San Francisco Film Fest 2021 Review: An Artist Looks Towards New Horizons in Yaara Bou Melhem’s “Unseen Skies”

“There’s many layers of weird here,” Trevor Paglen can be heard saying at the start of “Unseen Skies,” walking off from an encounter in the Algodones Dunes along the U.S./Mexico border where he was hoping to take some pictures before coming across a marine who puts a pause on those plans. They are the only two people for miles in the desert and Paglen is unsatisfied with the explanation, knowing the marine who claims his authority comes from border patrol wouldn’t report to such a chain of command, but he drives on when finding out what the limits are in places where there appear to be none are every bit as valuable to the artist as what pictures he could take.

In following Paglen, director Yaara Bou Melham finds many other layers of weird for society as a whole when the artist becomes a vessel for a consideration of an increasingly bifurcated vision of world, one seen through human eyes and the other through machines acting on algorithms that are moving further and further away from their human origins. The implications were stark when Paglen began his work in the early 2000s, taking pictures of black sites in Afghanistan and secret U.S. military bases in Nevada to unearth the extensions of unending wars around the world even after they were suggested to be resolved publicly and exposing the networks of surveillance as they existed physically. But when the legacy of that time is harder to see, with attitudes of the era hard-wired into the technology that produces search results and GPS navigation, the film impressively brings to the surface both closely monitored we all are and yet how vast a gap there is between how we are perceived by that technology and how we see ourselves.

Although “Unseen Skies” is built around Paglen’s most ambitious project to date, the Orbital Reflector, a sculpture built to be shot into space with the intention of reflecting back earth’s image, he busies himself with a variety of projects across various continents and media, giving Bou Melham every opportunity for tactile examples of these most abstract practices. While it may seem like what Paglen’s capturing is cutting edge, he’d be the first to tell you that it’s not, drawing parallels between photographer T.H. O’Sullivan’s work for the U.S. Department of War surveying the Colorado River in the 1800s and the satellites used by Google Maps today, originating from a less benevolent purpose of countries spying on one another, and Eadweard Muybridge’s development of a process to capture the moving image at Stanford and the university’s eventual pioneering role in training object recognition software a century later.

When history becomes tangible in how it repeats itself, “Unseen Skies” provides something to hold onto as it ventures into increasingly unknown territory, with Pelham overlaying seemingly benign environmental scenes with the data points that computers draw on to make evaluations, misidentifying some objects you might wonder where the confusion lies and estimating a great deal of fear in people who appear quite casual (though there might be some truth in that). Besides an early accounting of his own upbringing on military bases from his father’s service and his subsequent days in the punk rock scene in Berkeley, Paglen remains a largely enigmatic figure, Bou Melham mostly refrains from a biography, instead letting the film take on the spirit of its subject in asking audiences to be as curious as he is about the brave new world we’re collectively stepping into and is every bit as artful in easing one into an uncomfortable yet necessary conversation about the increasingly blurry lines between the physical and virtual world with arresting imagery. Finding an unexpectedly poignant epilogue during the time of coronavirus where everyone largely migrated their lives online — the majority of the film appears to have been shot before — “Unseen Skies” may be about processing overwhelming amounts of information, but it admirably creates the space to take stock of it all.

“Unseen Skies” is screening virtually at the San Francisco Film Festival through April 18th.