The experience of working the mechanized farms of California’s Imperial Valley is realized with quiet emotion and elegant aesthetics in “El Field.” Filmmakers Daniel Rosas (director, co-writer, d.p., co-editor), Alejandro Rosas (producer, co-writer) and Derrick Sparrow (co-writer, co-editor, sound) rigorously bypass the loaded political material of California farm workers and labor exploitation for a more interesting perspective, embedding audiences with the workers themselves. Fest programmers and critics keen on creative documaking will boost the pic’s profile, and art-oriented tube buyers should reap harvests.
The refined, observational filmmaking of Nikolaus Geyrhalter (“Our Daily Bread”) and James Benning (“Ruhr”) clearly exerts a strong and effective influence here, as the camera offers a distanced view of the harvester machines, the endlessly flat fields and the various transit spots where workers must venture. Extended opening section, set unexpectedly at night, captures what it’s like to work on a massive, slow-moving harvester gathering up handpicked crops.
This same process is repeated during the day, but the sequence is framed and edited differently, from the ground up, rather than from the harvester’s Olympian perspective. The final effect, however, is the same: Standardized agricultural production is fundamentally a factory, only one that’s outdoors and in constant slow motion.
The field sequences are punctuated with episodes — similarly observed from a distance, with faint snippets of mostly Spanish-language dialogue and chat heard from unidentified workers — set in the streets of Mexicali and Calexico, two Imperial Valley burgs that straddle the U.S.-Mexico border. As labor continually flows north and south between these two checkpoints, the fascinating effect of the steady transit (sometimes viewed from the street, sometimes inside buses) is to dislocate the viewer, cleverly blurring the border via cinematic means.
Rosas’ precisely composed camerawork is panoramic and vivid, providing a solid base for the rest of the film, with Sparrow’s complex sound mix rounding out this calm depiction of hard, sweaty work. Long-held shots prove a wise choice by editors Rosas and Sparrow, permitting auds to take in the details and rhythmic routines of the harvest. Spanglish title (complete with period) is the commonly used term for the Imperial Valley locales.