“Those graceless mountains fascinated me, as did the poverty and the intelligence of their inhabitants. I was amazed at their fierce attachment to this sterile country, this ‘breadless’ earth. In fact, fresh bread was just about unheard of, except when someone brought back a dried loaf from Andalusia” – Luis Bunuel
“Why do you want to show everyone all those ugly things? It’s not that bad, you know. I’ve seen carts filled with wheat in Las Hurdes. Why don’t you show something nice, like folk dances.” – Maranon, president of the Las Hurdes governing council
Bunuel’s third film, after he parted with ways with Dali, is a 27 minute documentary about the Spanish town, Las Hurdes. Bunuel wrote the film with the French poet Pierre Unik, who helped with the voice-over added to subsequent prints of the film (I believe for the premiere Bunuel delivered the narration through a microphone).
The funding for this film came from a promise made by Roman Acin, an anarchist from Huesca. Acin told Bunuel that if he won the lottery he would fund Bunuel’s next film. Acin won the lottery and gave Bunuel twenty thousand dollars. Bunuel spent four thousand on a Fiat and the rest on his documentary.
Las Hurdes: tierra sin pan was inspired by a book Bunuel read written by Maurice Legendre titled Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine (1927). For Bunuel, Legendre’s book presented a place where God has failed to watch over its inhabitants. The Hurdanos have been left without bread, without life, and without hope.
Or at least according to Bunuel. Upon it’s release, the film was banned by the Second Republic of Spain for exploiting the misery of the Hurdanos people. Bunuel was threatened after the premiere by the Falange, an extreme right-wing political group that was founded in 1933. I would argue that Bunuel didn’t exploit the Hurdanos people so much as use them to deliver an indictment of the Spanish state and of course the Catholic church.
Ado Kyrou wrote that Las Hurdes has a “yes….but” structures. This means that Bunuel presents a terrible fact, mentions the possibility of hope, and then takes the hope and squashes it. For example, Bunuel tells us that the villagers have no knowledge of bread so they eat wild strawberries for nourishment, which then gives them dysentery. The people have barely anything to eat, but there are olive trees in more fertile grounds, except that the insects eat the olives. The main industry in Las Hurdes in apiculture, but most of the hives don’t belong to the Hurdanos.
Religion and capitalism are constantly being hinted at in this film. Without any form of narrative, Bunuel shows a brief snapshot of life in this town, while mentioning other places nearby that are more wealthy and vibrant. For example, the Hurdanos people have no graveyard so they have to export their dead bodies to another town nearby. The only true freedom these people receive is when they expire, their body then leaves on a boat to be buried in another town. The Hurdanos people don’t even have the luxury of visiting the graves of their relatives, but they do have a church filled with gold.
In an early scene, Bunuel shows us a classroom. We are told that the children are given bread at home but their parents don’t know what it is so they throw it out before their children can eat it. The school teachers allow them to sneak bread into the class room and eat it there. But, the children are then taught about respecting private property and other morals that reproduce the relations of production.
Like, Bunuel’s earlier films, of which this one could seen as the conclusion to a loose trilogy, Las Hurdes breaks down the distinction between fiction and documentary. Many commentators have said that the voice-over narration and the particular subjects Bunuel chose to depict simply parody the documentary genre. However, at this point in the history of cinema the documentary mode was in its infancy. Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North: a story of life and love in the actual arctic (1922) was probably the most well-known film from this genre and there weren’t many others out there. The documentary as a genre didn’t have a fixed set of syntactic conventions that would have been available for film makers like Bunuel and his contemporaries to take as raw material for a parody. I would argue that like the grandmaster of contemporary cinema, Abbas Kiarostami, Bunuel does not believe in any fixed boundary between fiction and non-fiction film making.
One argument for position that Bunuel is parodying the documentary mode is that the droll and sardonic voice-over is comically juxtaposed to the terrible images that Bunuel is presenting us. The voice-over is detached and uninterested in what is being shown on screen, casually remarking on disease and death.
The voice-over is comical but the intention is not to merely parody the documentary mode. Bunuel subverts the documentary (or the propaganda film genre) for his purposes. Several sequences in the film were staged for effect. For example, the narrator mentions that “goat meat is only eaten when a goat dies,” Bunuel shows us a goat falling to its death from three different angles. “This happens from time to time on steep slopes.” Another staged scene involved a swarm of bees stinging a goat to death. The narrator tells us that Bunuel and his crew came across several men with goats transporting bee-hives to Castilla. They stopped them while they were eating to ask for help with their goats. The narrator is not only sardonic and disinterested but turns the film into something like travel literature.
It is important to remember that the original film was completely silent. Bunuel provided the narration live during screenings. Abel Jacquin was hired to read the French voice-over in 1935 which was cut into the film along with sections of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4.
Jacquin’s narration provides exposition and comments on the images on screen almost like a behind the scenes version of the events of the film. The “yes…but” is combined with a narrative on the events being depicted. Bunuel anticipated many future experiments with the documentary mode that wouldn’t come for another thirty years in the history of cinema. Bunuel transgressed the fiction/documentary boundary to indite both the Catholic church and the Spanish for allowing a place like Las Hurdes to exist as real hell on earth.
As I mentioned above this film was banned upon it’s release. After that Bunuel would produce films for the Spanish Republics film industry: Don Quintin el Amargo, La Hija de Juan Simon, Quien Me Quieri A Mi? and Centinela Alerta. In 1937 he produced a Civil War documentary called Madrid 1936 (or Espana Leal en Armas). Bunuel does not consider these films Bunuel films so we will not be discussing them in the Where the Long Tail Ends feature on Bunuel.
Editorial note: Las hurdes: tierra sin pan is available on youtube for free or on DVD separately and collected with Un Chien Andalou. I should also mention that several donkeys and goats were killed in the making of this documentary. Thanks again for reading, and the next film I will discuss is Bunuel’s Mexican film Gran Casino.