Maybe I’m projecting here, but people always underestimate deserts and specifically, people assume that nothing happens there. That’s only half true in Jose Permar’s Off The Road, a documentary depicting the deserts of Baja California in Mexico. There, seemingly, the only interesting event that happens is the Baja 1000, a 1000km off road race that happens in the region. But there are stories there, a trio of traditional musicians set the scene and narrate these stories through song.
These local musicians are Rigo, Paco, and Davis, who sometimes fade into the narrative. They’re just as much narrators as they are characters within a town within a desert. And in fairness to the desert, there’s more than one race taking place there. One that the locals can participate in since they don’t have the resources for the big one that passes them by. And just like the big one, other locals become audiences watching the race. The whole documentary has a good Western feel.
There’s a fleeting intimacy in the way Permar looks at both the musicians and the locals in Baja, but he sometimes takes a step back. Here he shows the desert’s majesty, hinting at an unpredictability in a place where viewers expect a reliably arid climate. He also uses these wider shots even when his participants discuss their regions’ history. They long for the days when the economy is strong, when races aren’t their only source of income. He asks and observes.
Races take centre stage even when viewers only see two of them of screen, and I sometimes wish that the characters had a bigger spotlight. When the the band isn’t playing their music, they’re steeped within the desert’s main industry. Rigo is a mechanic, Davis is a retired former racer, and Paco is a journalist. Paco’s multi level storyline is a great one but I wish Permar treated these diverging storylines with the same emphasis. The female residents of the desert towns fade deeper into the background like their male counterparts.
The same seemingly muted approach drowns these main participants out as the November race comes closer. Nothing can prepare viewers for the jarring tonal shift between Off the Road‘s first two acts and the third one. In this third act, the same American tourists who the deserts calmly prepare for flock by the dozens, their presence changing the documentary. Even when Paco or Rigo are in front of the frame it doesn’t feel that way.
But eventually, the race is over. The documentary uses title cards to note how long the next race is and the last card shows that there’s 635 days left for the next one, as if the desert is perpetually waiting for the future and forgets their present. Permar captures something say yet poignant here, as the dust obscures the desert towns’ old skeletal buildings. Excitement is perpetually fleeting and all these towns have left is the scorching sun.
Off The Road comes soon on OVID.