In order to understand a formative moment for the great surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, it was always clear to the filmmakers of “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles” that animation would be the only accurate reflection of what the artist experienced when making a documentary about the Spanish mountainous region of Los Hurdes, even if the filmmaker himself was seeking as realistic a film as possible.
“This is no typical movie. It is pure, naked,” Buñuel can be heard imploring his producing partner Ramon Acin, shortly before the two embark to La Alberca to shoot “The Land Without Bread” in “The Labyrinth of Turtles,” intent on following up his collaboration with Salvador Dali, “L’Age d’or” with something undeniable for audiences. After shocking them with dog-kicking, Buñuel seeks out suffering in all its forms to bear witness to barbarism lurking just underneath the veneer of civil society in traveling to one of Europe’s poorest communities, urging a local butcher to snap the neck of a chicken before his camera and busting a beehive to swarm around a donkey. But it becomes clear the filmmaker is working through his own pain and anguish just to feel something again himself, agonizing over having a limitless imagination but limited means to express himself artistically and a reservoir of hurt that extends back to childhood and a father dismissive of his interests, sneering when he performs sophisticated shadow plays for his friends.
The reasons to describe Buñuel as animated in the film go beyond how he’s hand-drawn, a larger-than-life character whose inner thoughts where elephants and giraffes can freely parade can be properly illustrated as well as his fluid emotions, which run the gamut from exasperation to elation as he roams the 52 villages of Las Hurdes with a camera crew. Like the filmmaker’s work, the more “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles” gets away from strictly capturing reality, conjuring the magic of cinema, the more truth is revealed and shortly after the film’s premiere at the Animation is Film Festival in Los Angeles, the film’s director Salvador Simo alluded to the fact that through recounting this pivotal moment when in Buñuel’s development as an artist, he was able to convey his own path to a creative life, as well as sharing how he sought to do justice to the iconic filmmaker’s work and including the snippets of it he could never recreate on his own.
Manuel Cristóbal, one of the producers, called me one day and told me, “I have this project. You have to read this comic and tell me if you like it,” and he had learned of it through another producer in Extremadura. So I went to buy the comic and sat down in the cafe side of the bookstore and I just devoured it very quickly because [the comic itself] was very nice, but in my family Buñuel was very present ever since I was a kid. My father was a great fan and I remember him talking to me about “The Exterminating Angel,” so he introduced me to Buñuel and Buñuel was something very special for me. And I was living in London [at the time] so to come back to direct my first film in Spain with a character like Luis, I felt very lucky and fortunate to have the chance to do something like this, so I called back Manuel and said, “Yes, this is amazing. Let’s do it.”
Beyond the graphic novel, do you actually go to Las Hurdes yourself?
The comic was the seed of everything, but after that with Eligio [Montero], the other writer, we did a lot investigation into what happened at that time in Las Hurdes because there is not much written about it. We had the great luck to meet Juan Luis Buñuel, the son of Luis Buñuel, before he passed away last December and he helped us a lot. But [we didn’t want to tell a story about] Luis Buñuel after 60 years. It was what was Luis Buñuel when he was 32, so one of the things that caught my eye was that he was a young director trying to find his own voice and [I could identify with that] a little bit. It’s like you are not on the journey alone, and that’s what I could put in the film.
[The film incorporates the] feeling and heart of all of the people who came to work on this film. They did it because they believe in it and as a director, I try to work with people who know more than me and can add things, so by the end, it’s a film that’s done by almost 200 people, but I just happen to be the guy [talking to you]. People who are extremely talented – the musician Arturo Cardelus, the art director Jose Luis Agreda, the animation director Manuel Galiana – all did amazing work and the film would not be the same if these people were not there.
There’s one moment where Ramon is telling him, “Yeah, we don’t have money. You have to cut this sequence,” which is something the producer will always tell you, and Luis was very angry, like “No, we have to do it.” And then you find a creative way to make the movie. [laughs]
When it’s such a legendary figure as Luis Buñuel, did you have an idea of who he was and anything came along to change your mind?
Yeah, the direction was changing all the time because Luis was a very contradictory character. His childhood was complicated – he was a rich kid, but that didn’t mean he had an easy life. It was full of conflicts – the authority of the father, [what was happening with] the church at the time, and all the taboos – these are all reflected in his films, so as you start to read about Luis and dig a little bit in, everything is surprising. You’re getting in the mind of a genius and if you see what he’s doing without trying to understand why he’s doing it, you might think this guy is really weird, but if you understand why he is doing it, you can actually feel some empathy and say, “Yes, I understand why he’s doing that.”
Is that why you were compelled to intercut the documentary into the animation – to say this actually happened?
Yes, because these things happened there and changed his perception of the world, so they had this emotional arc and we show it as it was filmed in 1932 and there was no better way to do it. What happened in Las Hurdes was [often] cruel as you can see, and if we had made the shots of Luis shooting the goat or pulling the head off the chicken, people would be like, “Oh, you make up all of that,” but now no one can say that because that was there. We [included some] fiction [in the story] and some things that were not fiction, but [the documentary scenes show that it] happened. And the animation opens the audience to a new world, to a story that’s going to be told in a way that you don’t expect. It gives you a playing field to drive the audience emotionally wherever you want and that’s what’s important.
The film is also quite moving because it restores the participation of Luis’ producer Ramon to history after he had initially been erased from the credits for his political beliefs. Was that an important part of the film for you?
Yeah, that was touching and as much as we were discovering the life of Luis, we were surprised about Ramon. We hope that people know a little bit more about him because his story was incredible. A few months ago when I was visiting his grandson in Barcelona, he was telling me [Ramon] had a big house in the countryside and all the intellectuals who were immigrating from Spain to France were stopping at his home, so he had the chance to talk to many people and it became a must-stop for the exchange of cultures and people don’t know that. And his grandson showed me clips of animation! He was doing animation in the 1930s – he was a sculptor, a painter, a poet, and an animator, so he was an amazing character, who as you say was erased from the history because of his beliefs.