Monday, July 17, 2017

In Andrew Becker & Daniel Mehrer's SANTOALLA, a near-empty Galician village mirrors immigration, culture clash and murder

In their debut film, SANTOALLA, a new documentary, Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer take us to that titular location, a word which turns out to be a kind of contraction of the actual name of the tiny village of Santa Eulalia in Galicia, Spain. Here, amidst the lovely-if-wild landscape and the charming, friendly goats, we meet an interesting couple from The Netherlands, Martin Verfondem and Margo Pool, who, two decades back, decided to leave the "big city" and find some quiet, rustic spot far from civilization where they could set up their own self-sustaining farm and home.

After traveling Europe and Asia for two years in their RV, the couple (shown below; the filmmakers are shown above, with Mr. Becker on the left), at last found what they imagined would be the perfect spot: the nearly deserted village of Santoalla, which at this point in time had only a single Galician family remaining there: an aged husband and wife and their two sons, one of whom is mentally handicapped.

What happened once Martin and Margo bought an abandoned stable, began turning it into their home, planting their crops and raising their farm animals, turned out to be not quite what this enterprising couple had in mind. Initially, however, things looked awfully good. The pair seems like as perfect a couple for this sort of endeavor as you could find.

Becker and Mehrer give us Martin and Margo's story via archival photos and film, along with interviews with Margo and the neighboring family. As tensions rise due to that family's (the husband and wife are shown below) objecting to Martin's plans for not only his and Margo's farm but for the little village itself, we also get some local television reporting, courtroom appearances, and finally, once Martin suddenly and inexplicably disappears altogether, the local police are called in.

This is a sad, depressing but not, TrustMovies thinks, all that unusual a true-life tale, particularly when tradition clashes with modernity, one culture with another, immigration raises its head (if in a rather different manner than we are sued to these days) and the power implicit in being the sole occupants of a town is suddenly challenged. Yet for all that's going on here, the documentary drags from time to time. Instead of all those lengthy tracking shots, minutes might have been better served by footage devoted to further interviews with police, as the mystery begins to be solved.

On the other hand, I suspect that the local police were maybe not so eager to give extended interviews. Certainly that neighboring family was not. From what we see of the four of them, they were never more than quasi-welcoming to begin with, and the wife/mother (shown above), in particular, contradicts herself often enough to seem an outright liar. (Either that, or she has already grown demented.)

By the end of Santoalla, we've seen and heard enough to have our appetite for resolution sated, our feeling for poor, left-alone Margo increased exponentially, and perhaps our idea of starting an organic farm in a lovely far-away location thoroughly dragged through the mud of reality. Still: those friendly, prancing little goats are fucking adorable.

From Oscilloscope Films, running 83 minutes, and in English and Galician with English subtitles, the documentary opens this Wednesday, July 19, in New York City at the Quad Cinema, on Friday July 28 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall 3, and in Taos, New Mexico, on Sunday, August 13 at the Taos Center for the Arts.  Click here and then click on SCREENINGS on the Task Bar at top to see any subsequently scheduled screenings.

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