The limits of documentation

ENVIRONMENT / In a small village in southern Spain, where modernity and tradition coexist, a study investigates the interconnection between humans and animals.

Speaking about a documentary film today gets more and more challenging risk. Too evident is the tendency to enrich observational cinematography with micro-events, all well captured in the right moments – like seemingly intimate situations such as dialogues of secret-sharing siblings in a bathroom or careful and shy approaches between two youngsters falling in love, or a young woman dancing on her balcony just feeling good by herself. A new qualifying term for this kind of work would be useful, not to completely give up the documentary claim. We are speaking here about films not only working with re-enacting, but having the camera, or even cameras, ready whenever something happens to create a narration.

Antier Noche Alberto Martín Menacho
Antier Noche, a film by Alberto Martín Menacho

In limbo

Alberto Martín Menacho’s (*1986, Madrid) Antier noche is a film settled in the limbo between storytelling and fact capture. The film starts with a casting scene of a 13-year-old youngster, who indeed will be one of the persons followed in the film. Through this, a quite frank opening scene, an ambivalent tension is already settled in. The filmmaking itself can be interpreted as the actual reality input.

Let’s argue from the other side. What is documented: the daily life of a small town and its habitants somewhere in Spain, a place threatened by the risk of falling apart. In the first minutes, we see ruins, abandoned houses and farms, indications of a world partly disappearing. Still, this degradation never gets to dominate. It doesn’t perturb its inhabitant’s minds.

The main activities here are animal breeding, meat production and fieldwork. We see a town without events where everybody has a recognized place. Menacho doesn’t exaggerate feelings of loneliness and depression, which could be generated by missed opportunities. Fictional works would easily find material for dramatizations here. But resisting tendencies, trends, and spectator expectations are documenting qualities.

let’s call Menacho’s film a metaphysical documentary.


Living in wild fields with animals isn’t dull or boring, just surprise-less. But then, from time to time, events appear. For example, a young man steals a lost donkey and starts a tender relationship with the quiet animal before returning it. The camera is present – of course – in both sequences. Also, it captures vital moments of swimming, dancing, flirting, and hunting preparations. All this can create an atmosphere of feeling well. Even a nearby forest fire does not seem to worry many.

Social fears are present, like everywhere else. The village and its people have nothing extraordinary to offer. There are no climaxes, highlights, catastrophes, or scandals. Antier noche doesn’t deliver a plot. Again a significant difference to most fictional works. On the other side, details are well observed but have often been staged. In other situations, the spontaneity convinces. For example, the tender and encouraging cell phone communication of an elderly man outside in the fields with his mother.

In his awarded short film My Beloved, the Mountains (2017), Menacho portrayed a community living in harmony with the surrounding nature, celebrating a culture marked by legends and rituals on their voyage from life to death.

In Antier noche, ruins reclaim that the seemingly easygoing daily life has borders. Still, the surrounding reality isn’t presented as frightening emptiness, just as undiscovered wideness. What marks people’s minds are the little accidences of all kinds. For example, the death of a marvellous hunting dog. Menacho’s camera is also present to capture moments of modest joy. A young woman arranges experimental compositions in her sound studio; an important act of self-confirmation in a life context nearly without cultural exchanges.

Antier Noche Alberto Martín Menacho
Antier Noche, a film by Alberto Martín Menacho


Actual technology and smartphones, on one side, superstition and future telling on the other, coexist in the village. During a tarot session, an elderly woman suggests: «not waste opportunities, leave past behind». Advice easily interpreted as a general hint for all habitants living in this apparent standstill cosmos.

«Antier noche» can be read as a metaphor for a sleepy and naive community which refuses to wake up or break out. The film title is an old-fashioned expression meaning «the night before last», as the director learned from his grandmother. So let’s call Menacho’s film a metaphysical documentary. In other words, indeed, it is not only this village which is confronted with approaching disruptive flames.

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Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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