Canada. The work is organized around a two-part audio piece Bonnetta composed using field recordings taken in and around the Salton Sea in California. In addition to taking audio samples of the various flora and fauna, emitting sounds as they echo and reverberate through the atmosphere. But in addition, Bonnetta conducted an interview with a man who lives in close proximity to the Salton Sea, an odiferous and somewhat toxic area that has nevertheless exerted a hold on the popular imagination. He speaks of losing all his possessions and several beloved pets in a house fire.

We hear other people as well, but only in the background, speaking Spanglish and moving about, part of the overall landscape. Bonnetta uses these sound collages to generate an overall texture of an inhabited desertscape – a zone of brushfires, clanging metal fence posts, and the occasional voice in the distance. The visual element of LAGO shows us this hypothetical subject who wanders through this desolate space, and serves as a rather direct link between this previous work and Bonnetta’s contributions to EL MAR LA MAR. Titled “Land of Thin Air”, the video shows a figure crossing the stretch of desert after dusk, traversing the screen from left to right. In the midnight blue, we see a hill in the distance, and a dozen or so tufts of dry brush. As the man crosses this field, the white light of his lantern is a tiny white dot not much bigger than a pixel. It bisects the screen at its exact midpoint.

We do not see very many people crossing the desert in EL MAR LA MAR. This is by design, of course. Bonnetta and Sniadecki are working to protect the identities of those who have taken the great risk of entering the United States without proper documentation. But we do see a few such figures, their features obscured by camera angle or relative distance, so that we understand them to be bodies in transit, belonging to individuals, but with their individual identities hidden from authorities. One such image occurs at the 68-minute mark of EL MAR LA MAR, and rhymes almost exactly with the single-shot construction of “Land of Thin Air”.

SWEETGRASS by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash had its world premiere
at the 2009 Forum

Across a flat desert landscape at sunset, we see a person silhouetted against the sky, crossing from the left side of the screen to the right. In this context, we can safely assume that this person is negotiating some portion of the treacherous Sonoran Desert, quite possibly struggling to survive. 

But most of EL MAR LA MAR is not even as direct as this. The film is a fragmented, multi-perspectival examination of the Sonoran Desert as a contested space, a place where lives are risked and lost and multiple interests struggle for various forms of dignity and control. As with other SEL documentaries such as YUMEN and SWEETGRASS, this is a spatial study, a work of anthropological cinema operating on the assumption that intersecting forces define the border as a comprehensible space, by dint of their needs and actions. To borrow a phrase from Swiss filmmaker Ursula Biemann, EL MAR LA MAR shows how social actors “perform the border”, but in circumstances not of their choosing.

The first part of EL MAR LA MAR, called “Rio”, is in some respects the most pointed part of the film, although it is also sufficiently abstract that, if a viewer did not know what the film was about, they might not immediately recognize that they were seeing. (I confess having fallen into this category on first viewing.) In wavering, unstable focus, the frame is filled with green trees and rusty fence posts. The posts are tall and thin, installed at strict intervals, and the camera depicts them moving quickly from right to left, photographed from a speeding car. This produces a flicker effect, as if we’re seeing the landscape through an old optical toy such as a phenakistoscope. As the shot goes on, the road veers away from and back toward the fence, and we get a clearer look at this barrier. We can tell from context that it is a fence planted along the Rio Grande, and the scene is being shot from a border town road, most likely in Arizona.

It seems fairly pointed for Bonnetta and Sniadecki to begin their film in this manner, especially since the river will not feature heavily in EL MAR LA MAR. This is a project that the filmmakers have been working on for over two years, but they have completed it in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in the U.S.. So everything we see in the remaining 90 minutes will be explicitly within the context of the supposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the centerpiece of Trump’s campaign and the key symbol of his isolationist foreign policy.

How terrible are things on the border right now, without (in former Mexican President Vicente Fox’s words) “that f*cking wall”? Much of the central section of EL MAR LA MAR, “Costas”, consists of still shots of various objects lost along the way from Mexico to the U.S.. The desert is shown to be a symbolic graveyard, a kind of museum in which otherwise random items memorialize the journeys taken and the lives undoubtedly lost. We see water bottles, jackets, jeans, eyeglasses, cellphones, and towards the end of Part 2, lost IDs. Each of these objects corresponds to a person, but how do Sniadecki and Bonnetta literalize these synecdoches?

At the start of Part 2, we follow a person as they navigate through the dark with a homemade torch. Almost all we see is a hand, a rolled-up piece of what looks like burning leather, and an undulating flame. Later, we follow a man from behind as he negotiates that same desert in equally pitch-black conditions. But as he bobs in and out of the night-vision of the filmmakers’ camera, we notice his camouflage outfit and, finally, his rifle. Within the first fifteen minutes of EL MAR LA MAR, the filmmakers have laid out the fundamental conflict of both the film and the situation that it documents.

Bonnetta and Sniadecki are clearly on the side of the immigrants, as they ought to be. These are the people who are risking their lives for opportunities that some have only through an accident of birth (to say nothing of America’s systematic role in the immiseration of the Two-Thirds World). However EL MAR LA MAR gives voice to border patrol agents as well; they are depicted with respect and even-handedness. Some of them express compassion for the people they are charged with capturing, while others see it as a kind of cat-and-mouse game. “They’re trying to avoid you”, says one man, “and you can see ‘em”. He seems to delight in the immigrants’ failure to evade U.S. Homeland Security’s high-tech surveillance equipment and firepower.

Within the context of this battle, Bonnetta and Sniadecki show us scenes that would otherwise be benign, or would hold their own aesthetic interest. We are given the chance to observe the landscape of the Southwest, with its pink and purple sunsets, low hills and mesas, and unique desert flora. Making the most of low-light exposures and the thick grain of 16mm film, the directors articulate the Sonoran Desert as a vast expanse that nevertheless produces flat, painterly visual spaces, the sort that Georgia O’Keeffe popularized. These scenes, together with long takes of trains, skies, and the movement of water, suggest the influence of James Benning, another filmmaker devoted to making the social and political dimensions of the American landscape visible through broader context.

In fact, the final section of EL MAR LA MAR strikes me as the moment where the film makes its most direct contact with the vernacular of the avant-garde. We see four shots of the empty landscape, this time in black and white. The film grain is dense and swirling and we can see that a storm is brewing here in the desert. A sudden turn to the poetic following what has thus far been a very direct, materialist film, Part 3 is accompanied on the soundtrack by a reading that consists of portions of various poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Sor Juana, the great Mexican Baroque poet, is represented in EL MAR LA MAR by lines that suggest both the crisis of a contested landscape and the human tragedy of cultural misunderstanding:

“A landscape still unknown
Where night may fall while day is at the noon
in the quietude
of this silent kingdom
only muted voices could be heard
These two artificial mountains
Sorrowful signs of which today
are the many tongues that weaken
the peace among people”

Toward the end of the recitation, we hear lines that seem to speak directly to the experience of those crossing the Sonoran Desert:

“The sun-worn traveler
dazed and footsore
no intimation
no sign, of grace shade or shadow”

Although they end their film with the poem by Sor Juana, Bonnetta and Sniadecki take the title of their film from another poet, the Spaniard Rafael Alberti. “El Mar, La Mar” is the first line of his “Song”, a short work in which the speaker laments to his father the fact of having left his beloved sea for the city. “Father,” the final stanza pleads, “why did you bring me here?”

Although EL MAR LA MAR makes no extra-titular reference to Alberti’s poem, it haunts the film like a secondary question, one that’s maybe impossible to ask. Men, women, and children risk their lives every single day to make it to the United States. Once here, they are liable to be exploited, discriminated against, shunted into substandard housing, and now, under President Trump, constantly threatened with arrest, deportation, and separation from family members. So once these brave people have survived the journey, what awaits them? The child of an immigrant might reasonably pose Alberti’s question to their father or mother, and find their answer wanting. What happens then? It is entirely in keeping with the openness of EL MAR LA MAR, and the gestural, non-expository impulse of the SEL, that the film’s primary question should remain one that is, strictly speaking, outside the reach of its own running time. It’s a question to which only the future can attend.

EL MAR LA MAR by Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki