Review 14, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1998), 45-57.
Ethnographic Surrealist Film: Luis Buñuel's Land Without
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.
Buñuel, My Last Sigh (1984: 107).
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).
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.
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:
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).
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.
Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine
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).
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).
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
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)!
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
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
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,
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
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).
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
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."
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).
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
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
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)
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.
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)
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)
who refers to Land Without Bread as a "parody travelogue,"
also suggests Gulliver's Travels as an important precursor
(1983: 7). (back)
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)
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)
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).
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 Listserv@vm.temple.edu.) 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)
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)
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).
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)
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:
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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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