Seen from the sky, the Imperial Valley and the Valle de Mexicali look like a quilt. Patches of different greens, yellows and browns stitched together into a large land-blanket that covers an irregular portion of the desert connecting Mexico and the United States. One way to understand these squares of earth is as swatches in a tapestry of industry, each square a lucrative plot of land that has made the Imperial Valley one of the top 5 producers of vegetables in the United States, and purveyor of 80% of the nation's wintertime produce. Framing the landscape of the Imperial Valley/Valle de Mexicali as a purely commercial and empirically pragmatic endeavor could inspire an excellent documentary about numerous topics related to farming, immigration, globalization, or the environment. El Field., a documentary by Daniel Rosas, Alejandro Davila and Derrick Sparrow--filmmakers from this region--is not that sort of documentary. Instead, "The contrast of desert and artificial green created by the human hand," as Rosas puts it, becomes both the subject and the teller of this bi-national story.
The film opens with the sounds of harvesters humming their way across a spinach field. Lights on the harvester are the only thing illuminating the early morning darkness for workers. Their voices, muffled by the clanking sound of the machine are the soundtrack to the majority of the film.
The little media attention that the Imperial Valley and Valle de Mexicali have received in recent years has focused largely on conflicts at the US/Mexican border as a result of immigration policies, the havoc the recession has wrought on the community and the politics of corporate farming and water. In contrast, El Field. dispenses with traditional documentary film tactics, presenting a "portrait in motion" of the desert croplands that privileges the visual experience of the landscape and the poetic dimensions of labor and migration.
During that opening long sequence, it is difficult not to fixate upon the texture and magnitude of the spinach being harvested. These tiny edible objects become animated as they are harvested and packed into crates. It seems nearly impossible to imagine that these are ingredients that will one day make their way into a sandwich or a salad bowl; the spinach is overwhelming. It seems too dominating, too innumerable.
Also painfully fascinating, in that opening scene and throughout the film, is the coordination of workers and their machines. Before entering the field to begin a day of work, we see migrants gather to stretch and limber their bodies. They prepare for the day's dance, for the arabesques while picking lettuce, the pirouettes and plies that allow their bodies to move in harmony with their mechanical instruments.
The pace is monotonous, steady, regularized; it is not clear who or what is setting the speed of the work. So entwined are the movements that it becomes easy to personify these mega machines. The harvester we see in the opening seems sort of grumpy and hurried, there is something regimented and strict about the way the machine cuts and efficiently produces streams of green. Other machines later in the film are decidedly friendlier. Just as these machines become more human as we focus on them, the workers become more and more machine-like. A day scene of the hand-harvest and packaging of romaine lettuce showcases the symbiotic relationship between human pickers who seem to have a system for every aspect of their work. They cut using the same repetitive highly effective motion, and then toss with perfunctory precision. The film is shot in and around the field or in transit between Mexico and the US. The location is never really disclosed, but is hinted at by snippets of workers' conversations. The workers themselves are easily identifiable. They wear the standard uniform of agricultural workers: long sleeves, hats and a bandana over the mouth and nose.The outfit prevents dirt from getting into their eyes and mouth, and keeps them warm in the early-morning cold. Later, once the searing desert sun has risen high into the sky and temperatures may reach more than 110 degrees, it will keep them from being sunburned.
Much of this information can be gleaned by paying close attention to the sublime details the film presents. And, considering the geography and sociopolitical context can enhance social issues outside of its artistic value, but for some El Field. is more valuable as an aesthetic object. It makes absolute sense that Daniel Rosas compares his vision for the film to Dutch Golden Age Landscape paintings. These 17th century works by artists like Meindert Hobbema, and Jan Both present groups of people framed by the immense natural landscape of the Netherlands. The exact narrative for these pieces is unknown, but the treatment of the subjects--natural and human--is expressively true to life. The sky isn't blue, but shades of shimmering pink, creamy grey that approximate the gradation of the late afternoon sky. This visual influence is most alive in El Field. There is something painterly about the textures of the landscape, the saturation of the browns and golds of the soil, and the blue sky heavy with dense clouds that manages at once to soften and disappear into ether, bringing gravity to the tableaus artfully composed by Rosas and his crew.
Alejandro Davila, explains that the intention for the film was not to create an explicit political narrative, "not to create a biased discourse...[but] portray a reality in a visually appealing manner." Unlike, popular political documentaries that place the filmmaker and the political rhetoric being represented as the voice that frames and creates the narrative structure of the film, El Field. delves into the realities beyond that rhetoric. This is demonstrated by the absence both a narrative voice, and a clear discernable narrative structure. The project approximates a primary historical document that speaks to us in the voice of migrant laborers and the landscape that they transform everyday. It incites discourse about the realities of people instead of presenting them as examples within a larger ideological construct. Instead leading you through an argument, the film introduces you to the landscape, the experience and individuals that become characters, within an argument that can be constructed in the minds of the audience.
The film functions with the addition of each of our subjectivities as viewers, that is, we make of this cinematic experience what we choose. The response to the film has been mixed, perhaps for this reason. "People either love it or dislike it greatly. The most positive reactions have come from Europeans audiences, where its calm and reflective tone has gone over well. The most negative might have been during a screening in Tijuana, Baja California, where only two people remained at the end of the screening," Daniel explains. The polarized response to El Field. indicates that this project by the directorial trio, has been successful. It washes over the audience in an empty wave of beauty, or triggers profound and meaningful individual memory, emotion and connection to a agricultural landscape, where men dance with machines.
Top Image: El Field.
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