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That's Not Sad, It's Funny

Someday, a few generations from now, I wonder if our worldly ways will be the subject of a documentary. But one which instead ends up taking its place in archives as an accidental comedy.

A few years ago, my wife and I saw a documentary made by Luis Bunuel in 1932, called "Land Without Bread." This grainy, half-hour black and white movie is narrated by a man with a Brit accent whose descriptions come in a clipped no-nonsense delivery. The film crew trekked to the mountains of Spain near the Portuguese border, an area of remote villages called Las Hurdes. It was an area known for its stifling poverty, populated by outcasts cut off from the rest of civilization. Some critics said the film was a political attempt to embarrass the Franco regime. Either way, it gives an unvarnished view of poor, uneducated people suffering from malaria, incest, lack of medical care, poor hygiene, little or no education, and what might be considered muddled brains.

The film opens in a town square where young men -- to show all watching they're man enough to get married -- take turns riding a galloping horse through the square. Their task is to reach up to grab a chicken hung from a rope strung across the street, and pull its head off. The successful future grooms are then seen jauntily walking around town holding their chicken heads and pouring wine for everybody. With no slight disgust in his voice, our righteous narrator says that by early evening everybody in town was drunk. Strangely, overwrought classical music is blaring dramatically under his voice as its stark pictures flicker on the screen.

The film crew was welcomed to the next village by "a choir of idiots," says our guide, who later more specifically describes them as the town's hostile outcasts. Among them are "midgets," and "cretins," he tells us. They are apparently the result of not enough food and too much inbreeding. They're laughing at the camera with goofy smiles and rotting teeth and don't look too familiar with soap.

"They are almost wild," says the narrator who sounds increasingly testy as the movie goes on, as if he can't hide his contempt for what he calls "wretched lives" in the villages.

Everybody in town seems to be sick from drinking out of the town's polluted stream, and many suffer from goiters. One pre-teen girl is so sick she's abandoned on a back street and is found moaning. The film crew has somebody open her mouth to examine her inflamed gums. We're told she died two days later.

Kids are shown in a one-room, drearily lit schoolhouse. The kids, sitting shoulder to shoulder on stark wooden benches, look gaunt; some are bald. They look like they're in a death camp.

Although there are plenty of walnut, cherry and almond trees in the area, they don't do much good, we're told, because all their fruit is eaten by insects. The only meat these villagers eat is the single pig they decide to slaughter once a year, which only lasts three days. Other than that, they eat the occasional mountain goat that stumbles and falls to its death on the many jagged, rocky cliffs in the area. The film crew actually gets a shot of a goat falling off a high precipice, pinwheeling hard off of several rock outcroppings below.

The crew films an attempt by locals to return honeybee hives they'd been tending for some outside business. They tied boxes holding the hives onto a mule's back for the journey. But one of the boxes slips through the rope and breaks open on the ground. The bees swarm out of the broken hive and mercilessly sting the hapless mule. The next shot shows the dead animal lying on its side, still getting stung, a glazed eye still open.

As if to imply, "if you think this is bad," the narrator then tells us, a month earlier three men and 11 mules reportedly also died amid another bee-related accident.

Then we see women huddling together eating green cherries. They're eating them green to avoid starvation. That's the good news. The bad news is that this leads to dysentery. Hmm.

For farming, these people collect leaves from a certain tree a long mountain hike away, a sack at a time, then spread them on the floors of their huts. Each trip is a barefoot walk on treacherous rocky terrain, which tears up their feet. The floor leaves rot after a year, then they use them as fertilizer for planting potatoes. But because they plant by the river, floods wipe out their fields every year.

Meanwhile, when a local gets bit by a non-poisonous snake, the treatment is some kind of ointment. That, says the narrator, infects the bite wound and eventually kills the person.

Cooking is another adventure that seems to bring locals on the verge of aysphyxiation. They cook with fires inside their rock-walled huts which have no visible chimneys or windows, and we see thick streams of smoke pouring out the cracks of a local's hovel.

Then there are the everpresent mosquitoes. One man suffering from malaria sits on a rock, his body violently shaking like a marionette being cruelly jerked around by a demonic puppeteer.

A camera crew venturing into one of the local huts finds that locals sleep in their clothes and we're told, wear them "until they fall into rags."

It's easy to feel bad for the villagers' suffering documented more than 70 years ago. But it's hard not to wonder about their absurd approaches to the basics of survival and health. They make Gilligan look like Einstein.

But it's nothing to feel smug about, with the "How could anybody be so stupid" reaction which I admit, was mine at first. After all, if we manage to produce future generations of a much more advanced world, many years from now some of them might sit down to watch a documentary about us. They might well size up our methods in head-shaking pity, wondering how we could have ever survived with all our dimwitted ways.

Why did we burn fossil fuels to power cars and generate electricity for so long? Wasn't it obvious they'd run out? Why did we pollute our air, our water, our oceans? Why did we slaughter our fellow man, poison our food sources and kill off countless species of wildlife?

As the imagined narrator of this future film cites in his California surfer accent the 50th act of unfathomable self destruction by our civilization, the audience, which at first had watched in quiet sympathy, suddenly becomes a lip-biting bunch trying hard not to laugh. They feel bad for us, sure. But holy moonrocks, repeated acts of such obvious stupidity? It's suddenly slapstick comedy. How could so many of those people be that slow?