A Great Divide
By Caitlin Quinlan
Feet in Water, Head on Fire
Dir. Terra Long, U.S., no distributor
Feet in Water, Head on Fire plays Saturday, March 18 at Museum of the Moving Image's 2023 First Look festival.
The palm tree, towering with cascading fronds, has a vast iconography. It was an ancient emblem of victory for the Greeks and Romans, of eternal life for the Egyptians, and a sacred Christian offering to Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. In contemporary terms, it’s inextricable from idealized visions of the Golden State, California, or tropical vacations. Across this lineage, the plant’s revered status has been constant. Its longevity suggests a kind of mythic immortality; the Latin name for the date palm, appropriately, is Phoenix dactylifera.
Terra Long is also an appropriate name for a filmmaker concerned with the histories of landscapes. Her debut feature Feet in Water, Head on Fire foregrounds the date palm’s ancestry and esteem in communities where the trees remain a life source. In Southern California’s Coachella Valley, farmers harvest the palms’ fruit, spend their hard-earned money in local businesses, and show gratitude to the trees through the annual National Date Festival. The palm’s foundational role in their livelihoods mirrors the thinking of the Indigenous Cahuilla Nation who, as one interviewee in the film notes, always saw the plants as a source of “food, housing, and medicine” and have used them as such for centuries. The existence of some varieties in this locale began with the Cahuilla and other Nations who planted and tended to them. This symbiosis of human and nature, the giving and taking in equal measure, is embedded in the land and integral to the people.
In her loosely structured, sensorial documentary, Long maps this history out along the San Andreas Fault, which splinters the state from north to south, capturing the textures and colors of the mountainous valley on gorgeously grainy 16mm. Its fissures run deep, earthly evidence of the trauma of earthquakes and tectonic shifts over hundreds of years and a warning of what could be yet to come. Palms grow along the fault like a decorative border; Long asks an earthquake specialist what they think the fault line’s “personality” is and they are surprised by the question, answering merely that the palm trees “delineate the line.” The attempt at personification, nonetheless, encourages a way of thinking about the plants as one with the people who live beside them.
Long’s ecocentric approach brings the work into conversation with another recent film concerned with landscape histories and questions of the earth’s memory, Last Things by artist and filmmaker Deborah Stratman. Where Stratman aims to decenter human experience in her film, people are key to Long’s examination of this time and place. Without the intervention of humans and centuries-ago agricultural imports from the Middle East, the date palm would never have become a regional plant in California. These Middle Eastern origins are celebrated through the National Date Festival in Indio, where each year, three teenage girls are crowned Queen Scheherazade, Princess Dunyazade, and Princess Jasmine and reign over the festival’s parade. Long’s inquiry doesn’t so much pit the indigenous against the foreign as look at how a place changes over time and the layers of history in its very soil. The film’s construction, in part, also relies on human folkloric traditions of storytelling; everyone featured speaks of their experience of life, or their ancestors’ lives, in this region, building a kind of polyphonic, ever-evolving land biography. And in turn, this nods to the tale of Scheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights, who saved her own life from her murderous husband by keeping him intrigued by her storytelling, night after night.
In this way, the film employs its own phoenix-like cycles and rebirths, using the foundational stories of a community to shape a contemporary perspective. The agriculture is recycled into a new form, too, merged with the very celluloid of the film—sections of the film shot on black-and-white 16mm were hand-processed with remnants of the date palm and other plants like the Mojave yucca and California fan palm. More than just a documentary gimmick, the technique reinforces Long’s broader thesis of the plants’ role in preserving and being part of a collective history, giving the film a beautiful tactility. More apt naming—the etymology of “date” from the Greek translates to “fingers.”
The film opens and closes with the sound of running water. The precarity of water in the state is an important thematic undercurrent and an environmental issue that highlights the disparities in privilege and well-being along the fault line. The filmmaker’s vignette of an older, white American couple enjoying the lush golf courses and swimming pools of their gated community is shot in as neutral and observational a style as everything else in the film (and as such, is not really presented as a critique), but the difference between this state of living and those further south, in close proximity to the highly toxic Salton Sea, for example, is stark. The Salton Sea was once Lake Cahuilla, a rich, biodiverse body of water that supported the survival of the Cahuilla Nation. Its water flows were diverted by earthquakes over centuries, landscape shifts that forced migrations or enabled new life to develop elsewhere. The palm trees, ever in need of a water source, came with them.
Looking across an extended history of the region as well as the livelihoods of the current population gives Long a broad focus, but the palm trees remain an important narrative anchor. Just as they “delineate the line,” in Long’s film the palm trees delineate community where other sociopolitical factors may divide the area. That’s not to say that the filmmaker projects a false sense of harmony onto these places—the film raises several tensions through its piecing together of such disparate people and their ways of living—but that it binds these stories together through their connection to the land and the history buried within. The land and the palm trees will go on long after the people, but the impact of the population’s lives and actions, like the earthquakes, will be forever part of the earth.