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Land Without Bread

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Land Without Bread by Luis Bunuel
There are numerous ethnographic surrealist films that have an intriguing relationship to aesthetics and politics. A film that exemplifies this relationship is “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” (Land Without Bread). This film is only 27-minutes and is directed by the infamous Luis Bunuel in 1933. Bunuel was a Spanish filmmaker of the 1920’s to the 1970’s. He is often attributed to being one of the major contributors to the surrealist movement of the 1920’s. “Ethnographic surrealism is a utopian construct, a statement at once about past and future possibilities for cultural analysis.”(Clifford, 119) ‘Land Without Bread’ has a clear connection between politics and aesthetics. It uses many techniques, specifically the narrator and soundtrack, in order to enhance the ostensible political meaning of the film as well as link it to the ethnographic surrealist movement. Many ethnographic surrealist artists turned their attention to the problem of representing otherness. “Bunuel identified what he saw as a Surrealist tendency to “use” bourgeois society’s ‘other’s’ to negate the cultural status quo while never giving these others their due”(Lastra, 55). Land Without Bread is considered one of the earliest forms of ethnographic surrealism.
Fatimah Rony describes Ethnographic cinema as “above all a cinema of the body: the focus is on the anatomy and gestures of the indigenous person, and on the body of the land they inhabit”(Rony, 111). While many film scholars describe “Land Without Bread” as a documentary, Land Without Bread is in fact an early parody of the barely invented genre of documentary filmmaking. One of the original ethnographic filmmakers, Robert Flaherty, stated, “One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit”(Rony, 103). It is apparent that Land Without Bread was a major catalyst in the creation of documentary and ethnographic filmmaking.
The film centers on the mountains Las Hurdes region of Spain and the intense poverty that its occupants encounter. The opening sequence of the film introduces and defines the genre ("a filmed essay in human geography") and the setting ("a sterile and inhospitable area" in Spain). The expedition begins in Alberca with the watching of a "strange and barbaric ceremony." Once the people of the town are "drunk with wine," the expedition continues to an uninhibited monastery. Afterwards, we move on to the first village of Las Hurdes, where numerous young girls eat bread dipped in the water of a small stream. At the local school, "starving" children study geometry and educational moral lessons. Arriving in another village, the expedition meets a "choir of idiots" and then finds a young girl ill in the street. Land Without Bread then surveys the Hurdanos' diet of potatoes, beans, pork, and honey. The scene where a goat falls off a mountain and a donkey is covered and killed by bees is staged unbeknownst to the viewer. A short-lived essay on mosquitoes and malaria leads into a portion on illness and dwarfism, caused "by hunger, by lack of hygiene, and by incest.". As the camera pans across some graves marked with crosses, we hear that, "despite the great misery of the Hurdanos, their moral and religious ideas are the same as in other parts of the world." We tour a "luxurious" church before visiting the inside of a Hurdano home. As the family prepares for bed, an elderly woman walks the darkened streets, chanting of death. The expedition abruptly ends.
It is evident that there is a strong relationship between the films aesthetics and politics. During the time when Las Hurdes was being filmed (1933), there was political uncertainty and upheaval, with a new constitution being made in 1931 and an election that saw the very right win come to power in 1933. The film immediately generated controversy in Spain where “it was banned first by the Republican government and later by the fascists” (Lastra, 52). It was banned to due its forward condemnation of church and capital, as well as the “dehumanization and repudiation of its subjects.”(Lastra, 52) It is clear that the film has a strong political theme. Lastra states that “Las Hurdes has been praised as a scathing and straight forward condemnation of church and capital”(Lastra, 52) and that “Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini are blamed directly for the misery depicted in the film.”(Lastra, 54). It is apparent that Bunuel was concerned with showing the squalor of a people ignored by a careless pre-Franco regime. On the most superficial level, the film defines some aspects of life in a mountainous region of Spain. On a second level, it stages a passionate attack against several hegemonic institutions of Western civilization, in particular the Catholic Church, but also the educational system and private property.
Bunuel came to believe that the cultures they represented were worth taking seriously as more than just objects of appropriation. He identified what he saw as a Surrealist tendency to ‘use’ bourgeois society’s ‘others’ to negate the cultural status quo while never giving these others their due (Lastra, 55).
Most significantly, however, Buñuel's work undermines its own dominant systems of representation by gradually undermining its own truth claims. For example, the title of the film is land without bread, however, in a sequence of children playing by the river, you clearly see them eating the bread and dipping it into the water. Given the centrality of bread in the rituals of Catholicism, the title also sounds like another swipe at organized religion.
The film uses several techniques in order to enhance the ostensible political meaning of the film. The most prominent technique is the narration and the soundtrack. Some see Land Without Bread as a social-issue documentary, while others see it as a mock documentary/parody.
Instead of the traditional travel narrative that seeks to integrate and narratavize a heterogeneous set of images, we get parallel threads of exposition, each falsifying the other, casting doubt first on the voice, then on the image. In fact, several of the film’s most troubling occurrences are simply on the sound track, without further proof (Lastra, 60).

The voice-over commentary is deliberately ethnocentric, willfully contradictory, and deceptively humorous. “The image track often contradicts the voice over and vice versa, creating a situation where no single discourse ever fully masters the entirety of the materials”(Lastra, 59). Thus, for example, although on a second viewing the young children going to school appear adequately groomed and healthy, the commentary overpowers our ability to make this judgment, boldly referring to them as "uncombed kids." Furthermore, the narrator proclaims one child as dead when the child looks suspiciously like she is sleeping. Some would consider Land Without Bread as one of the first mockumentary films. “Ethnographic surrealism and surrealist ethnography are utopian constructs; they mock and remix institutional definitions of art and science. To think of surrealism as ethnography is to question the central role of the creative artist”.(Clifford, 147) This quote exemplifies how Bunuel used the soundtrack and narrator in order to make a film about the viewer, his or her preconceptions, expectations, and naive trust towards the artist/filmaker. He demonstrates that the conventions of the documentary form blind us and we have lost the capability to think critically about what we hear and see.
To talk about Land Without Bread as a parody does not mean the film is simply a joke. The film uses ethnographic surrealism to express a “complex process that generates cultural meanings, definitions of self and other.”(Clifford, 146) Land Without Bread offers an example for the future of ethnographic film by laying down the formal rules of documentary and challenging conventional systems of representation. Although it does prey on its viewers' gullibility, turning audience members into "a choir of idiots," it also lays the groundwork for its own destruction. It opens a space for an engaged, critical viewer. For this reason, as much as for its portrayal of terrible poverty in the Spanish countryside in 1932, Land Without Bread is a revolutionary film.

Bibliography
Clifford, James. "On Ethnographic Surrealism." Comparative Studies in Society and History 23.04 (1981): 117-51. Print.

Lastra, James F. "Why Is This Absurd Picture Here?" October 102 89 (1999): 51-68. Print.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing. "Taxidermy and Romantic Ethnography." Duke University Press, 1996. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.

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