Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933) by Luis Buñuel was unsettling, controversial and deeply poignant in it’s critique of ethnographic film, and the inhumanity of social science research that too often Others and exoticizes unfamiliar cultures, ultimately perpetuating primitivism while upkeeping damning stereotypes. While the field of Anthropology, using the ethnographic method, has moved away from such practices Buñuel’s film illustrates the use of ethnographic surrealism against the colonial roots of early Anthropology.
Tierra Sin Pan begins and ends, as Catherine Russell points out in Experimental Ethnography (1999), with the ethnographers entry into the city; a subtle yet frequently overlooked statement dictating the perspective of the film and the lack of significance prior to their introduction. Proceeding through the village of La Albeca, and eventually Las Hurdes, like drama-obsessed tourists Buñuel and his crew quickly make their way through the destitute streets with quick “slideshow” type shots and “god” like narration. The residents of Las Hurdes are afflicted with death, disease, starvation and pain; favoring close-ups, the camera appears to enjoy their suffering. As their interests wain, they stage a murder of a mountain goat and seek out other animal deaths in their thirst for gore. The villagers of La Hurdes become primitive spectacles by association, animals living and dying among animals. This powerfully distributing 27 minute production ensnares the people of Las Hurdes in a vicious cycle of struggle and death, leaving them with no opportunity to escape. Buñuel’s decision to trap his subjects speaks to the impact of prior anthropological work which often stereotyped cultures and communities. Conductors of ethnography are often so blinded by their search for eye-catching elements of foreign life they dismiss the lifelong consequences of their work.
Anthropology was often conducted at the expense of others, Tierra Sin Pan captures this shameful history in all it’s crudness. However, the social scientist isn’t the only one with cruel intentions. The ethnographer’s camera serves as a peephole for curious audiences eager to see a show. The film directly acknowledges the viewer as a voyeur, presenting the villagers as specimen to be examined. By witnessing the tragedy that has befallen Los Hurdanos, the audience becomes complicit in the colonial structures that created (or, exacerbated) such circumstances.
Buñuel’s film was received poorly, which was exactly the point he wanted make. Ethnographic research, wielded with colonialist sympathies should be received poorly. Confronted with the errors of anthropological colonialism, I relish the recent reflective strides within the field and acknowledge that such change was no doubt ushered by ethnographic surrealism.