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?