The Coachella Valley has long been filled with differing communities and lifestyles. Palm Springs and La Quinta are meccas for Southern Californians wanting a weekend getaway; Rancho Mirage is home to neighborhoods that are so exclusive that former President Barack Obama was once rumored to be looking at houses there.
However, outside of the glamor are a lot of impoverished, hard-working families—including many people who tend to crops for a living.
This dichotomy caught the attention of filmmakers Aaron Maurer and Zachary McMillan, who directed and produced, respectively, a new documentary called Invisible Valley. It will be the opening-night film at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, viewable online by all Californians starting at 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 31, for 24 hours, with tickets costing $10.
“We’ve been going to the area for many years—but always just for the music festival,” said McMillan during a recent Zoom call. “We’d see the polo grounds and Palm Springs’ midcentury-modern architecture. We were approached to take a look at doing a film about this other side of Coachella, the east side. … The metaphor in the film is that we felt like we were a horse with blinders on, then suddenly, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s this whole other side, and there’s a huge story here.’ There was a whole microcosm of things that became thematic for the film. It was just the beginning of getting to know people who were invisible.”
Maurer said that Palm Springs acts as “a veneer” to visitors.
“Behind all of the golf clubs and the shiny cars and stuff like that, there is a whole other world that’s just not a part of the narrative of that area,” Maurer said. “When we came down to scout initially, one of the things that was apparent right away was, as two guys coming from New York, we didn’t feel that we necessarily had the right to tell the story of migrant workers in the fields. What was really interesting for us was to say that this is an important population, and this work is obviously crucial to everything in our country. What was fascinating to us, and the story we thought we could tell, was putting it in the larger context—showing places where there’s a golf resort across the street from where people are picking lettuce or beans. A lot of times, these people are almost completely unaware of one another. That was sort of the genesis point: Let’s look at the valley itself and how these groups play off of one another.”
The film follows a farmworker family; a pair of nuns working to build a shelter for farmworkers in need; and a snowbird who only recently realized that farmworkers co-exist nearby, and wants to help.
“(The farmworker family) was really amazing in terms of how gracious and how open they were with us,” Maurer said. “This is a family that works really hard. They have had a hard run of life, but they are so generous and gracious, like many people are in that area. As soon as we were in, we were like a member of the family. … A lot of these people who have worked really hard and live in a trailer park, they don’t see themselves as poor. They have a ton of family and a ton of wealth in other ways. They might look at someone in a (country) club and say, ‘Who’s this person living alone with no family in this giant empty house?’”
Invisible Valley also looks at the worsening ecological disaster that is the Salton Sea.
“We saw this incredible irony, and history repeating itself, where the Salton Sea was marketed at one point as the destination,” McMillan said. “It was at one point what Palm Springs is now—it was the Riviera. It completely decayed for a myriad of reasons and became neglected, and the wealth and affluence has moved closer to Palm Springs and Palm Desert. In many ways, the Salton Sea is forgotten about, and it’s now turned into something that is a real environmental crisis, and it is affecting the people that live around there because of the air quality. … The truth is it’s going to affect everybody in that area and beyond. It could even extend to Los Angeles and San Diego.”
Added Maurer: “It became a real metaphor for us as this thing that is a part of this invisible side. There’s a real risk there that translates not only directly to the issues of the sea, but also to how we treat this whole invisible area—that you can’t just ignore things that are down the street because it’s uncomfortable, or because it doesn’t look nice. Sooner or later, some of those things are going to reach out over to you, and you’re going to feel the effects of them one way or another.”
McMillan said he and Maurer saw the Coachella Valley “as a microcosm of everywhere.”
“Many people have maybe heard of the Salton Sea, but they don’t go out there,” McMillan said. “They don’t really know what’s going on at all. The impact of what you choose to see and what you choose not to see feels really prevalent and really relevant. The Coachella Valley just displays that visually and metaphorically.”
Maurer said he’s very happy with how the film turned out.
“We call it a document, because one of the characters, this young girl, calls the movie a document, because she’s talking about a documentary,” he said. “It sort of does feel like almost like a journal of our experience—the people who we met and who shared their stories with us, but also our thoughts and the questions that came up when we were spending time there, moving between these different groups and these different sides within a day: morning at a trailer park; afternoon at a Mecca parking lot with workers sleeping on the ground; and then evening at a country club with fountains. … The thing that was important to both Zach and I was that we weren’t trying to have an angle here. We’re not coming in with a message. It was more to just ask questions that made people think about something slightly differently.”
Maurer said they went to great lengths to avoid vilifying anyone.
“If you’re showing rich people fishing and golfing, and then you’re showing party kids hanging at Coachella fest, and then you’re cutting to a struggling family in a trailer park, how do you not make some of those people look bad?” he said. “You can’t vilify someone for having money just because they live near someone who doesn’t. Keeping that in mind and trying to navigate that became like the real dance of making the film, and also a little bit of a risk. There were definitely people who were like, ‘You need a conflict. Where’s the bad guy? Put something in there that’s going to give some drama.’ We just fought against it because it didn’t feel real. We’re attempting to make something that reflected our experience—and our experience didn’t really show us a bad guy.”
The filmmakers said they hope they can bring the film directly to the Coachella Valley once the pandemic subsides.
“We’re really excited to screen it for different groups of people, and we’re really excited to show it to some of the folks in the east valley and get some really good opinions and some perspectives to sort of see how it reflects back,” said Maurer. “… I would love to get people in a theater from both ends of the valley watching this movie together, and just see what that feels like coming out of a screening.”