Friday, December 2, 2011

Las Hurdes: Surrealist Documentary of a D&D Town?

From the world of dissertation madness writes Spawn:

Yesterday I was trying to find a reference to something I had written in a journal of mine from 1994 about labyrinths and illusory walls apropos of a conversation with Carter the other day. Then I got sucked into the journal, this was from a fairly rough period in my life during college. (Note to dissertation writers: Don't move across the country in the middle of writing a diss, and never pull out a journal from 17 years ago. Probably you shouldn't be contributing to a blog either.) And I came across this passage from Nov. 23, 1994, the day before Thanksgiving that year:
Today watched this terrible documentary (Los Hurdas) [sic] about goiter victims and dirt-eating cretins and idiots in Spain. Firecracker murder of mountain goats.
This was in an anthro class, Human Adaptability and Variation, which I absolutely loved, and I presume it was a day-before-Thanksgiving filler. Yesterday I looked this up and found out it was actually called "Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan", (Land without Bread), and depicts the incredibly hard life in the Las Hurdes region in the 1930s, a perennially neglected and shunned area of northern Spain, practically medieval even then. The instructor was making a point about the social abuses of physical anthropology in the early 20th century (e.g., cretinism was a diagnosable condition, not just a snobby insult), and how the doco was so staged and artificial. Hence the "firecracker murder of mountain goats": there's a scene where the dispassionate narrator is talking about how the people only rarely eat meat, such as when a mountain goat falls to it's death. The instructor said they set off firecrackers to make the goat fall for the film (you can see a puff of smoke, frame-right). It's only 30 minutes, you should watch it. This is the "Unpromised Land" version, which differs subtly from the original narration*, but is a better film transfer:

 What I didn't know was that the film was made by Luis Bunuel, everyone's favorite early surrealist film-maker. And they shot the goat, it wasn't firecrackers. Even if you've never seen his earlier film "Un Chien Andalu", you know Dali was involved, there's ants crawling out of hands, and as the Pixies remind us "Got me a movie! Ooh-ho-ho-ho! Slicin' up eyeballs! Ooh-ho-ho-ho!". Well, in fact, there's an argument (thanks Wikipedia) to be made that the whole thing is in fact more of a parody of documentary films than a mean-spirited effort to portray these people as degenerate sub-humans. Mr. Ruoff's article presents a really interesting analysis. It seems that no one got the joke at the time, or even into the 1990s.

But now that you are properly repositioned as a voyeur of this film, and let's say you watch it three more times and work through your moral outrage at yourself or film or anthropology or surrealism or Franco, this would be a creepy place to go into if the absurdities the doco lays on to reality were accepted as true. By all accounts life was extraordinarily difficult in the region, but in a D&D setting, you enter a town and the festival involves 6 guys pulling the heads off of upside down roosters ... I think Raggi has a module like this. Why do they do all this crazy stuff? Why do they not know what bread is, when they were given bread by the 6 heroes? What's wrong with their water, outside of pigs? Or do the pigs have anything to do with the water? What's the deal with the 18 ruined hermitages within the monastery walls? You get a sense of a fundamentally corrupted, poisoned, cursed land. Maybe the PCs need to figure out what is doing this to the folk and remedy the situation?

Of course the fact that no rooster heads or attempts at ripping them off are shown in the film seems to suggest that this isn't actually what went on in Alberca. Our belief is suspended by the narrator's tone and the ethnographic feel of the film. But, even with the surrealism and sarcasm, the average viewer can probably gain a historical sense that the people suffered because of failures of social governance rather than an evil demon living in a cave who makes even their honey bitter. But it's that sort of metaphorical, mythical imagery -- their honey is bitter! Maybe that's not "weird" but it's wrong -- that makes it interesting for thinking about a Village of Hommlet, or a much warmer, drier version of Vornheim, or Children of the Corn, or Parlier, or wherever else.

And you can impress your friends with references to surrealist film and critiques of ethnography. Win-win!

* What I think is closer to the first English-language narration is in 3 parts: here, here and here.


  1. Clearly you must step up and DM one day.

  2. Completely coincidentally I just watched Un Chien Andalou and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie last night... Dream surrealism is cool :)

  3. Brilliantly interesting article. There’s no doubt I’ll be (ab)using these ideas in my campaign. Thanks mate!

  4. @Carter: After I reach academic name-level I'll give it a go. I just hope you're not in volved in the TPK where 3 men and 11 donkeys are covered in honey and killed by bees.

    @Gavin and Canned Man: You are obviously people of great taste and discernment if both Bunuel and Lands of Ara contribute to your cultural universe. Jolly good!