David Lamelas

The Desert People, 1974
Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

David Lamelas’ practice addresses the parameters of time and space, which the Argentinian artist has investigated in installations, performances, photographs, and films ever since he was a young artist shaping Argentina’s avant-garde in the early 1960s.

The Desert People is the first work completed in Los Angeles by Lamelas before his move to that city in 1976. This fictional documentary about a Native American reservation critiques the practice of film production itself. Described by the artist as a “study on American film production” upon arriving in Los Angeles “where I immediately experienced the shock of American culture”, The Desert People merges two well-known cinematic genres, the road movie and the ethnographic documentary, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, and between subject and object.

In the opening scene of the film, images of an American car travelling the desert highway are interrupted by interviews with four of its five passengers. Each of these four white Americans describes his or her personal experience of life on the Papago reservation. While they analyze the community’s social behaviour, there is little self-reflection on their own group dynamic. Ironically, the viewer is left with the lingering feeling that the real subject of Lamelas’ film, the eponymous desert people, are not the Papago but the Angeleños. The final interviewee, Manny, a Papago Indian, laments the way the American influence on Native Americans is leading to the loss of his own indigenous culture. As his English drifts into Spanish and then Papago, the meaning of what he wishes to communicate is lost in translation.