Las Hurdes: Luis Bunuel and the surrealist documentary

I watched Las Hurdes (land without bread) today and very strangely, it happened to be reviewed in the New York Times today as well. Pure coincidence – Its been sitting in my quickflix que for months. I’m not sure why a 1932 documentary about an impoverished part of Spain is getting this sort of attention. No wait!  yes I do. It is the only documentary made by surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

So, this is tough watching. The film goes for 24 minutes and is disturbing. You can tell Bunuel is angry here. Very angry. There is a strong antifascist statement at the end of the film tethered to a stand (hope) that democracy will obliterate all poverty from Spain. Mmm…

The living condition of the citizens of the mountains of Las Hurdes are deplorable. Entire extended families reduced to living in one room that will be unventilated by window of chimney, the smoke from cooking fires escaping (or not escaping) where it will, and ‘carpeted’ with the rotting leaves gathered from the higher hillsides decomposing on the floors of homes in order to make a fertiliser they believes will save their almost inevitably dying crops.

These people suffer from ignorance and it literally steals their lives. Inbreeding, poor agricultural information and sparse access to arable land mean these people have little chance of survival. So much so that the few regular rituals they have that link them to the outside world is their funerals. intellectually the villages here are as barren as their soils. There is no art, no culture and very little schooling.  All the images of the children are disturbing as they look mentally unhealthy or physically unhealthy.

The Catholic Church have abandoned the region and insects (mostly bees in this case, the regions one source of income and also a strand with a fury streak so rigid they often turn on animals and humans) rule and dominate humans and animals regularly. This is all familiar Bunuel territory – his rage against the way humans will unflinchingly cause terror to other human beings.

There is some question around the authenticity of the film. There are several strong images that would give it the highest ratings these days. We watch a donkey devoured by bees to its death, a mountain goat suffer a horrific fall as it bounces and breaks its back repeatedly on jagged rocks, a rooster having its head ripped off by horsemen and most disturbing of all, a dead baby, and then repeated shots as it is taken to its grave. I’ve read that Bunuel had the donkey covered in honey to incite the bees attack. I also read that the mountain goat fall was staged (Bunuel shot the goat, and you can see the smoke from the gun in the initial shot). None of this mattered to Bunuel, as the point was to shock the audience into a reaction.  Bunuel adds the fourth symphony of Braham’s to the film underneath the horrific pictures and the bland, unmoved narrative to add to the complicated response to the horror we see on screen.

This is more than a documentary. This is a critique of documentaries before they even existed properly. Bunuel posits the terrible images against the bland voice over. Bunuel’s criticism is of objectivity itself – as if it has no place in the conversation about and depiction of events. In fact, cleverly Bunuel implies our ‘objectivity’ is in fact its own kind of bias. A chilling scene occurs when the camera commits to a long shot of the interior of a young girls mouth who is complaining of being sick. We see clearly the swollen gums. They are pointed out by the monotone of the voice over. Then, when we move away, the voice over coldly informs us, the girl died two days later.

One of the important tickets to freedom of the film is that the short was not paid for by financiers. It was paid for by a friend who won the lottery. He always claimed that if he won the lottery, he would give Bunuel a lump sum to make exactly the film he wanted to make. Well, the friend did win the lottery, and gave enough money to Bunuel for him to film his film, and Las Hurdes is the one he wanted to make. Before Buñuel made his documentary , he had already made his two short Surrealist films Un chien Andalou  (with Salvador Dali) and L’age d’or. To him, Las Hurdes is similar to his two earlier films and equally much Surrealist:
Of course the difference was that this film was based on a concrete reality. But it was an exceptional reality, one that stimulated the imagination. Furthermore the film coincided with the social concerns of the Surrealist movement which were very intense at the time.

Las Hurdes is a tough watch. Apparently it infuriated audiences at the time. But that was just the point Bunuel wanted to make. He wanted to shock people out of the comfort of thinking the world was really like their own everywhere.