Few people will be offended if I call “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” a terrible film. It is terribly depressing and for a documentary it has a very flexible relationship with facts. Fortunately it is short so the pain is manageable.
But watching it again I go to reflect on this genre in general and the inherent problems they come with.
In the best of all worlds a documentary is an objective description of a subject from the real world. There is no room for fiction and the documentarist is only a passive observer. From the documentary we therefore get a snapshot of reality and it serves as a truth witness. We get a bit smarter on the world we live in.
Unfortunately this is usually not the case. In fact I would claim that in the most extreme definition this is almost never the case. The problem is that somebody is making the documentary. This documentarist has an intention with the documentary, a starting hypothesis that is the basis of the documentary. When he or she goes into the field to document they already have a fairly clear of what they want and they seek that out to film it. Of course it may be that adjustments happen along the, but it is very rare that a documentary takes an entirely different direction. Therefore we are not necessarily getting what is really out there as much as we get what the producer wants to find.
What if the documentarist starting hypothesis is wrong, that the problem barely exist or was a non-issue? In science that is a perfectly valid result and provide valuable information, but for the documentarist that is looming disaster. The documentary needs an audience and an audience is only interested if there is meat on the story, a level of drama or indignation or at least some pretty pictures. A half hour show to document that a problem actually was not so big an issue after all is unheard of and you would quickly get out of work if it was that sort of shows you produced.
So problem or not, there must always be a story.
Add to this that the documentary is a snapshot. To many people this documentary is all they will ever know about that issue and so whatever pictures it draws up will be stuck in the minds of the viewers.
Let us take an example. A documentarist have heard that housing is a problem In a little town of 5000 people. It turns out that it is only 10 people who cannot find a place to live, but the show is on so he focusses on these 10 people and describes their troublesome quest for a home. To the viewer it looks as if housing is a really big issue in this town even though 4990 of the 5000 residents have a place to live.
When the story gets politically motivated, and in a certain sense you can say that everything is politics, the documentary becomes agitating and even propagandistic. An election video is a good example. It has to move people and the story may be absolutely true but is described in a way to support the agenda of the documentarist. Sometimes this very obvious like “Triumph des Willens”, but often not so easy to spot. I would make the claim that any documentary has an agenda and true or not we have to become convinced.
So, where am I heading with all this?
With the above in mind it is quite easy to understand Las Hurdes. Spain was divided in a bitter struggle between socialists and facists and each take a rather extreme position. Bunuel is supporting the socialist side and so endeavors to find and describe some poor downtrodden people to fuel the socialist cause. If the conservative and wealthy class gets to look bad in the process so much the better. With that in mind Bunuel and his crew look up the people of this impoverished region to show how bad it is. They are not interested in the things that actually works or the things that the church or others of the establishment actually does for these people (they got a new school and a road, that is something, no?) because that would just muddy the picture. The focus has to remain on the misery of these people. Sometimes I felt that the narrator and the picture were mismatched because what I saw did not look as bad as it was described, but there is a remedy for that. If you cannot find it, make it. Apparently the mule that succumbed to the bees did so after having been smeared with honey and at least two animals were slaughtered for the film.
Watching this we will, as we have no prior knowledge of this region and its people, be convinced of the atrocious conditions these people live under and the Bunuels agenda has succeeded. However in this case as in most if not all of the politically motivated movies of the pre-war period we recognize the exaggeration and so must conclude that if we cannot trust part of the story, what can we trust? And so the documentary loses all its momentum. This is an issue that remains to this day. When you recognize the agenda of the documentarist and start spotting errors the story crumbles. A typical Michael Moore problem, but he is far from alone. Al Gore could not help tinkering with his figures and that seriously weakened an otherwise important cause. And even if all the facts are right, have we really gotten the full story? Hardly.
I honestly do not know how conditions were in Las Hurdes in the thirties and after watching “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” I do not feel any smarter, only disgusted.