Swamp Fever: Not Quite Saturday Night
Bunuelian surrealism is difficult to characterize, as he is quite a slippery fellow. Out of his early films, perhaps the most interesting use of surrealism is in his documentary, Land Without Bread. While it appears on the surface to be an innocent documentary designed to spell out the plight of some small village folk, it is much more than that. A scene that gives away the fact that it is more than it appears is the scene that describes swamp fever, a disease the villagers get from drinking contaminated water.
At first, it seems natural to describe this phenomenon as one that troubles the villagers, but it goes beyond that. First, there is a villager with a spoon, helping himself to some water (which is supposedly in very short supply). Then, it cuts to his spoon, swimming with mosquito larvae, showing how horrible the conditions really are for the hapless villagers. The voice then goes on to describe how one can tell that these are the infectious larvae, because they float parallel to the surface, rather than perpendicular. After that comes an incredibly strange moment. In a film that is all about the crudeness of the villagers -- their tools, their mating with relatives and such, it cuts to an encyclopedia with diagrams of regular mosquitoes, floating perpendicular to the surface, and the infectious ones, floating parallel. It is interesting to note that the diagram does not make clear which mosquito is infectious and which not, or even if there is any significant difference between the two. All it points out is that there is a difference in the way they float in the water, and nothing more. Now something is quite obviously out of place here. Detailed scientific analysis is really not entirely necessary here, the cup of water with the floating larvae should be enough to be convincing. It is this step beyond that makes this scene surreal. Nowhere else in the film is this sort of scientific evidence used, quite the opposite in fact. The shot of the little girls swollen tonsils did not require a medical textbook demonstrating the difference between healthy tonsils and unhealthy ones for it to be believable. Actually, her tonsils were not even visible, she could have been perfectly healthy and no one would really know, as a viewer one is forced to take the filmmaker's word for things sometimes. It seems like they were almost using it to prove that there was some real distinction between the mosquitoes, and if the water was infested with regular ones then they wouldn't have any of these problems. It was sort of a token effort to show that the documentary was a valid one, and that they really did research the subject. The shot afterwards is also a bit unnecessary, of the man in the later stages of the fever, sitting on the ground shaking. It does not really lend any credence to the fever's existence, he just has a sour look on his face, and almost looks fake. It is not difficult to have a man sit down and shake, so it simply creates doubt where just a moment before they were trying to establish some sort of certainty. This of course leaves the whole film up to question, how much is real and how much is staged for effect.
It seems that the deeper this scene is explored, the less sense it makes. This could be said to be an element of surreality. This scene is definitely an example of fusing to logically opposed registers, the scientific and the primitive. The aspect that makes it truly surreal however is the fact that they are both fairly ambiguous -- the man with swamp fever being questionable as well as the ambiguous evidence that these mosquitoes are indeed harmful. If this was a serious documentary; or staged effort to help these people is not and probably will not be totally clear, but it is interesting to look at the evidence on either side and try to figure it out for oneself. One way or another, Bunuel managed to turn an at least somewhat serious film into a surrealist enterprise, which would seem to be no small feat.
UC Berkeley - Film 151, Spring 1998
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