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El Field 2011


Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA 02472; 617-926-0491
Produced by Alejandro Dávila, Derrick Sparrow
Directed by Daniel Rosas
DVD , color, 85 min., Spanish with English, French, and Spanish subtitles

College - General Adult
Agriculture, Anthropology, Human Rights, Immigration, Mexican American Studies, Political Science, Sociology

Date Entered: 08/14/2013

Reviewed by Wendy Highby, University of Northern Colorado

El Field is shot in direct cinema style. It scrupulously documents the environs of agricultural workers in the border region of Imperial Valley, California and Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. The movie is without a narrator; Director Daniel Rosas’ editing and story choices unfold masterfully, as if emanating from a beneficent, silent divinity. The film’s first segment begins in a dark field with a floodlit truck. It is, in essence, a mobile, 24-hour factory with a conveyor belt harvesting spinach at an inhuman pace. Another setting is an asphalt lot; the laborers gather at pre-dawn (three o’clock a.m.) to sign up for work. The film’s direct style causes the viewer to be vicariously caught up in the incessant production schedule of a factory farm. We hear the employees pant as they speedily sort and box up ears of corn. The recording of the ambient sound is phenomenal. A subsequent chapter is shot from the rear of a dark bus; it records the commuters’ gossip as the dark blue windows gradually lighten into blue-pink dawn. Later, the film lets us eavesdrop upon compadres as they sit together in a patch of shade, enjoy their lunch break, and use raucous language uncensored. El Field gives new meaning to the term “stoop labor,” as in one scene, the camera is placed at an angle that emphasizes the stress on the workers’ bodies as they harvest lettuce. The documentary’s immediacy creates a vivid experience for viewers.

Ironically, the film finds lyrical beauty and interpersonal kindness amidst the mundane and inhumane conditions. A poetically alliterative brand name—River Ranch Romaine Hearts—is juxtaposed with the heartless, machine-driven motion that forces people to stack and package the perishable produce at an impossible pace. The film documents the humor and camaraderie that makes such work bearable. The harvested grain looks like roiling, golden beige water. Sugar beets flow over the conveyor belt into the open truck like a lumpy waterfall. Yet an uglier reality intrudes; there must be hazards to human lungs as we see the workers donning bandanas over their noses and mouths for protection. The laborers are shown doing warm up exercises, as if to grease their joints like mechanical wheels. Hints of defiant humanity emerge in their casual banter. They joke about being on “animal planet,” that they are “animals working in the fields.” El Field ultimately questions what it means to be human within a factory farm system that is mechanized and merciless. It also subtly interrogates an immigration system that is equally uncaring. Rosas films the government’s border crossing complex. It also seems to function as a machine, like a chute through which the documented laborers emerge, their labor exploited and their life energy harvested by the agricultural industry. The film’s last chapter begins with aerial shots of the fields, showing the patchwork of agricultural production, and ends with a prescribed burn. We are left with a strong image of destruction and a bleak symbol of rebirth. A surreal arc of flame scorches the stubble, and leaves ethereal calderas of smoke in its wake.

As a high percentage of food in the United States is sourced from the Imperial Valley, this film deserves to be widely seen. It is an important humanitarian documentary as well as an educational tool about the quotidian experiences of migrant farmworkers. Daniel Rosas’ editing, direction, and cinematography and the sound quality captured by Derrick Sparrow ensure the film’s artistry. The film has wide subject applicability and utility for the classroom. It is particularly germane to area studies, ethnic studies, social sciences, agriculture, and studies of labor and immigration issues. El Field is like a field trip to the farms of the Imperial Valley with a sensitive but silent tour guide. Those not accustomed to direct cinema may need some practice and encouragement, a chance to acclimate to its style. Watching this film is like reading a multi-layered, multi-stanza poem. It may require some background explication by the professor, it will require concentration on the part of students, and the experience will be richly rewarding.