Are victims interesting?


Director Aran Hughes and Christina Koutsospyrou,

Greece, 2013, 74 min.

Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan is a film by Luis Buñuel from 1933. During its half-hour duration, the people living in a remote mountainous region in Spain are portrayed as extremely poor, purportedly neglected and abandoned by the rest of the country, if not the rest of Europe. Seeing it as a student years ago, I remember that I found it puzzling in many ways. The tone of the film was rather strange and today you can read on Wikipedia that the film “…is in fact an early parody of the barely invented genre of documentary filmmaking.”

I was thinking of it the other day, because I found myself watching a group of people living in a mountainous region in Greece, portrayed as extremely poor, and purportedly  neglected and abandoned by the rest of Greece, if not the rest of Europe.

To The Wolf by Aran Hughes and Christina Koutsospyrou (both are credited as director, cinematographer and editor) shows us an environment untouched by sunlight – metaphorically or otherwise. A goat shepherd, Giorgios, and his parents plus another older shepherd, Paxnis, and his wife are the main characters in this film, where the sky is always grey and where power lines scar the (presumably) beautiful landscape. The opening of the film is a monologue by Paxnis.

He tells us that Greece is dying and that people are stealing and we kind of get the idea that the financial crisis is to blame on for the misery of the region – which we as spectators of course are inclined to believe and frown upon.

The film’s images are bound to make you breathless; less so the slow editing pace, but that’s okay. The characters look picturesquely weather-beaten, and everything seems to be going well from my perspective. But after a while,I began to suspect that the monologue in the beginning is what the film has set out to prove. That there is absolutely no hope; poverty and starvation will prevail. And they do.

That could be a problem from a dramatic point of view if you’re into plot development. But what I find even worse is the impression I got that the film is actually doing the characters a disservice by depicting them like this – as victims of external calamities and an unseen enemy. It’s as though we don’t get to know them as people. Who are they really? What do they like? What kinds of activities make them proud and content? I find this to be a recurrent mistake of many socially aware documentaries because, to put it bluntly: are victims interesting – in an engaging way?

Will I proffer my sympathy to people who show no interest in anything, not even each other?

So maybe the film holds an immanent and somewhat naïve perception of the portrayal as redeeming in itself by sheer force of imagery and scenery. As if the poor souls will benefit from being portrayed in this way?

I felt like a jerk for thinking this, and then tried to acknowledge the allegorical theme, which is somewhat more rewarding if not totally comprehensible. On the film’s website, it is described as “… both the reality and an unsettling allegory of today’s Greece”. The film does contain some traits of very, very subtle humor, but there are a lot of bad moods around; the young people are leaving (no, they already left) and no one seems to care much about anything except money, food, drinks and cigarettes. Love of nature, culture, each other, one’s trade – anything – is almost completely absent in the film. If this is an allegory of Greece, then Καληνύχτα και καλή τύχη¹  to them!

So the overall problem for me isn’t the aestheticizing of poverty but rather that this bleakness takes you nowhere. A tragic perspective never seems to suggest a way out, and hence we risk letting down the subjects of the film because we as spectators are left to feel pity rather than sympathy.

And then it happened that I suddenly came to think of that old Buñuel-film. What he did was to utilize a centuries – old Spanish “tradition” of viewing the inhabitants of Las Hurdes as a group of generally underdeveloped people. But he did so in a somewhat surrealist and satirical manner (which of course escaped most people – even film students to this day) to change the direction of the way we normally perceive other people and incidents. If that is the great idea behind To the Wolf then I will tip my hat – but unfortunately  this doesn’t quite seem to be the case._

¹ Good night and good luck

International Premiere: Berlinale Forum

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