Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread) is a documentary made by Luis Bunuel in Extremadura in 1932, during Spain’s Second Republic. This was, I need hardly tell you, a time of huge social progress and equally violent unrest. King Alfonso XIII had abdicated and a progressive coalition of Republicans and Socialists had come to power. The government was attempting, amongst other things, to introduce an eight-hour working day and solve the “land problem” by giving proper tenure to agricultural workers. Meanwhile, the forces of reaction – the army, church and property-owning class – were gathering. Bunuel, keen to do his bit for the Left, but equally motivated by anarchist mischievousness, had read a book about Las Hurdes, in Extremadura, and decided that this poverty- and disease-ridden backwater met his requirements perfectly.
The film was financed by Bunuel’s friend, Ramon Acin, who had won the lottery. Chronologically, it completes a trilogy of surrealist films which began with Un Chien Andalou (1928) and continued with L’Age d’Or (1930). But Land Without Bread is less overtly “surreal”. It presents itself, not as a film dream, but a documentary, complete with voice-over, and the extravagant, anti-clerical but pro-Franco hand of Salvador Dali, with whom Bunuel collaborated on the earlier films, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, in his first “solo” film, Bunuel gives us half an hour of malnourished children and infant mortality; village idiots grinning miserably through missing teeth; bandy-legged dwarves; a donkey stung to death by bees, and a goat which plummets to its death from a treacherous path. Bunuel juxtaposes these grim images with dramatic, of-its-time music and a monotone voice-over that, apart from sounding (in the English language version) like Orson Welles advertising Findus peas, heaps disdain upon condescension, yet is so preposterous, so cruel, that you find yourself questioning its veracity throughout. By the way, the English-language version above is only one of many options on You Tube, with commentary in English, French or Spanish, and variable picture quality (but remember, it WAS made in 1932!)
The critical reception of the film, by both Left and Right, reflects the timeless debate about the portrayal of suffering (viz Band Aid) i.e. to what extent do such images spur the audience to action, or merely reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes, and with them, a sense of helplessness and defeatism (or indifference)? Many on the Left felt there was more of the latter than the former, and were infuriated because they were already acting to bring basic sanitation to the area. When Franco came to power seven years later, he banned the film for his own reasons – obviously, such images were incompatible with his vision of Spain, and yet, like the Republicans, he invested in the area, building roads and dams, simultaneously raising the living standards of Hurdanos while radically changing their lives by, for example, flooding their land.
In 1999, around the time I first went to Extremadura myself, a Dutch film-maker, Ramon Gieling, retraced Bunuel’s footsteps. He wanted to show Land Without Bread in one of the Hurdano villages and see what the locals thought, sixty-seven years later, about the movie that has become so synonymous with the area. Their feelings are made plain in the Rieling film, even in the title: Prisoners of Bunuel. They were still angry, and with reason. Bunuel had faked almost everything. The donkey who is stung to death was slathered with honey and placed next to a couple of hives. The goat who “fell” from a craggy path was in fact shot, and you can see the puff of smoke on the right of the frame. The dead child was merely asleep. The idiots and morons were local politicians.
But surely the critics of Bunuel are missing the point. This was a satire, a parody of the ethnographic travelogues of the time in which the authority of the narrator, his observations on life in the more “exotic” corners of the world, was accepted without question. As the local priest says, in Prisoners of Bunuel, “to make his report more convincing and compelling (Bunuel) enlarged reality a little…. sometimes you have to help the truth.” It doesn’t matter that it’s Las Hurdes. It could be anywhere. It just had to feel remote and other. It couldn’t have been Madrid, or La Mancha. Chance determined that it was Las Hurdes, and if the Hurdanos still feel incensed by a documentary that was made 80 years ago, still fail to get the joke, and the serious point Bunuel is making, doesn’t that merely confirm their backwardness?
Las Hurdes is a very different place now, a top tourist destination with four-star hotels and, I might add, excellent honey, the production of which, so far as I’m aware, causes no donkeys to be harmed. In Las Mestas we found kilogram jars of Tio Picho, the dominant local brand (“from the beehive to your table”) in a dozen or more varieties, depending on the flower the bees favoured . I celebrated my 52nd birthday at the Hospederia Real Las Hurdes with a dinner of home-made boletus croquettes; an aubergine and goats’ cheese stack; morcilla (black pudding) in filo parcels with a kiwi coulis (weird but nice); solomillo of pork with potato “mille feuilles” and cheesecake with (of course) the local honey.
All the same, I couldn’t help noticing the absence of bread. And the roads are as bad as they were in 1973, when, according to the projectionist in the Gieling documentary, a journey of 30 km also took two hours by car. But that is precisely the attraction, and the way the tourist board markets the region. “Time has not quite stood still,” says the tourist guide, “but it has certainly slowed right down.” The Hurdanos are apparently still “the Prisoners of Bunuel”. Nor have television documentaries moved on much in the intervening years. They may even have gone backwards after a golden age of several decades (up to the early 80s, if you ask me). Now programme makers treat us all as morons and idiots, recapping every five seconds on what we’ve seen, as if we were goldfish that can’t think back beyond the last scene.
Dai the Llama’s verdict: In case you’ve forgotten, I’ll remind you what happened earlier in the post. Before the break, my master, Mr Plankton, was talking about the surrealist film-maker Luis Bunuel and the effect his film Land Without Bread had on the image of Las Hurdes, in Extremadura. I don’t know much about cinema, but I do know the honey is good, and I like the sound of that meal at Hospederia Real Las Hurdes. So two hooves up from me!