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Professor earns international award for timely documentary

Film explores how Sonoran Desert acts as natural deterrent to undocumented immigrants

A Northwestern University professor is the winner of the Caligari Film Prize for “El Mar La Mar,” a haunting documentary about the treacherous terrain of the Sonoran Desert and its impact on illegal immigration to the United States. 

J.P. Sniadecki, assistant professor of radio/television/film in the School of Communication at Northwestern, and Joshua Bonnetta won the prize in February at the 67th annual Berlin International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany. They received 4,000 euro ($4,261.80) with the prize, which is awarded by a five-person jury independent of the festival’s organization.

The Caligari prize encourages avant-garde experimentation in filmmaking and is considered the festival’s “most daring section.” Also referred to as the Berlinale, the festival draws more than 20,000 professional visitors from 122 countries, along with countless other spectators, to view approximately 400 films per year, according to its website.

J.P. Sniadecki
J.P. Sniadecki

Amidst talk of building a wall along the United States’ border with Mexico, El Mar La Mar suggests the Sonoran Desert, which stretches for more than 160,000 miles along the southern borders of California and Arizona, already is a natural deterrent to immigration. The U.S. Border Patrol is alleged to have recovered the remains of more than 6,000 migrants since the 1990s from the stretch of desert, where temperatures regularly exceed 104 degrees.  

Bonnetta and Sniadecki spent parts of more than three years in the hostile environment, populated mostly by poisonous insects, rattlesnakes, spiked plants and mountains lions. They filmed the landscape and wildlife and talked to border patrol agents, humanitarian workers, border crossers, undocumented workers, vigilantes and people-smugglers.

6,000+remains of migrants in the Sonoran Desert allegedly recovered by the U.S. Border Patrol since the 1990s.

The pair spliced together natural audio — plants rustling in the wind, for example — and interview audio with images from the arid land. Bonnetta suggested in an article by The Guardian that the Sonoran Desert is the U.S.’ border policy, in essence, funneling people through a suicidal region that makes it look like migrants are taking their lives into their own hands.

“At a Berlin festival in which directors have this year fallen over themselves to affirm their political stance, Bonnetta and Sniadecki’s film stands out because it allows one of the most politicized terrains in the world to speak for itself,” according to the Feb. 15 article in The Guardian.   

El Mar La Mar also received “special mention”for the Forum award from the Ecumenical Jury, which represents the international film organizations of the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches. The jury recognizes films that succeed in “portraying actions or human experiences that are in keeping with the Gospels, or in sensitizing viewers to spiritual, human or social values.”

Sniadecki, who earned his doctorate in social anthropology with media from Harvard University, is also an active filmmaker in China. He produced several films chronicling the lives of working-class Chinese citizens as their country undergoes rapid transformations: The Iron Ministry (2014), Yumen (2013), People’s Park (2012), and Chaiqian/Demolition (2008).

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