Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Land Without Bread," Luis Buñon, 1932

For my next documentario de la semana (that's Spanish for “documentary of the week”), I have chosen the surrealist mokumentary “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” (Luis Buñon, 1932). The tale of a town doomed by location and devastated by poverty and disease, “Tierra Sin Pan,” or “Land Without Bread” spends too much of its efforts trying to be comical to truly be considered a factual ethnographic film.

This historic Spanish town nestled deep in the steep mountainous region bordering Portugal is no stranger to bad press. It all started in 1663 when the townspeople were the main characters of a comedic play about a haunted town with no god and no morals. Buñon’s film came out of a 1927 ethnographic expedition to the area which was meant to cleanse the town of it’s bad reputation. Instead, Buñon and his crew took an opportunity for good and simply shamed the town in a new broader-reaching medium.

Much of the film took on a strictly ethnographic stance, offering a window into a world which many people had only previously read about. The images, like the town’s geography, offer a stark view of a people who have learned to live with nearly nothing. While the children are the only ones in town who can get their hands on some bread, they still have no access to a proper diet, adequate clothing or substantial health care. Sick people litter the streets as minor ailments sweep the town like the plague. We see buildings made of stone nestled so closely together that people are devoid of privacy.

To top it all off, Buñon also threw in some manipulated scenes as well – just for effect. When describing their diet, he explains that Los Hurdes only eat meat when a goat dies, for their milk is far too precious. Perfectly understandable, except that Buñon has a crew member shoot a goat and throw it off the side of a mountain for full effect. Another disturbing scene, when discussing their economy (bees), he emphasizes the peril of transporting the hives across the rugged terrain by sacrificing a donkey to an entire colony to be eaten alive.

But it’s not just the video clips that caused the Spanish government to ban this film (well, some of them played a hand) – it’s Buñon’s sarcastic narration that took jabs at a secluded society that is a day’s walk from any nearby civilization.

Set to classical music befitting of a horror film, Buñon’s straightforward and authoritative tone wants the viewer to take his words seriously. At first, I felt that I was watching a wartime newsreel. And then, within minutes, he takes his first jab at the small town, calling their main source of water a “wretched little stream.” How are we to even know that this even what it looks like at the height of it’s flow? His exaggerated sense of humor continued to grow as he often emphasized their lack of footwear as a sign of their extreme poverty. In another case, he insults one local woman, seen below, by telling the audience that her haggard looks are hardened not by old age, but that the lifestyle is so hard, even though obviously it is not the case.

After watching the film in horror over its concise 27 minutes, I couldn’t understand why Buñon would choose to put such a negative slant on his film. I can see how he was trying to make fun of the burgeoning genre of ethnographic film (the audio track was added to the film several years after its release, though he was always on hand at screenings to read his narration) by incorrectly narrating the video, but why did it have to be at the expense of Los Hurdes? Haven’t they been through enough?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

“Mother Dao, The Turtlelike,” Vincent Monnikendam, 1995

Hi, I'm Bianca, and welcome to my first blog for my USC Anthropology 575 Ethnographic Film & Media Seminar class. I'm going to allow this post to serve two-fold -- while the focus of my writing today is on the film we watched in class last Monday, I also want to warn my readers that my viewpoint doesn't come from a grad-level student working on their own ethnograhic film, for which this class was intended, but instead from that of a fresh-faced undergraduate who prefers working with still photography.

First things first: In conclusion, “Mother Dao, The Turtlelike” (Vincent Monnikendam, 1995) was definitely not the easiest film to watch for someone who is only 1.5 years into her study of anthropological documentaries. After ruminating for several days over my copious notes and the select scenes that are still playing in my mind, I finally found myself able to wrap my mind around Monnikendam's work.

I am also going to admit up front that I did have to search online for more information about the content of the film. The movie starts with nothing but title cards before the viewer is shown footage of happy islanders set to a poem about a spiritual figure. There is no instructional voice-over, natural sound, or interviews. I have now discovered that the land we are studying for the next 58 minutes (about 28 minutes too long) is the Indonesian island of Nias, that the film is a collection of archival footage taken by the Dutch after the turn of the 20th century for propagandistic purposes, and that the spiritual figure from which the film derives its title is Mother Dao, a goddess who created the Earth from the dirt on her body and conceived of man through immaculate conception. In a disguised effort to reconstruct their original intent, the video clips are initially chronological but slowly begin to drag on as we continue to flip between scenes of jubilant Dutch colonizers and their adorable freckled children and the newfound poverty and despair of the Indonesian people. In a strictly observational mode, we watch the islanders live seemingly traditional lives, wearing traditional clothing, playing traditional music and performing traditional dances. Then everything takes a turn for the worse. We're briefly introduced to the colonizers before we begin to see the the lives of the natives completely deteriorate. Forests are burned for charcoal, oil derricks are installed, and the natives begin to wear Western attire as they shuttle off to factory jobs. For the remainder of the film, the images waver between instructional and grotesque. The lighter moments come as we laugh as the Dutch try to teach the Western language, music and religion, briefly forgetting that their traditional way of life is being destroyed. One harrowing image is that of a young boy, no older than a toddler, taking a puff from a rolled cigarette after suckling from his mother's breast.

Along with his decision to forgo traditional narration, the misfortune of working with silent films gave Monnikendam the heavy task of creating a soundtrack that provided a sense of cohesive storytelling. With no context, these clips seem like nothing more than a collection of moments over several decades as the world of the Nias progresses in to the 20th century. The soundtrack is a profound mix of “natural sound” fabricated to somewhat match the videos, if only for the first 20 minutes, before it spirals into odd noises that would be better suited to play against a horror film (especially the scene in which natives are wrestling and killing crocodiles). The viewer is given no understanding of the traditional songs and poems that are sung in an Indonesian language, but I must admit that I found them to be the most enjoyable parts of the film. The foreign words allowed some of the scenes, such as the one in what I think was a cotton factory and another of women and children bathing, to feel more observational that other scenes, and along with the rest of the soundtrack, I felt as though these sounds almost justified the filmmaker's predilection for juxtaposing the beautiful life of the Indonesians and the real horror of colonialization.