El Valley Centro

Director: James Benning
Screenwriters: James Benning

Institute History

  • 2000 Sundance Film Festival


In a media age dominated by rapid-fire imagery and pounding sound tracks, it is rejuvenating to encounter a film that invites the viewer to find rapture and meaning in the details of a single, quiet frame. Veteran experimental filmmaker James Benning extends such an invitation as he turns his signature meditative gaze toward California’s Great Central Valley in his exceptionally beautiful film, El Valley Centro. Employing natural sound and contemplative proscenium shots, Benning skillfully composes a series of pure and majestic images that at once evoke a sense of nostalgic splendor as well as deliver a subtle, yet penetrating, political commentary.

The Great Central Valley occupies most of the interior of California and provides food for one-quarter of the population of the United States. Benning tells the story of how water irrigates this valley and how the produce is carted away in boxcars for the nation’s consumption. He shows the lifestyle of a modest and growing rural community, whose concerns are often drowned out by the powerful railroads, oil companies, and insurance conglomerates which own the farms and ranches and benefit from undocumented immigrant labor while insisting on imprisoning an American population of color.

Skillful positioning of the camera creates a sweeping sense of place that often engulfs the viewer inside the valley’s massive geography. Benning achieves a simple, powerful poetry of movement, stasis, and intonation that often crystallizes the enormity of the landscape into one single action or sound. El Valley Centro is the work of a master filmmaker at the top of his craft.

— Shari Frilot

Screening Details


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