Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 17, 2017 4:44 pm 
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A dream gone wrong

This true-crime story by new Brooklyn-based documentarians Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer concerns a place and two families. Martin Verfondern and his partner Margo Pool were a Dutch couple with the dream of settling somewhere and living off the land, free and away from the intensity and restrictions of their home, Amsterdam. For two years they roamed the world in a van. And then they found Santoalla, in Petin, Galicia, northwestern Spain, a ruined and deserted area. Hilly, so unlike Holland. Impulsively, seeing the village from above, and the starry sky, Martin and Margo decided to set up roots here, in this almost totally abandoned village in Galicia. They took up residence in a ruined house - most of the houses were that way - and rebuilt it, to plant and raise goats, pigs, hens, a donkey, and such, to be farmers back to the land.

There was only one other family, who lived in fact very close by. On one side at least it went back generations. Their name was Rodriguez: three adult men, Manolo, Julio and Carlos, and a woman, but Carlos was mentally retarded. Martin was interviewed on TV, spouting Spanish, about his plans for getting backto the land. He was enthusiastic, a romantic, who sang and played the guitar well. The Rodriguez lady, a tough old bird with a grin, says she and Martin danced in the kitchen. We do not know if this is so. Later she confides that she was suspicious of him and his doings.

It would have been better if Martin had been less full of himself. It would also have been good if there had been more than one Spanish family. Doubtless the Rodriguez males considered themselves lords of the land. Trouble arose. But Margo reveals that before that Martin had begun aggressively chronicling the misdeeds of the neighbors. Their habit of walking and running their farm equipment through his farmland; their neglect of their animals; and other peculiar, threatening things that happened. And by 2008 they and Martin were at war over the common forest of the village. Martin took Manolo and Julio to court to get a share in the common land and the annual profits from it, and near the end of 2009 won.

A couple of months later, Martin and his Chevrolet Blazer disappeared. The police abandoned their investigation after a few months. But four years later, the ruins of the Blazer and Martin's remains were found, far away. It was clear that he was murdered and his remains hidden there. Reporters came back and interviewed Margo and the Rodriguez lady. At first, nothing was known, only that Martin was dead and that he had been murdered. Eventually, the murderer and his accomplice were identified and brought to justice

What is perhaps remarkable is that Margo remains on the land, raising the goats and such. For her, it is Martin's place, imbued with his spirit, the location of his dream, filled with memories of their earlier, happy time there, and she never wants to leave it, despite what happened here. We see her perform appropriate rituals celebrating Martin, collecting and burying his remains and even fertilizing a favorite tree with ashes of some of his personal possessions.

This is in its way a most arresting story - of ideals, of dreams gone wrong, of decisions made hastily, of international misunderstandings, of local hostilities, of crime, of stoical resistance. It's all there in this little documentary. It has some rough spots, not every moment of it is essential, but the material is good, and Becker and Mahrer don't get in the way of it, which is the important thing. They have not a wealth - a montage of snapshots is pretty uninformative - but enough archival footage from before they came on the scene to fill us in on the early life of the Dutch couple. They also manage to get enough interviews with the Spanish neighbors to give us a feel of what they might have been like.

Santoalla, 83 mins., debuted at the Edinburgh Festival; also Hamptons, Tallgrass, Austin, IDFA, Cleveland and Buenos Aieres. Opening Wed., July 19, 2017 at Quad Cinema.

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