Visual Anthropology Review 14, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1998), 45-57.

An Ethnographic Surrealist Film: Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread

The real purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself.

-Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh (1984: 107).

The Future and Past of Ethnographic Film

Today, the field of ethnographic film, like that of anthropology in general, is in a state of creative disarray.1 Questioning the conventional sources of ethnographic authority, many critics have concluded that traditional forms of cross-cultural representation are unethical and politically indefensible. Films and videos produced by Amazonian Indians, Australian Aboriginals, and North American Inuit have challenged the premises of ethnographic cinema (Ginsburg 1995). Writing in Visual Anthropology Review, Jay Ruby outlines three possible future roles for visual anthropologists, "1. Ethnographers can act as facilitators and cultural brokers for indigenous media makers; 2. Ethnographic filmmakers can become collaborators with the people they film; and 3. Ethnographers can filmicly explore their own culture" (1995: 78).

The best way to transform anthropological cinema is not, in my opinion, through an abandonment of established practices, but rather through a critical re-appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of specific works. We need detailed critiques of existing films. If ethnographic film has reached a dead end, it may be because other, more promising, routes were not followed in the past.2 The inventiveness of earlier works has been lost or forgotten in the rush to condemn the colonial legacy. We must reinvent anthropological cinema through a deeper understanding of its own history. One remarkable work, still poorly understood in anthropological circles, is Luis Buñuel's Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread (Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan, 1932). No anthropological film from the 1930s provides such a comparable, almost encyclopedic, portrait of a given region or demonstrates such a subtle understanding of ethnographic film style.

Ethnographic Surrealism

In the 1920s, following other Spanish artists such as Salvador Dali and Juan Miró, Luis Buñuel moved to Paris, then the center of artistic activity in Europe. He joined in the activities of the Surrealists and shared their obsession with Freud and the unconscious. Like the Dadaists before them, the Surrealists cherished the random phrase, the image recorded as if by accident. They took as their notion of beauty the juxtaposition of incongruous elements (Balakian 1959: 154). The surrealist movement in poetry, literature, and film overlapped with the emerging discipline of modern anthropology in France. Writing about French culture between the wars, James Clifford has coined the term "ethnographic surrealism" to describe the intersection of anthropology and art in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike traditional anthropological discourses, which strive to make the unfamiliar comprehensible, ethnographic surrealism, Clifford writes, "attacks the familiar, provoking the irruption of otherness -- the unexpected" (1988: 145).

Luis Buñuel lived and worked in Paris during this period of interdisciplinary ferment. There are explicit connections between the Spanish filmmaker and French anthropology. Buñuel was invited to participate in the 1932 Mission Dakar-Djibouti, the first large-scale French anthropological field expedition. Led by Marcel Griaule, the expedition provided artifacts, some 3,500 objects, for the new Musée de l'Homme, founded in 1937 (Clifford 1988: 136-8). As Buñuel recalls in his autobiography, My Last Sigh, he turned down the invitation to "make a film about the trip" and writer Michel Leiris went in his place (1984: 138). The documentary Buñuel produced instead, Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan -- shot while Griaule, Leiris, and their cohorts were working their way across sub-Sahara Africa -- may be seen as his


response to, and even critique of, the much-publicized anthropological expedition. At a time when Griaule was collecting artifacts in Africa, Buñuel recognized that anthropology could find subjects in Europe as well. The twenty-seven-minute film is distributed in two different English-language versions, Land Without Bread and Unpromised Land, as well as French and Spanish versions. There are small but significant variations among these versions. For the sake of clarity, I am limiting my discussion to the version of Land Without Bread with the American voice-over commentary.3

I see Land Without Bread basically as a parody of non-fiction, though not a fake documentary. Mock documentaries, such as Woody Allen's Zelig (1983) with its fabricated archival footage and pompous BBC-style narrator, form a separate genre.4 Like Land Without Bread, a film may parody the conventions of documentary yet still be non-fiction as is the case with such works as Ross McElwee's Sherman's March (1985), Michael Moore's Roger and Me (1988), and Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988).

Land Without Bread brilliantly and perversely combines objective detail and illogical continuity. It expands the disruptions of filmic conventions developed in Buñuel's earlier films, An Andalousian Dog (Un chien andalou, 1929) and The Golden Age (L'Age d'or, 1930). Land Without Bread is a didactic work of moral satire, like Jonathan Swift's masterpiece Gulliver's Travels (1727).5 At the conclusion to his travelogue, Gulliver writes, "Thus, Gentle Reader, I have given thee a faithful History of my Travels for Sixteen Years, and above Seven Months, wherein I have not been so studious of Ornament as of Truth. I could perhaps like others have astonished thee with strange improbable Tales; but I rather chose to relate plain Matter of Fact in the simplest Manner and Style, because my principle Design was to Inform, and not to amuse thee" (Swift 1994: 299). William Thackeray, writing of Swift's book, noted that it was both "logical and absurd" (Turner 1994: 375), characteristics that apply equally well to Buñuel's documentary.

The Ethnography: Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine

Land Without Bread was directly inspired by Maurice Legendre's Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine (1927). In his autobiography, Buñuel recalls reading the ethnography in the early 1930s (1984: 139). Astonishingly, virtually no Buñuel scholar has since bothered to read Legendre's work.6 It has been suggested that ethnographic films and photographs are useful only to prove the existence of the people anthropologists study. In the present case, the opposite obtains. The existence of the Hurdanos, possibly suspect after a screening of Buñuel's film, is conclusively established by Legendre's impressive tome. The similarities and differences to Land Without Bread are highly instructive. Although Buñuel had visited the region of Las Hurdes as a college student (Aranda 1976: 23), it is safe to say that he did no additional research during his two-month stay in 1932. In all likelihood, the director chose to shoot the film during the spring because, as Legendre writes, "March, April, and above all May, are the terrible months" (1927: 169).

Legendre devotes over fifty pages to a historical analysis of the literary legend of the region. Accounts of an isolated tribe in the mountains of Las Hurdes date from the 17th century. Legendre quotes a story told by Ponz that, "If you ask the way to Las Hurdes in Pino, they will tell you that it lies farther on, and if you ask this question farther on, they will respond that you have gone too far, in such a way that no one wants to be Hurdano" (1927: 66). Conversely, the Rousseauian version of the legend portrays the Hurdanos living in a state of primitive communism, or, appropriately enough for Buñuel's purposes, a "golden age" in the words of writer George Sand (Legendre 1927: XXXVIII).

Legendre based his study not only on such written accounts, but more importantly, on repeated visits to the region, returning practically every summer between 1910 and 1926. This early example of ethnographic fieldwork documents the eternal struggle of man versus nature. Here, however, man is "vanquished" (1927: 104). Of the impoverished mountainous terrain, Legendre writes that "it is strange, incredible, and, in some ways, scandalous that the region of Las Hurdes is inhabited at all" (1927: XIV). The author describes the territory as a kind of "Dantesque hell" (1927: XV). Employing a rhetoric of victimization (later carried to a ridiculous extreme by Buñuel), Legendre maintains that sickness is the "ordinary state" of the local inhabitants (1927: 104).

There are cinematic elements to Legendre's description of the area and its people, including comments suggestive of a guided tour, such as "let us proceed back up the same valley" (1927: 76). He portrays the wretch-


edness of the Hurdanos in figurative language, noting that the earth beneath them lies ever ready "to open up like a tomb" (1927: 78). Furthermore, a number of photographs in Legendre's ethnography look like frame enlargements from Land Without Bread, including shots of typical dwarves and individuals suffering from goiter.7

The most striking difference between Legendre and Buñuel is the former's sincere Catholicism. Legendre justifies his work as labor on behalf of the "redemption of the Hurdanos" (1927: VII). His faith in religion tempers his commitment to the new science of human geography. He takes solace in the fact that the Hurdanos are Christians and, therefore, retain hope for a better life (1927: XIX). Buñuel, a fervent atheist, enjoyed frequenting cafés in Paris in the 1920s dressed up as a nun (1984: 83). Contrary to Buñuel's scathing indictment of Catholicism in Land Without Bread, Legendre proposes the construction of more churches in the region (1927: 413)!

Summary: Land Without Bread

The opening intertitles introduce and define the genre ("a filmed essay in human geography") and the setting ("a sterile and inhospitable area" in Spain). As the narrator explains in voice-over, the "expedition" begins in Alberca with the viewing of a "strange and barbaric ceremony." Once the citizens of the town are "drunk with wine," the expedition proceeds to an abandoned monastery in a fertile valley. There, a lone Carmelite monk "protects the property of his order." We move on to the first village of Las Hurdes, where several young girls eat bread dipped in the water of a "miserable little stream" (Fig. 1). At the local school, "starving" children learn geometry and instructive moral lessons. Arriving in another village, the expedition meets a "choir of idiots" and then finds a young girl ill in the street (Fig. 2).


Land Without Bread then surveys the Hurdanos' diet of potatoes, beans, pork, and honey. A goat falls off a mountain. A donkey is consumed by bees. The annual migration to Castille to "work in the harvest" begins and ends. We see the planting and hear of the local harvest of fields. Some Hurdanos collect fertilizer in the hills. A brief essay on mosquitoes and malaria leads into a section on disease and dwarfism, caused "by hunger, by lack of hygiene, and by incest." A baby dies and preparations for a funeral ensue. 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 an Hurdano home. As the family prepares for bed, an elderly woman walks the darkened streets, chanting of death. The expedition abruptly ends.8

Trusting Documentary

Documentary is supposed to be a serious, even educational, genre. It prompts sincere readings. Still today many critics take Land Without Bread at face-value, seeing it as a straightforward work of social-issue documentary. The American Anthropological Association guidebook, Films for Anthropological Teaching, describes it as "a social and anthropological document on the unique district of Las Hurdes near the Portuguese border of Spain" (Heider and Hermer 1995: 153). When I referred to the film as a "black comedy" on an electronic bulletin board devoted to visual communication, I received a number of testy replies from anthropologists and filmmakers who had always taken the work as, in the words of one of them, "a serious, but flawed documentary."9

When Buñuel's film went into commercial release in 1937, the British film director Basil Wright praised it as an important work of non-fiction, while criticizing the inappropriate voice-over commentary and poor choice of music. Wright was one of the most respected documentary filmmakers of his generation; as much as anyone, he helped define the parameters of the form. He concludes his enthusiastic 1937 review of Land Without Bread with the following comment, "Unfortunately,


someone (presumably not Buñuel) has added to the film a wearisome American commentary, plus the better part of a Brahms symphony. As a result, picture and sound never coalesce" (1971: 146). While mistaken, Wright's comments hint at the central tension of Buñuel's work.

The historical record shows that Buñuel did choose the "wearisome American commentary," as well as the unlikely musical accompaniment. Nor were these elements merely afterthoughts as Wright's remark implies. The writer Pierre Unik composed the voice-over narration in collaboration with Buñuel. Unik, a surrealist poet and a member of the French Communist Party, participated in the two-month shoot in Spain.10 According to Buñuel's biographer, Las Hurdes was first shown in a press screening in Madrid in 1933. Buñuel "read the written text admirably in a tone which combined insolent indifference and apparent objectivity; and used the accompaniment of the Brunswick discs which formed the sound-track when the film was eventually synchronized in Paris" (Aranda 1976: 94). The screening caused a scandal and the Republican government of Spain immediately banned the film (Aranda 1976: 97). According to Buñuel, when the filmmaker appealed this decision, the president of the governing council of Las Hurdes concurred with the ban, asking why the film did not showcase the folk dances of the region (1984: 141).

Land Without Bread is probably best understood as the concluding work in a "triptych" that includes Buñuel's earlier surrealist films (Aranda 1976: 116). However, to appreciate Land Without Bread as a parody, it is not even necessary to place it along this auteurist trajectory. A close analysis of the documentary suffices. On the most superficial level, the film describes some aspects of life in a mountainous region of Spain. On a second level, it stages a violent attack against several hegemonic institutions of Western civilization, in particular the Catholic Church, but also the educational system and private property. Most significantly, however, Buñuel's work subverts dominant systems of representation by gradually undermining its own truth claims.

Consider, for example, the title: Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread. Such titles are absolutely typical of travelogues. Recent screenings at the World Cavalcade series in Portland, Oregon, featured Argentina: Land of Passion and Czechoslovakia: Land of Beauty and Change. Yet, as in so many other ways, Buñuel amusingly inverts the convention by defining Las Hurdes in the first instance by something it lacks. Incidentally, bread is not unknown in Las Hurdes, as Buñuel's film asserts, but it is, according to Legendre, a "luxury" (1927: 164). The fact that many Hurdanos go "entire months" (1927: 168) without bread does not justify the film's surrealist claim that the Hurdanos "do not know what bread is." Given the centrality of bread in the rituals of Catholicism, the title also sounds like another swipe at organized religion. Buñuel could have at least conformed to Legendre's study (1927: 305) by calling his film "Las Hurdes: Land Without Butter." The inanity of characterizing an entire region through negative terms resurfaces later when the narrator pointlessly singles out another missing ingredient of the local culture, "It is strange that all the time we were in the villages of Las Hurdes we never heard a single song."

Land Without Bread marshals a host of devices conventionally associated with non-fiction film, for example, the introductory intertitle that proclaims, "This is a filmed essay in human geography made in Spain in 1932." The film appropriates the style of an "illustrated lecture" to introduce viewers to the secluded region of Las Hurdes. It explores with apparent scientific rigor the way of life of a people. It is worth recalling what many consider the canonical work in this genre, Robert Flaherty's popular first feature Nanook of the North (1922), the most famous ethnographic film of the pre-World War II era. As critic Ken Kelman first noted, Land Without Bread bears important stylistic similarities with Nanook of the North (1978: 125).

Flaherty's documentary on the struggle for survival of one Inuit family opens with a series of intertitles that introduce the "barren lands" and "sterile" environment of northern Canada. Against this harsh background, Nanook of the North celebrates the nobility of the Inuit. As Arthur Calder-Marshall noted, the definitive experience of Flaherty's career was "the discovery of people who in the midst of life were always so close to death that they lived in the moment nobly" (1963: 67). The second intertitle of Land Without Bread reads, "Las Hurdes is a sterile and inhospitable area where man is obliged to fight, hour by hour, for his subsistence." Like Flaherty, Buñuel frames his work as a conflict of man against nature. But this drama is not fulfilled by the account he provides. Nature is not the principal adversary of the Hurdanos. The film inverts the epic heroism characteristic of Flaherty's work; though the Hurdanos also live close to death, Buñuel refuses to grant them a comparable noble savagery.


The Unreliable Narrator

Land Without Bread features an authoritative, disembodied, voice-over commentary, a standard element of 1930s documentary.11 As Bill Nichols reminds us, such voice-over technique normally reins in the polysemic quality of the imagery, "Speech added to images is like captions added to pictures: they steer us toward one understanding and away from others" (1994: 128). This combination of pictures and words carries rhetorical weight and it remains a paradigmatic feature of our notion of documentary. In Land Without Bread, the sounds and images seemingly reinforce each other, especially through the timing of the words with the pictures, as, for example, when the voice-over redundantly states, "We see the village women combing themselves," or, "We can see the inhabitants at their daily rounds." Close-ups and cutaways, such as that of the diagrammed mosquitoes in the encyclopedia, ostensibly provide proof of the film's argument. While drawn from everyday events, however, numerous images in Land Without Bread emerge directly from the surrealist iconography of violence, transgression, and death: a headless rooster hanging upside down in a town square, a bull exiting the door of a house in Alberca, a close-up of the head of a donkey swarming with bees.

The narrator, while anonymous, speaks on behalf of the expedition, i.e., "we encounter this donkey with its load of two returning hives." Through the use of this first-person plural, his comments encourage identification between expedition members and viewers. This reinforces the pact, the informal agreement, between the documentary and the viewer that the events depicted are real and occurred as described. In other instances, the narrator addresses us directly, attempting to win our acquiescence, "The smaller one you can see here is twenty-eight years old." Such sound and image devices lull viewers into a state of passive agreement.

The use of seemingly neutral (but similarly loaded) terms such as "report" and "catalogue" furthers the truth claims of the movie, as does the statistical information about the region, expressed in such terms as "fifty-two towns with a total population of 8000." In his autobiography, Buñuel recalls the emphasis on memorization his own education entailed, "When I was a schoolboy in Saragossa, I knew the names of all the Visigoth kings of Spain by heart, as well as the areas and populations of each country in Europe. In fact, I was a goldmine of useless facts" (1984: 3). Similarly, in the sequence at school, impoverished Hurdano children learn the irrelevant geometrical fact that the "sum of the angles of a triangle equals two right angles." The information we learn about Las Hurdes in Land Without Bread is frequently as useless.

The voice-over commentary is deliberately ethnocentric, willfully contradictory, and deceptively humorous. It is probably impossible to do justice in writing to the tone and delivery of the narration. The terms "insolent indifference" and "apparent objectivity" (Aranda 1976: 94) -- used to describe Buñuel's live reading of the text at the 1933 premiere -- probably come the closest. Land Without Bread exploits our gullibility and the willing suspension of disbelief the documentary form requests. Thus, for example, although on a second viewing the young children going to school appear adequately groomed, the commentary overpowers our ability to make this judgment, boldly referring to them as "uncombed kids."

Of some "Christian pendants" shown in close-up, the voice-over says, "we cannot help but compare them to those of barbaric tribes in Africa and Oceania." Then, having said that, the film fails to offer any comparison. Yet the purpose of this scene is not only to denigrate the hegemonic claims of Christianity by association with supposedly less vaunted beliefs -- as Sergei Eisenstein did through an intellectual montage of religious icons in October (1928) -- but to call into question such comparisons in the first place, and to introduce the single most subversive element in the documentary: the unreliable narrator.12 Bit by bit, the voice-over strains our credibility to the breaking point. While the commentator initially serves as our surrogate guide for this tour of Las Hurdes, Land Without Bread eventually undermines our confidence in him. This occurs, for example, when the narrator cavalierly states of a group of Hurdanos, "At the entrance to the town, we are welcomed by a choir of idiots." Gradually, we part company with our guide and companion, the normally trustworthy voice-over narrator.

Why Is This Absurd Picture Here?

After the ritual sacrifice of a rooster in the opening sequence -- not unlike the slitting of the eye at the opening of An Andalousian Dog, which, in Buñuel's words, "moves the spectator into the cathartic state necessary to accept the subsequent events of the film" (Edwards 1982: 59) -- we are primed to enter Las Hurdes.


With the expedition as our guide, "We leave the village and see before us an entanglement of mountains."13 The expedition moves on to an ancient monastery of Carmelite Monks. The voice-over notes that the convent lies in ruins and is only inhabited by animals that crawl along the ground. The narrator describes a once-sacred trinity found in prehistoric cave paintings of the region -- "men, gods, and bees" -- only to replace it with the profane threesome of "toads, adders, and lizards." The commentary contrasts the abundance of the valley with the poverty of Las Hurdes, just "five kilometers away." After learning of the wealth of the order, we are told, "The convent is surrounded by eight kilometers of wall . . . which precludes the assault of wolves and of wild boars." While this comment also appears in Legendre's ethnography, the pause in the narrator's voice introduces doubt as to the purpose of the fortification, insinuating that the wall also protects the convent from the nearby Hurdanos.

The subsequent sequence on education forcefully illustrates the Hurdanos' plight. At school, young boys and girls learn not only useless facts but also the social values that prevent them from rebelling, "We find a book of morality on a table and open it at random. One of the best pupils can write from memory on request one of its maxims: respect the property of others." Here the film's implicit cry of revolt reaches its apogee. As the camera tilts up to a print of an aristocratic woman in full costume, the narrator states, "We discover an unexpected and shocking picture on the classroom wall. Why is this absurd picture here?" This is, of course, the same question that viewers must now ask of Buñuel's documentary: Why is this absurd picture here? The power of the film as a political tract lies precisely in its pseudo-objectivity, its derisive refusal to render judgment.

Indeed, the classroom sequence is crucial to understanding Land Without Bread because the director has made an instructional film, a work that shares a pedagogical kinship with the methods of the traditional European schoolroom. In the classroom, the possibilities of chance collide with the rule of rote memorization. A book of morality is opened "at random," but the child recalls the moral lesson "from memory." Buñuel decries the emphasis in education on useless knowledge, memorization, and oppressive morality. Then, much more daringly, he implies the same about the standard non-fiction film itself. Buñuel's work puts us in the position of viewers of a typical educational documentary, lectured by a film about something we don't know. We become the "choir of idiots" such a genre demands. While Land Without Bread unquestionably abuses the Hurdanos, its ultimate target for scorn is the viewer (and, of course, the producers) of such ethnographic travelogues.14

Numerous non-sequiturs follow in the voice-over commentary. For example, over a pan of an empty alleyway, the narrator proclaims, "As we go through the streets, we see many ill people." Then, as a woman sleeps (or rests) in an open loft, the voice-over notes, "This woman, lying on her balcony, does not even realize our presence." Viewers willingly fill in the missing connections. (The fact that the woman does not acknowledge the expedition members in no way demonstrates that she is sick.) The voice-over then abruptly drops the subject of human misery -- with an objective detachment in which man is no longer the measure of all things -- and provides us with another of its gratuitous facts, "Balconies of any kind are rare in most of the villages of the Hurdes."15

In another sequence, we are informed, in words taken almost verbatim from Legendre's book (1927: 126), that "One eats goat meat only when one of the animals is killed accidentally. This happens sometimes when the hills are steep and there are loose stones on the footpath." A remarkable two-shot sequence ironically illustrates this claim. In the first image, at the moment the goat slips in the distance, a puff of smoke appears in the lower right-hand side of the frame. A reverse angle match-on-action shot then shows the animal falling from above. From one image to the next, the camera shifts from one side of the mountain to the other. To fabricate an illusion of continuity, the film crew shot the goat, hauled its carcass up the side of the mountain, and threw it off again. By leaving the traces of this process in the film, however, the director undermines the illusion and exposes the artifice of montage.

The subsequent claims of the voice-over reach greater and greater heights of absurdity, "We see a young girl lying in a lonely street and we ask the mayor, who accompanies us, what is wrong with her. He says that the child has not moved for three days, is complaining, and must be ill. One of our friends examines her inflamed gums and throat but, unfortunately, can do nothing for her. When we came back to this village two days later and asked about her, we were told she had died." The entire sequence is intentionally preposterous. Las Hurdes is not Auschwitz; children do not die unattended in the streets. As proof of her debility, the film offers a close-


up that purports to show the girl's inflamed gums, yet they are not inflamed. The callousness of the voice-over affirms the comment that Buñuel's "goal is an anthropology as impersonal as an entomology" (Rubinstein 1983: 4). Land Without Bread reverses the anthropomorphism of the nature documentary and, instead, treats its human subjects like animals.

Death hangs over every frame of Land Without Bread, just as the skulls over the church door "preside over the destiny" of the Albercans in the opening sequence. For example, the film asks us to believe that shortly before the expedition arrived in Las Hurdes, "three men and eleven mules" were killed by honey bees. (The weight of convention remains so powerful that many viewers accept this ludicrous statement as fact.) Having seen an itinerary of how death visits the Hurdanos -- whether by accident, starvation, or infection -- we begin to wonder how there is anyone left for the film to record. Nevertheless, in flagrant contradiction, the narrator matter of factly informs us, after the death of a baby, that "A death is a rare event which can be recorded in this miserable village." The rush of village women "in crowds to the dead's house" similarly contradicts the earlier, outrageous, neglect of the child lying in the "lonely street."

Our Daily Bread

The musical accompaniment to Land Without Bread can hardly be ignored. In most of his features, Buñuel avoids background music (Aranda 1976: 200). "Personally I don't like film music," the director stated in an interview. "It seems to me that it is a false element, a sort of trick, except of course in certain cases" (Edwards 1982: 36). Land Without Bread is, famously, one of those cases. From Basil Wright onward, critics have noted the nagging inappropriateness of the score. It consists of the first two movements, followed by the second half of the fourth movement, of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E Minor (1885). As Vivian Sobchack points out, the lush romantic symphony is "antithetical to what it accompanies" (1981: 144). One particularly improper climax in the score occurs when a blast of horns accompanies the sudden appearance of "another type of idiot." By working against audience expectations, the music accentuates the film's ethnographic surrealist project of incongruous juxtapositions, what Clifford calls, in his discussion of the French journal Documents, "fortuitous or ironic collage" (1988: 132).

The soundtrack of Land Without Bread -- music and voice-over commentary -- works in opposition to the images. Given this incongruity, we have three choices; ignore the sound by attributing it to someone other than the filmmaker, as Basil Wright did; disregard the audio by treating it as a sign of incompetence; take the sound as a deliberate subversion of conventional image and sound relations in documentary. Of Buñuel's The Golden Age, one of the first sound films produced in France, a critic wrote, "The audio portion is used in a most unusual way: to destroy rather than reinforce the illusion of reality in the work" (Martin 1983: 24). Much the same must be said of the audio track of Land Without Bread; clearly, Buñuel was one of the first, though still unacknowledged, masters of sound cinema.16

Certain naive readings of Land Without Bread might be explained by a lack of familiarity with surrealism or with Buñuel's earlier films. The most remarkable fact about Basil Wright's short review is that he refers to An Andalousian Dog. He defines Land Without Bread as a "complete volte-face" by a director who "had hitherto specialized in shots of dead donkeys ensconced in a grand piano" (1971: 146). Wright manages to deny not only the subversive role of sound in the documentary, but also Buñuel's parody of accepted cinematic techniques, such as the point of view shot, in his earlier works. In addition, Wright fails to notice that Land Without Bread includes a shot of a dead donkey!

Why did Basil Wright presume that someone other than Buñuel made the soundtrack to Land Without Bread? It is, I think, because the guiding premises of surrealism -- summarized by Buñuel in My Last Sigh as "passion, mystification, black humor, the insult, and the call of the abyss" (1984: 107) -- were foreign to Wright's understanding of the social role of the documentary.17 Simply put, satire is not serious and therefore has no place in non-fiction. We can measure the distance between our world and Wright's by recognizing how we value those features he sought to disavow: contradiction, doubt, carnivalesque inversions, deliberate incongruities. Within the field of anthropology, some sixty years after the commercial release of Buñuel's film in Paris, it is time to recognize Land Without Bread as a parody of ethnographic film.

The Future of Ethnographic Cinema

In Claiming the Real, Brian Winston argues persuasively that most non-fiction films portray their human


subjects as pitiful victims. These well-intentioned works fail, in Winston's revisionist opinion, because they substitute "empathy and sympathy for analysis and anger" (1995: 274). Unlike what Winston calls the "tradition of the victim" documentary, Land Without Bread refuses to sentimentalize the sufferings of the Hurdanos, to appeal to our pity, our charity. It destroys the illusionist basis of the documentary, laying bare its ideological underpinnings and its timid complicity. Most importantly, Buñuel has made a film about the viewer, his or her preconceptions, expectations, and naive trust. He demonstrates that the conventions of the form blind us, that we have lost the ability to think critically about what we hear and see. We respond like Pavlov's dogs, through reflex, to the stimuli of sounds and images and the familiarity of particular genres. If an ethnographic surrealist practice explores culture as "a contested reality," as James Clifford suggests (1988: 121), then Land Without Bread is the crowning work of ethnographic surrealism.

Just as Buñuel's documentary proposes no clear remedies for the Hurdanos' plight, it offers no obvious solutions for the current crisis in ethnographic film. But Buñuel recognized that conventions of expression, while essential to communication, eventually become obstacles to insight. Only Jean Rouch, who came of age in Paris in the 1930s, has followed Buñuel's ethnographic surrealist example with films such as The Mad Masters (Les Maîtres fous, 1955) and Little by Little (Petit à petit, 1969).18 Inspired by Buñuel's spirit of experimentation, anthropological filmmakers should consider other genres such as comedy and romance. Similarly, ethnographic filmmakers might consider filming adaptations of written ethnographies, as Buñuel did with Maurice Legendre's Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine.

In addition, the future of anthropological cinema must be nurtured by greater understanding of past endeavors. Visual anthropologists need to re-examine the rich history of ethnographic film, including not only forgotten works such as the Smithsonian-funded By Aeroplane to Pygmyland, Stirling New Guinea Expedition (1927), but also the extensive research footage stored in archives. Ethnographic filmmakers, like their literary counterparts, should return to the scenes of earlier works. We need, for example, a film on the making of Robert Gardner's Dead Birds (1963) which also explores the remarkable transformations in the highlands of western New Guinea after decades of Indonesian rule.

To discuss Land Without Bread as a parody does not mean the film is simply a joke. On the contrary, when I have shown it in classes on anthropological cinema, it has permanently altered how students react to the truth claims of films such as Dead Birds or Dennis O'Rourke's Cannibal Tours (1988). As a parody that lays bare the formal rules of documentary -- and challenges conventional systems of representation -- Land Without Bread offers a beacon for the future of ethnographic film. Although it does prey on its viewers' gullibility, turning audience members into "a choir of idiots," it also sows the seeds of 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.19


1. An earlier draft of this work -- "A Parable for Ethnographic Film: Luis Buñuel's Land Without Bread" -- was presented at the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, where I was a visiting research fellow in 1996. I am grateful to Peter Copek, John Young, Wendy Madar, Frank Unger, Robert Nye, Rich Daniels, Jon Lewis, Guy Wood, and other seminar participants for their thoughtful criticisms. Jay Ruby and David MacDougall read subsequent versions of this essay, gave useful comments, and encouraged me to argue the relevance of Buñuel's work to the future of ethnographic film. (back)

2. Some recent writings suggest that the post-modernist anthropologists are finally becoming curious about ethnographic cinema, a repressed tradition within the discipline. Unfortunately, most are perilously ignorant of the history of ethnographic film. James Clifford holds up an image from Jerry Leach and Gary Kildea's Trobriand Cricket (1973) as an example of an "ethnographic surrealist attitude" (1988: 148). Trobriand Cricket is a delightful anthropological film and an excellent example of structural-functionalist analysis. But it is difficult to envision how such a work will help reinvent anthropology along the lines Clifford counsels. (back)

3. VHS copies of Land Without Bread with the American voice-over commentary, priced at $29.95, are currently available from Facets Video, 1517 W. Fullerton Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614, USA, (800) 331-6197. (back)

4. The masterpiece of the mock documentary is Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary (1967), an entirely convincing autobiographical film by one David Holzman,


a character invented by screenwriter and star L. M. Kit Carson. Additional fiction films that ridicule the conventions of non-fiction include such works as Albert Brooks' Real Life (1978), Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap (1984), Remy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde's Man Bites Dog (C'est arrivé près de chez vous, 1992), and Christopher Guest's Waiting for Guffman (1996). (back)

5. Rubinstein, who refers to Land Without Bread as a "parody travelogue," also suggests Gulliver's Travels as an important precursor (1983: 7). (back)

6. To my knowledge, no one in anthropology has discussed Buñuel's film in reference to recent debates about ethnographic representation and that is the purpose of my essay. I am not the first person to discuss this film as a spoof of documentary. There is a long bibliography of essays about Land Without Bread, as well as books on Buñuel. Ado Kyrou (1963: 44-5) discusses the paradoxical structure of Land Without Bread, while Freddy Buache (1973: 34-5) notes the significance of filming in Spain in 1932. Those studies directly pertinent to my argument appear in the citations to this article. My essay has been influenced by prior discussions of the film by P. Adams Sitney, Ken Kelman, and Francisco Aranda, Buñuel's biographer. Not coincidentally, some of the most enlightening readings of the film have come from avant-garde critics such as Sitney who tend to be wary of the formal conventions of documentary realism. James Lastra, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, has written a detailed study of Land Without Bread in light of French surrealism in the 1930s. I am grateful to Jim for lending me a chapter of his larger work-in-progress on surrealism, painting, and film. (back)

7. All translations from Legendre's study are my own. Given that Buñuel based his film on Legendre's book, the similarities between Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread and Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine are not surprising. For example, the ethnography confirms the traffic in adopted children mentioned in the film (1927: 83). Bees, however, are not represented in prehistoric cave paintings in Las Hurdes, but in another region of Spain (117). Legendre also describes the seasonal transport of the hives (111-112). The death of the donkey at the hands of the bees, like those of the three men and eleven mules, is of course Buñuel's surrealist invention. According to Legendre, the heath honey is not "bitter," as Land Without Bread puts it, but "mediocre" (115). Legendre notes the frequency of intermarriage, "even to the point of incest" (86). The book, like the film, maintains that the Hurdanos eat unripe cherries and suffer as a result from dysentery (166). Detailed studies of the local architecture confirm that there are no windows or chimneys in a typical home (176). Legendre even notes that the Hurdanos exhibit little penchant for decoration (187), giving the film license to declare outlandishly of one home, "The cut paper and the line of pot covers on the wall indicates a certain flair for interior design." Legendre also admits the objectification inherent in ethnographic description, "Only with difficulty does man, at once reasoning and free, allow himself to be treated as a scientific object" (XII). However, nothing in Legendre's study supports Bunuel's contention that the midgets and cretins in Las Hurdes are "dangerous" and "almost wild." The narrator of Land Without Bread recalls their difficulty "trying to photograph the idiots." On the contrary, Legendre's frontal portraits suggest the cooperation of his subjects. Among the numerous photos that appear at the end of the ethnography are portraits of a blind woman, a "distinguished and well-educated young woman," and a "very intelligent and ingenious man." (back)

8. Tom Conley's 1987 essay includes a shot-by-shot description of the film along with numerous photographs. Conley breaks the film down into fourteen sections: "Credits," "La Alberca," "The Countryside and Abandoned Churches," "The First Hurdano Village Scenes," "School and Writing," "The Lower Depths: Extreme Hurdano Town and Country," "Scaped Goats," "Daily Economy and Tribulation: Beehives," "Cultivation and Gathering of Food," "Mosquitoes and Death," "Dwarfs," "Death: A Child's Funeral," "Home Life: Interior Scenes and the Death Knell," and "The End" (1987: 189ff). (back)

9. The impetus to write this article grew out of a series of exchanges on VISCOM, an electronic bulletin board devoted to visual communication, to which Peter Allen contributed, on January 5, 1996, the comment quoted above. (Readers interested in subscribing should send an e-mail message to I am indebted to Peter Allen, John Hiller, Kay Gebhard, and, especially, Austin Lamont for their subsequent remarks. Their resistance to viewing Land Without Bread as a parody of documentary spurred me to clarify my interpretation. Most standard histories -- Erik Barnouw's Documentary (1973), Richard Barsam's Nonfiction Film (1974), Jack Ellis' The Documentary Idea (1989) -- fail to consider the subversion of non-fiction conventions in Land Without Bread. Winston is one recent exception


(1995: 84-5). MacDougall notes the documentary's "provocatively surrealist" nature in a footnote to his essay on voice in ethnographic film, "Whose Story Is It?" (1992: 39). (back)

10. During the Spanish Civil War, Unik and Buñuel worked together again on a film supporting the Republican cause. According to Helen Schawlow, this archival documentary, España leal, en armas! (1937), also features a "maddeningly detached and ironic" voice-over commentary (1989: 86). Unik spent five years in German labor camps during WWII only to die of exposure in 1945 after having escaped from the Schmiedberg camp (Schawlow 1989: 123). (back)

11. The disembodied voice-over, aptly dubbed "the voice of God," has been so thoroughly criticized as to deserve no further comment here (Ruoff 1992). Suffice it to say that Buñuel was the first to question and burlesque the pompousness of authoritative narration, before Orson Welles' mock-newscast of the War of the Worlds (1938) and the equally delightful "News on the March" fake newsreel in Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). (back)

12. The classic discussion of unreliable narration in the novel is Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961. As Booth warns, "the narrator is often radically different from the implied author who creates him" (1983: 152). The narrator in Land Without Bread is, of course, Unik and Buñuel's invention and should not be mistaken for Buñuel himself. While a commonplace in modern writing, films whose narrators deliberately deceive or mislead the spectator are comparatively rare. In Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell cites Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) for a flashback that dramatizes several scenes from the point of view of a character who later turns out to be lying (1985: 61). A good example in recent Hollywood cinema would be Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects (1995), while Mitchell Block's No Lies (1974) probably offers the most sophisticated use of this technique (Sobchack 1988: 332-344). Documentaries with intentionally unreliable narrators are extremely rare, for obvious reasons. Even patently misleading works of propaganda, such as Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1934), construct (supposedly) reliable narrators. Obviously, the last thing a director of propaganda wants the audience to do is to question any aspect of the film. (back)

13. The "entanglement of mountains" also appears in the ethnography (1927: 14) and Legendre credits the term to an earlier travel article by the Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno. In his autobiography, Buñuel recalls meeting Unamuno in Paris in 1925 (1984: 79). (back)

14. I agree wholeheartedly with Sitney's concluding remarks on Land Without Bread, "Although the film does present a devastating image of the wretchedness of Hurdane life, it even more powerfully indicts the documentary genre itself and urbane audiences who respond to it" (1985: 203). (back)

15. Sobchack takes this scene as another example of how the film deliberately objectifies the Hurdanos, treating them as of no greater or lesser importance than architecture or mosquitoes (1981: 147). Buñuel confirmed his lifelong interest in entomology, along with his distaste for religion, in My Last Sigh, "I loved, for example, Fabre's Souvenirs entomologiques, which I found infinitely superior to the Bible when it comes to a passion for observation and a boundless love of living things" (1984: 217). (back)

16. As Rubinstein notes of the illustrated travelogue genre in general and Land Without Bread as an ideal type, "the voice in practice as in theory could alter with every showing of the film" (1983: 8). In their textbook Film Art, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson praise Chris Marker's Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia, 1957) for demonstrating how the content of voice-over narration manipulates the viewer's response to a given image (1993: 293). Buñuel showed this with more subtlety some twenty years earlier. (back)

17. In the same review, Basil Wright discusses Joris Ivens' Spanish Earth (1937), for which Ernest Hemingway wrote, and read, the voice-over commentary. Having described the voice-over to Land Without Bread as "wearisome," Wright contends that Hemingway provided Spanish Earth with "the best commentary in the history of the sound film" (1971: 147). From my perspective sixty years later, Buñuel and Unik's multi-layered commentary in Land Without Bread is far superior. Predictably, the first word Wright uses to describe Spanish Earth is "sincere" (1971: 146). A detailed comparison of the two films would be instructive in understanding the range of documentary approaches in the 1930s. (back)

18. Another recent work of ethnographic parody is Babakiueria (1988), produced by the Aboriginal Programs Unit of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In Faye Ginsburg's words, "we follow an Aboriginal investigative reporter as she lives with 'a typical white family in a typical white ghetto' in a parodic indictment of ethnographic inquiry and the journalistic gaze" (1995: 71). As the title suggests, the ritual of the barbecue


becomes the interpretive key to understanding transplanted European culture in Australia. (back)

19. Others are not so optimistic about the lessons of Land Without Bread. The most convincing is Rubinstein who argues, "Human suffering, for Buñuel, is not, as in any quasi-scientific liberal view, a disease, an abnormality whose causes can be isolated and whose growth can be checked; it is a condition of existence, a given, common to all mortals and merely exemplified to a bizarre degree and in a spirit of exemplary acquiescence by the Hurdanos" (1983: 5-6). (back)



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Aboriginal Programs Unit 1988 Babakiueria.

Allen, Woody 1983 Zelig.

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Block, Mitchell 1974 No Lies.

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Buñuel, Luis 1929 An Andalousian Dog (Un chien andalou).

1930 The Golden Age (L'Age d'or).

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Eisenstein, Sergei 1928 October.

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McElwee, Ross 1985 Sherman's March.

Moore, Michael 1988 Roger and Me.

Morris, Errol 1988 The Thin Blue Line.

O'Rourke, Dennis 1988 Cannibal Tours.

Reiner, Rob 1984 This is Spinal Tap.

Riefenstahl, Leni 1934 Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens).

Rouch, Jean 1955 The Mad Masters (Les Maîtres fous).

1969 Little by Little (Petit à petit).

Singer, Bryan 1995 The Usual Suspects.

Welles, Orson 1941 Citizen Kane.

Wright, Basil 1934 Song of Ceylon.


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