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Encounters with the Coachella Valley Landscape: Terra Long on Feet in Water, Head on Fire

Feet in Water, Head on Fire

Terra Long’s exquisite debut feature film, Feet in Water, Head on Fire, is at once cine-essay, landscape film and sensory investigation into the production of space. The space in question is the Coachella Valley of Southern California, on traditional Cahuilla territory, a place produced and transformed over multiple eras by overlapping mythologies, migrations and capital accumulation strategies. Arid, hot and prone to tectonic trauma, the landscape is challenging to many kinds of harvest, save the tenacious date palm, a species widely cultivated across North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia with roots in Arabia stretching back millennia. That the plant should now play such a central role in the economic and cultural life of this region in California is the curiosity that motivates Long’s documentary, so much so that she hand processed some of the film using remnants of the date palm and other plants. The results are extraordinary. 

Watching the film for the first time at the Museum of Moving Image’s First Look festival in New York last spring, I was struck at how earthy the cinematic experience was. Sepia toned mountains shot in grainy 16mm are married to sounds extracted from the deepest geological depths, as if listening to the planet getting an ultrasound. But this is no overly romanticised portrait of a sublime nature; it’s Long’s deep interest in the people of the region—today, a mix of Indigenous Cahuilla people, undocumented Mexican agricultural workers and retired snowbirds from the US and Canada—that deepens and complicates our experience of the place. As the filmmaker James Benning has said, “Place can only be understood over time. That is… place is a function of time.” But place is also a function of people’s need to make and attach meaning, and to that end the film is perhaps best understood as a cinematic chronicle of place-making, in all its collaborations and collisions. 

Story: A simple question to begin: How did you first come across this region and what first struck you about what a film might have to say about it? 

Long: A simple question but a very circuitous answer. Though the film is situated on Cahuilla land in what is now known as the Coachella Valley in Southern California, the seed of the project emerged from time spent in Morocco at a residency in the Sahara desert. I was looking for ingredients to make a locally sourced, plant-based film developer. Because I happened to be there at the end of the date harvest, I learned through experimentation that dates are rich in all of the phenols required to hand-process film. As I collected the date fruit left over from the harvest, I observed the intimacy between the palm trees and the humans who tended them. I wondered if this is one of the reasons palm trees are so deeply mythologized.

In the early 1900s, US Department of Agriculture plant explorers travelled to North Africa and West Asian countries as bioprospectors to extract plants that could become commodifiable crops in the US. The imported palms flourished in the Coachella Valley due to deep aquifers and dry heat. Tapping into the already raging orientalist craze, the annual date fair was established in 1921 as a marketing strategy for the date. There is still a Queen Scheherazade beauty pageant and a different play from the 1001 Nights is performed every year alongside ritualized salutes to the US army. 

I happen to have family who live there, in one of the 139 gated community golf courses mainly populated by retired so-called snowbirds. By tracing the path of the uprooted date palm, I landed within the context of a hyper-regulated, over-watered simulacral landscape. It was the tension between these colliding worlds and histories that compelled me to make the film.

Story: Your film has been described as a landscape film, a term that of course conjures a long tradition within experimental and artist moving image. But that strikes me as actually too narrow a frame within which to think about how this film activates and considers not just landscape, but land. Can you talk about your relationship to these terms and maybe describe what land and landscape mean to you, if anything, within the ambitions of this project? 

Long: This film emerged from encounters with the Coachella Valley landscape that are competing, contradictory and incongruous with the land itself, its formation over time and the people who live there. It’s been re-made and re-imagined continuously through naturally occurring geological events and the illogics of European settlers and late capitalism. Our ambition was to interact with these imaginings and projections and the very real way they shape and transform the land through the intimacies of those that are connected to this place. We return throughout the film to glass slides taken by the USDA in 1910, my hand holding them against the landscape doubling our view. This is what we aim to do in the film—hold multiple ways of seeing and knowing the land. This distinction between land and landscape is important. I don’t know that this is quite right, but I would say that landscape is superficial—what is perceived and represented—and the land as what is. I think of landscape as a horizontal plan and land as untethered from the x/y axis, encompassing so much that can’t be seen or known, at least through the frameworks of western systems of knowledge. Our ambitions in tracing ways of seeing and knowing this place was to touch or suggest the edges of what can be known, who gets to know and how. I am curious to hear how you, Brett, considered landscape and land through the film, especially as a geographer!

Story: Well, I was thinking about geography a lot while watching the film, especially the ways geographers are so good at reminding us that there is no separation between nature and society. “The entire earth bears on its face the stamp of human activity,” as the late geographer Neil Smith put it. 

I also want to talk about how deeply collaborative the film is. The viewer understands this before we’ve even gotten to the credits or heard you and your team describe the process of making it. There’s something in the very texture of the film, which is layered, material and poly-vocal, that itself seems to suggest collaboration not just as a method but as an aesthetic. Does that sound right at all to you? Can you talk about collaboration in the making of this film? 

Long: I had not consciously thought about it until now, but all of us who worked on the film—Sharlene Bamboat, Mireya Martinez, Richy Carey, Kaija Siirala and Alisha Tejpal—have practices that center collaboration. This made for a porous exchange of ideas and an elasticity in approach, we tried things and adopted strategies that emerged from the space between us and a multi-limbed film emerged. Here is an excerpt from my correspondence with Mireya and Sharlene around this question:

Bamboat: I appreciate this question, and I actually think that collaboration as method and aesthetic are intertwined. The polyvocal narratives are the backbone of the film, mirroring the decentralised multi-vocal form of the 1001 Nights, where there is no single author, but over centuries stories transform and evolve based on speaker, location and time period. The film attempts to present a more-than-human understanding of time and place, telling a story of the area through geologic time, through the palm trees and through the various human migrations and Indigenous stories of those who have moved through and live in the Coachella Valley. Approaching the film, and what we are filming through this lens, allows for a collaborative aesthetic to emerge not just with those involved in the film, but also with all the beings we are filming and working with. With this film, there were many different people involved in front of, and behind, the camera that had input into how the film was going to be created and how it unfolds. Building in time to make a work is part of the collaborative process, especially when you are representing people’s lives on camera. Taking into account other people’s thought processes, opinions and sometimes slow responses is part of collaboration, which can be frustrating but the exercise in patience is worthwhile. 

Martinez: The modes of production are as relevant as the stories a film is trying to tell—to hold. Meaning the way in which a film is made must be in harmony with the aims of the film itself. So, for Feet in Water, Head on Fire to exist as it is—multilayered, deep and expansive—a deep and expansive collaboration had to be a part of its fabric. Given that Terra set out to make a film about the multiple historical and socio-political layers the Coachella Valley holds, it was almost impossible not to lean into a polyphonic approach. Having multiple points of entry was the most organic way to produce a film that holds conflict without pursuing a resolution or containing it in a neat package.

Story: Some viewers will notice right away that this is a film shot on 16mm, but less discernible maybe is the fact that you hand processed some of the footage. Can you tell us what hand processing is, why it’s important to your process and how you decided to use and weave in that footage during the edit? 

Long: There is a strong history of artist-made film in which the filmmaker will mix their own chemicals and develop celluloid by hand in a dark room or converted bathroom, closet, barn etc. rather than send their film to a lab for professional processing. After exposing myself to toxic chemicals for years, I was interested in alternatives to traditional chemistry and was fascinated when I learned that many plants contain the organic chemical compounds that can transform the latent image. Hand processing, for me, is a meditative experience; it dilates time, slowing the filmmaking process and creating space for a contemplative relationship with the act of image making and the material itself. 

Story: The film invites viewers to think about almost impossibly long geologic time scales alongside historically recent transitions in the social fabrics of this region. Can you talk about some of the strategies you implemented, in shooting, editing (or even processing) to bring multiple temporal frames in conversation with each other? 

Long: The valley is a hotbed of seismic activity. It marks the end (or the beginning) of the San Andreas fault line where a massive earthquake is imminent. The mountains were formed through massive earthquakes thousands of years ago (maybe longer) that shape how water now moves through the valley. We wanted to create a sense of subterranean interiority and evoke a more-than human sense of perception. A frequent and guiding question was, how do we make palpable things that are invisible to the human eye? Strategies included: bringing material from the earth into contact with the surface of the emulsion, such as photograms of sand that are exposed with the light of the moon; leaving plants in the black and white film developer to brush against the image; leaving their own marks and scrapes to animate moments of contact. A significant portion of the film is shot on a macro lens, enlarging the minute details of the plants, insects, and surrounding textures. What if enlarging the infinitesimal could impact our experience of time, unhinging us even briefly from a hyper regimented clock time. Could this help to sense hard-to-grasp time scales? To imagine the perceived sense-time of other beings? 

The sound design was created by Richy Carey and is always gesturing beyond the frame, below the earth and outside of a human range of hearing. The sound of the earth that Richy evokes compresses millenia into a low rumble; this roiling and shifting is not only land but time. This sonic texture punctuates testimony from Yolanda Moreno as she outlines the border patrol hot spots that restricts the movement of the largely undocumented labour force, reminding us that the construction of a place is never singular and always shifting depending on your relation to it. 

A friend of mine asked whether the last sound in the film is an earthquake. The question was surprisingly hard to answer and so I wrote to Richy—this is an excerpt of our correspondence:

I think that the what of this particular sound feels so evasive because I associate it with so many things in the film.

Carey: That’s it exactly for me. So no, it’s not an earthquake, or maybe more accurately it can be an earthquake. It’s not one thing. Sound in particular is never one thing…The land and the people who live with it (or on it/against it in some cases) are plural things…So that kind of rising, quickening, rumbling, collapsing, opening out sound that closes the film—I think it comes from underfoot, but it’s not an earthquake, or it can be that if that’s how you hear it, but it’s like all that’s come before it in the film—the hydrophone recordings, the dancing, the singing, the land and the wind, the sandstorm, the stories. All those things.

Story: The film premiered at the esteemed True/False Film Fest in Missouri, a festival known for championing expanded forms and cinematic risk. Since then, it’s traversed the international festival circuit, landing most recently at IDFA in Amsterdam, where your team actually decided to pull the film from the screening schedule in response to the festival’s denunciation of protesters who had spoken up during the opening ceremonies against the ongoing Israeli military assault on Gaza.

You wrote in your public statement that your film “is about contested land in what is today called California” and that you cannot speak about decolonization in one context without also addressing settler colonialism in Gaza and the West Bank. I wondered if you wanted to say something about the role of the documentary filmmaker during a time of seemingly competing “truths,” and possibilities of solidarity within artistic communities? 

Long: As artists, filmmakers and cultural workers, we provide the essential material and labor that is trafficked through institutions, often with little compensation. This lends us some measure of visibility and access. What is less visible and totally inaccessible are the forces that obstruct institutions from taking a position, even in the midst of egregious acts of violence and genocide. The machinations and pressures— though not surprising—are totally opaque. 

Meanwhile, individual artists take on the visible role of speaking out publicly and bear all of the backlash/doxxing/criticism that may follow. Palestinian filmmakers at IDFA organised demonstrations, held space for dialogue, published statements and recommended actions. They made it easy for filmmakers and cultural workers to understand the unfolding situation. 

The current climate of political repression and persecution demonstrates the need to think and act collectively and not individually. Disaster teaches us again and again that all we have is each other. 

Feet in Water, Head on Fire plays next at RIDM.

Brett Story is a non-fiction filmmaker and geographer whose work explores the politics of place and space. She is the director of the award-winning films The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016) and The Hottest August (2019), and author of the book Prison Land. She is currently completing a new documentary chronicling an unusual unionization campaign by a group of Amazon workers in New York. 

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