‘Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’: The Tale of the Surrealist Documentary ✮✮✮✮

“Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” left me with mixed feelings about Luis Buñuel, but feeling firmly that animation was the right medium to tell this story about the surrealist as he filmed a documentary about poverty in Spain, “Las Hurdes.”  Making its world premiere at the Animation Is Film Festival in Hollywood, the animated feature was given a special jury prize (for director Salvador Simo).

Born in Spain (1900), Buñuel is best known for his first film (1929), “Un Chien Andalou,” in which, if I remember correctly, you won’t see a single Andalusian (German Shepherd Dog). The movie isn’t about surrealism, but a period of time when Buñuel stepped away from Surrealism after reading an ethnography: “Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine (1927) by Maurice Legendre. The academic study was about rural life in one of Spain’s poorest states,  Extremadura.

One thing to keep in mind is that the documentary was not as clearly delineated as it is now. Robert J. Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” came out in 1922 and some of its scenes were staged and there was some question about truth in advertising (Flaherty claimed the subject later died of starvation when he likely died of disease). “Nanook” was 79 minutes long. After seeing “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,” you’ll be surprised to learn that Buñuel’s 1933 “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” is only 27 minutes.

“Las Hurdes” was funded by Ramon Acin, who had promised that should he win the lottery, he’d subsidize a movie. “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,” which is based on a graphic novel, shows Buñuel to be hard to work with and flashes back to his childhood influences. Director Simo inserts real black and white footage from “Las Hurdes” when the slaughter of animals is filmed. I’m thankful for that but because of my feelings toward animals,  “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” shows Buñuel as a man who was not only difficult to work with but also had a disregard for the suffering of animals. The deaths of the first two animals are seen as justifiable. A chicken is killed by hand. That’s rural life. Two goats are shot and the dead animals are given to the villagers who have little enough to eat. The game changer is when a burro is killed by being left as bait for bees. Even Buñuel’s colleagues are sickened. 

“Las Hurdes” was banned in Spain from 1933 to 1936. In some ways, it would be thought of as a pioneering effort for mockumentaries. “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” will be release in Spain 26 April 2019. In Spanish and French with English subtitles.

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