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Movie Crash Course: Land Without Bread

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Bunuel’s Land Without Bread was really interesting to watch in the era of “fake news” and edited “reality television.”

Instead of a surrealist piece like Un Chien Andalou or L’Age D’Or, Land Without Bread bills itself as a straightforward documentary – a look at life in “Las Hurdes,” an impoverished rural region of western Spain.  A dispassionate narrator describes each of the scenes we see – villagers living in huts and dressing in rags, men walking miles every day to find work, children fed on nothing but potatoes, people ridden with goiters and malaria. A mountain goat slipping off a cliff and falling to its death is a rare source of meat for the village. Orphans gather in a school, looking uneasily at the camera during their lessons. A villager’s donkey stumbles into a bees’ nest and gets attacked by the swarm and dies.  A baby lies ominously still in a crib and the community gathers to ferry the tiny bundle over cliffs and across rivers to get it to the nearest cemetery.  The film ends with a fervent wish that the citizens resisting the fascist forces lead by then-president Francisco Franco will win the day, and then come to the aid of Las Hurdanos and bring enlightenment and aid to the region.

It’s an uneasy document to watch.   ….And it may also have been faked.

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At least two sequences were definitely faked, anyway.  Both scenes involving animal deaths were staged; the goat that fell off the cliff was shot by a marksman just off camera (although sharp-eyed viewers may spot a puff of smoke from the rifle at the extreme edge of the shot).  As for the donkey – it was tied to once place and smeared with honey to draw the attention of a swarm of bees, who stung the frightened beast to death.

Learning that made me question the whole rest of the piece.  Those children in the school – I was only taking the narrator’s word for it that they were orphans.  But were they?  And the child who was being taken to the cemetery – was it actually dead?  Was there even a baby in the bundle the villagers were so carefully carrying?  The woman I saw dozing on her porch – was she really suffering from a malarial fever, like the narrator said, or was she just taking a nap?

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There were some kernels of truth to the narration, though.  The Hurdanos often made extra money by letting beekeepers to the north overwinter their hives in Las Hurdes, ferrying the hives back to them in spring.  And yes, they often had to use donkeys to carry them.  And as for the orphans – many Hurdanos served as foster parents to Spanish orphans, in an effort to claim the government stipend granted to all such parents for the child’s care.  It was a source of income in a region where income was hard to come by.  That’s all true – but the claims that Hurdanos didn’t know how to read, dressed only in rags, lived in single-room huts and didn’t even know what bread was, may have been a little farfetched.  That’s what the Hurdanos claim, anyway – the region acquired the reputation of being poor and backward back in the 1600s, and the residents have been fighting that stereotype ever since.  Kind of like Appalachia in this country – while it’s possible to find some people living in particularly impoverished conditions there, it’s a stretch to claim that everyone is.

Which makes you question exactly what Bunuel was trying to do with this piece. Land Without Bread was filmed at a time when many filmmakers were heading to farther-flung regions of the world to make similar ethnographic documentaries of the people there – in places like the Sahara, the plains of Tibet, or the Arctic.  Bunuel actually turned down an invitation to join a team heading to the Sahara; it’s possible that he was commenting on the folly of such documentaries, saying that “look, if you spin things a certain way, anywhere in the world can look like an impoverished place.”  It’s also possible that he genuinely believed what he was saying; he claims that a 1927 book about the region sparked his interest.  It’s also possible that he had a political motive – one of his collaborators on the film was anarchist Ramon Acin, and the ending narration takes a definite political stance at a time when Spain was heading towards a civil war.

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I watched this film the same day that journalist Leslie Stahl said that she once asked President Trump why he repeatedly attacked the press; according to her, he said that he did so “to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.”  It’s a story I believe – but I’m uneasily realizing that the reason I believe is because I have a preconceived idea about Trump, and that claim fits.  Just like the people who saw Land Without Bread had a preconceived idea about Las Hurdes – and the film gave it to them.  Mind you, I think there’s enough supplementary evidence to support Leslie Stahl’s claim; but Land Without Bread served as a reminder how easy it is to spin the news the way you want.

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