Observing Disappearance By Dennis West

in 7th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Dennis West

Luis Bunuel´s classic documentary Land Without Bread was a shocking examination of the poverty-stricken lifestyle of the inhabitants of a remote, rural region of Spain in the 1930s-a region so poor that bread was practically unknown. The young Spanish director and coscreenwriter Mercedes Alvarez now offers an updated vision of life in remote country towns in Spain in her beautiful debut documentary feature The Sky Turns (El cielo gira), which captured the FIPRESCI prize at the Seventh Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema in April, 2005. The poverty and lack of opportunity documented in Land Without Bread forced many inhabitants in rural Spain throughout the 20 th Century to flee the countryside and seek their fortune amongst the bright lights of Spanish cities. Alvarez´s film documents life in a remote Spanish town -in the uplands of Soria- where 20th Century migration was such that, at the start of the 21st Century, only fourteen inhabitants, all elderly, now remain. Their rural lifestyle, then, is rapidly disappearing; and The Sky Turns observes that disappearance with extraordinary insight and sensitivity.

Alvarez herself appears to be the last person born in this community, and her curiosity about the situation of her native town led her to undertake this project, which involved many months of on-location research and filming amongst the townspeople. Perhaps because Alvarez herself is a native, she has been able to capture the flow of life in a rural setting with respect and sensitivity.

The director tracks her subjects with the realistic, tried-and-true stylistic approach of stationary camera set-ups coupled with long takes. Slow editing rhythms then create the sensation that the life and upcoming death of the village are simply being recorded before our eyes. The film’s painterly compositions portray residents as integral parts of the rural landscape, and the compositions themselves become suggestive evocations of disappearing lifestyles-those of the shepherd and the peasant.

The grand themes of this meditative documentary are immigration and emigration, community and place, work and the everyday stuff of human existence, social change, history and politics, origins and endings, life and death, aging and the passage of time. These themes are made vivid and memorable in part thanks to the filmmaker’s discovery of a vast array of striking symbols, images, and metaphors. The chopped off trunk of a huge, ancient elm still stands in the town square-a powerful visual reminder that the unavoidable cycles of life and death involve both human communities and Nature’s individual specimens. The otherworldly and new-fangled windmills that appear along a ridge suggest not Cervantes’ classic masterpiece Don Quijote, but rather the inexorable advance of human technology.

The most innovative approach Alvarez uses in her film is what she refers to as the “puesta en situacion.” This approach uses the camera as a provocation to put characters in situations which they themselves then develop and unfold-whether it be a discussion about death held in a cemetery as digging is being undertaken or a conversation about time and aging carried out as two elders slowly walk up a hill they have frequently climbed for decades.

Alvarez is to be congratulated for crafting a film that will stimulate productive discussions concerning a vast array of social issues as well as esthetic concerns, such as the nature of the documentary genre and the boundaries or lack thereof between fiction films and documentaries.