Animated Surrealism

We talk to filmmaker Salvador Simó about goat violence, winning the lottery, friendship and Surrealism.

People who were going to the cinema were the bourgeoisie and they were not used to seeing these things. Buñuel put it on the screen. It was a big scandal.” —⁠Salvador Simó

Films about filmmaking’ is a beloved genre of film obsessives. A new addition to the pool is Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, which mixes animation with original footage to explore the making of Surrealist-cinema godfather Luis Buñuel’s hard-hitting documentary short, Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread).

Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Fermin Solís, this true-story animation is directed by Spanish animator Salvador Simó, who is known for directing kids’ show Paddle Pop, and worked on the visual effects for Passengers and The Jungle Book.

Simó’s film begins just as Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or premieres to controversy. The filmmaker has had a falling out with artist Salvador Dali despite their success with Un Chien Andalou. He’s looking for his next project, when his friend Ramón Acín promises to produce Buñuel’s next film if Acín wins the lottery. Acín does win, and Buñuel travels to Las Hurdes, a poverty-stricken town in a remote region of Spain.

Las Hurdes was banned by the government of the time for its treatment of its subjects, both human and animal (Buñuel had recreated some animal abuse scenes he had read about). Writing about the film on Letterboxd, Edgar observes that Buñuel “literally becomes exactly what he condemns… Nevertheless, like a predecessor of Resnais, the auteur finds a gorgeous balance between natural beauty and the ugliness of social injustice”. Mike writes: “I see why this film was included in the 1001 Movies You Need to See Before You Die. It’s a brilliant mockumentary that cynically defies every moral expectation in order to make its point.”

We spoke to Salvador Simó on the eve of the release of Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles in US cinemas.

Why did you decide to explore the production of Las Hurdes as a film?
Salvador Simó: I discovered Luis Buñuel a long time ago when I was a child. I remember my father has always been a big fan. When I was about nine, he arrived home very excited because he just saw a movie where there were people in a room but they couldn’t get out of the room [1962’s The Exterminating Angel] and I was really fascinated while he was explaining it to me, I was like “wow!”.

When I grew up a little bit more I discovered films from Buñuel, I think he was always somehow in my family in this way. But the fact of doing this film, it was actually because [producer] Manuel Cristóbal called me and showed me the comic by Fermin Solís and he was asking me “do we think we can make a movie of that?” I started reading it and while I thought ‘I do not agree with some things…’ I did think ‘we can make a movie about that’.

What would you say was the documentary’s importance in how it changed Buñuel’s career as a filmmaker from that point forward?
I think it was a turning point for him. Before Las Hurdes, the surrealism that Buñuel was working on took a big influence from [painter Salvador] Dalí. It was totally based on images and things that had not really an explanation. That’s the way they were working. The town of Las Hurdes changed his way of proceeding the making of a film and of telling a story. He became more human.

You see what happened with all his films after Las Hurdes, his surrealism is more based on the human soul. The first film that he did afterwards as an author was Los Olvidados, seventeen years later, and during all that time he learned a lot. After that, all his films that made him really famous was his way to see surrealism in the way we dictate day-by-day.

What was your creative process for the surrealistic scenes?
I did sketch the whole film from the beginning to the end. What we’re calling the surrealism scenes in the film [were] also a way to see into his mind, to tell part of his behavior, his feelings, and even his past. It was in this global way to tell the story of Buñuel to people that is a little bit surrealist.

We never had the intention to copy anything of his way of making film, but we had great influence from him because we’d been working on him for all these years. For this movie I felt like Buñuel and I were walking the same paths. In Las Hurdes he was trying to find his own voice and in this film it was a little bit the same for me, so it has been doubly [influenced] by him and his way to be an artist.

What led to the decision to include footage from Buñuel’s actual films rather than recreating them in animation?
Because they were there. We wanted to show that what happened was real and it was really tough. If we drew that, people would believe it was part of the animation and that we made it up. The best way to see what they were seeing at the time was from the actual footage they shot in 1932.

In Spain, for many years it has been a great controversy about what Buñuel did with his documentary—whether it was real or if he made it up—but what people don’t know is that Buñuel based [it] on an existing book he read by French-Hispanic Maurice Legendre [entitled Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine, English translation: Las Hurdes: Study of Human Geography, published in 1927]. He was there about ten years before and he wrote 300 to 400 pages describing what was the situation in Las Hurdes.

In that book, what Legendre was writing about is worse than what Buñuel did. What Buñuel was trying to show [was] what was happening in that place, to try to change the world. You have to think that in that time, many of the surrealists, they were trying to change the world and make it better. This was Buñuel’s way to do it. He was denouncing what was happening.

Of course the government at the time covered up all of that because they didn’t want to accept that was real, but people were actually dying and starving and they were [contracting] diseases. It was terrible. Buñuel put it on the screen when cinema was starting. People who were going to the cinema were the bourgeoisie and they were not used to seeing these things. They were used to seeing stories of high society and not used to seeing what Buñuel had to show them. It was a big scandal and they forbid this film for many years.

This film acts more as a tribute to [Buñuel’s producer and friend] Ramón Acín than to the filmmaker himself, and delivers Acín the credit he deserves. At what point in your research did you decide to switch the focus to him?
When we were working on the movie I remember at the beginning thinking I need to make the end of the movie more inspiring. Then we talked with Ian Gibson, the biographer of Luis Buñuel, and he told us the story of Ramón Acín. At the beginning he just was kind of a character we were using in a way to show some part of the characteristics of Buñuel at the time.

When he told us the story we thought ‘maybe it’s a story of friendship’. He actually win the lottery after he told him “no worries, if I win the lottery I will pay for the film” and four weeks later he wins the lottery and keeps his word. I thought ‘wow, that’s amazing. He keeps his word!’. I would be surprised if anyone would nowadays.

At the end, it’s not only a tribute to Ramón Acín and Buñuel, it’s also a tribute to the good people that [are] all around the world. We’re too used to hearing about the bad people on the news, but actually we’re surrounded by very amazing people and I think the film is also a tribute to them. Somehow with Ramon, it was the good man who represented that in the film.

Acín acted as the voice of morality regarding the treatment of animals, which is what made the film controversial at the time. Did you use him in that sense to comment on Buñuel’s actions?
Not exactly, to be honest, no. I know the treatment of animals is tough, and I don’t agree with it at all, but I think we need to see this. That was what was happening in 1932. We cannot be blind to that. If we just censor that, we will not be honest about what was happening in that time. Society had different rules and a totally different mentality.

At that time talking about animal rights is like talking science fiction. Why should we have to hide that, because we don’t like it now? I think we have to show it because that’s what happened, whether we like it or not. You’d be surprised at how many countries in the world keep doing these things to animals. Even in Spain, the bullfighting still happens.

Buñuel was always pushing the lines for the people and making them actually jump off their chair. That’s a little bit of what we wanted to do with this film, to make people jump off their chairs too.

We like to ask filmmakers about the film made them want to get into making movies. Which film was it for you?
Actually for me, it was not a film, it was my daughter. I’ve been working 30 years in animation as an animator. Then when my daughter was born I wanted to make more short films about the things that she was interested in. I wanted to tell the stories to her.

Which is your favorite Buñuel film?
A lot of them are great, but Los Olvidados is an explosion of Buñuel for me.


Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’ is in US cinemas now.

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