Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
MEMORY: This intriguing trip down memory lane, to the Basque country of idyllic summers, is an exercise in transcendence.
Director: Oskar Alegria
Producer: Oskar Alegria
Country: Spain

You might like to spend a day fasting and meditating before watching Oskar Alegria’s Basque-language two-hour poetic musing unfold before your eyes. Bringing a calm, transcendent attitude to this odd, arty, and strangely beguiling film about memory, nostalgia, nature, and loss will definitely benefit the viewing experience.

For those who prefer more cutting edge, politically pointed, and topical documentaries, this could be a welcome change of pace. For a somewhat fidgety reviewer, accustomed to more newsy fare, it took a while to settle into a film that pretty much begins with a tender, loving static shot of a crusty cowpat, before proceeding to a range of long – and always beautiful – studies of sky, water, vegetation, trees, birds, and various nocturnal forest denizens seen through the lens of motion-triggered cameras.

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Zumiriki, a film by Oskar Alegria

Metaphysical questions

Alegria is an affable Robinson Crusoe seeking to recapture memories of the halcyon days of childhood (which were, in their turn, captured on 8mm coloured film footage shot by his sometime shepherd father).

There is a depth and range to Alegria’s memories of land and people that is slightly lost on those of us lacking the necessary cultural and religious references. Opening shots of a religious procession in the (presumably) 1970s – effigies of the Virgin Mary held aloft – are juxtaposed with today’s version, where 4-wheel drives with the plaster Virgin safely strapped into the passenger seat, trundle up to an ancient rock-built shrine.

Interviews with the few remaining octogenarian shepherds – with a range of metaphysical questions that centre on life, dreams, and death – add colour, if not necessarily easily penetrable context, to this philosophical essay.

Alegria is an affable Robinson Crusoe seeking to recapture memories of the halcyon days of childhood

There are also odd asides where various aged characters attempt to recapture the sounds from a recently rediscovered Basque documentary of 1947 (where the images, but not the soundtrack, survive); and an interview with a woman born just as her mother was slaughtering a pig. To this day she recalls the sound through a filter as gentle and melodic, rather than harsh and fatal.

In its way, an ode to the endangered Basque language, Zumiriki is built around the four months Alegria spent living in a well-camouflaged wooden box, along the banks of a river overlooking the site of an island where he and his siblings played as children.

As if to underline his central thesis – that the past is but a ghost – the island is now submerged, thanks to an upstream dam, and all that remains are dead trees where cormorants roost more than 60 miles from the coast.

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Zumiriki, a film by Oskar Alegria

Forgotten artefacts

Seeking out various forgotten artefacts from those that once lived here – such as the recluse who inhabited the now derelict and deserted farmhouse above the opposite river bank – Alegria dons a pair of black overalls that had served as a scarecrow and immerses himself in the forested river banks, becoming like a Green Man (the ancient European symbol of rebirth) at one with nature.

an ode to the endangered Basque language

Intrigued by the mysterious cowpat (he speculates that it belongs to the one cow of the long-dead farmer that escaped the slaughterhouse in 2001), Alegria builds another hide, smearing himself in mud first to ensure his scent is that of the forest. He eventually spies on the cow, but why this is of such tremendous moment in his four-month sojourn somehow escaped this reviewer.

Twice a day

Time often seems to stand still in a film where the director and subject mark the passing of days with stones and hangs an old clock that stopped long ago at 11.36 and 22 seconds on a wall of his small living space. There is a twist at the end that belies Alegria’s assertion that the clock is right twice a day, but you’ll have to watch to near the end of the two hours to catch the joke.

Zumiriki is doing steady festival business, including IFFR, with its latest outing at the 22nd Thessaloniki Documentary Festival March 5-15, 2020, where it screens in the Newcomers International Competition.

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