Written by: Zev Robinson
I had always lived in large cities, and food, like any other product, was something bought in stores and supermarkets. Outside of whether it was organic or not, had too much sugar or salt or additives, I never gave it much thought, a reflection of the experience of most urban dwellers divorced from the experience of how food is produced. With a Spanish father-in-law who owns and works vineyards, who has arthritis from decades of heavy, physical work, who many times has had half his crop destroyed by a hail storm or early frost, I remember buying a bottle of wine once in London, and thinking that no one understands all that goes into making it.
Even after moving to a small village in rural Spain seven years ago, the experience was more or less the same; most food is still purchased at the local market or supermarket. We do get some fresh vegetables from my father-in-law’s garden, lend an occasional helping hand during harvests, but really aren’t involved in producing food. Many, especially the older generations, still have gardens, a few have chickens, there’s still a shepherd who kills a sheep or two for his own food, but people buy most of their own food today. Younger generations have moved to cities, looking for a more comfortable life and better paying and more prestigious jobs. More prestigious because of an inverted sense of values of an urban society, one separated from the vital importance of food and agriculture without which we cannot live, let alone live healthy lives.
Arribes, an isolated region in NW Spain where the main town has about 3,000 inhabitants and with small villages of 50-100 people living in stone houses with small doorways that you have to stoop under to get through, was completely different to anything else I had encountered, including in the many areas of rural Spain that I had visited. There, people produce 80-90 percent of their own food, and it is one of the few remaining places in Western Europe that is a sustainable ecosystem, using and recycling almost all of what is available to them.
I returned there about six times in four years, each visit a discovery with new and unique material, and each visit altered my own understanding of life. I went to interview an elderly couple who never owned a tractor or car, and someone mentioned a smuggler, so off we went searching for the right person to include. Finally we found someone who had swum across the river as a boy in the 50’s and who had never agreed to be interviewed before. And on it went, and one thing connected to another. The smuggler took goats across the river to Portugal, perhaps ones that the shepherdess had tended as a girl instead of going to school, which was what she dreamed of. Most of the food in the restaurants is produced locally, and toil and uncertainty goes into every dish. When people speak of “terroir,” it tastes of sweat and tears.
Food is the most important product we consume and the most important issue in our lives, yet ironically, it is the one we generally pay the least attention to in terms of where it comes from and how it is produced. More time and energy is spent worrying about cars, clothes, and computer purchases. Making Arribes: Everything Else is Noise altered not only my perspective on food and its production, but my basic values as well. I still spend most of my time concerned with film and art, but the inverted values of urban life have now been righted, with the understanding that food and agriculture is the basis for any other type of existence.
A sustainable future, having a planet that can feed us but that is presently under threat, is tied to how we deal with these issues, and Arribes is a prime example of sustainability along with the problems it faces, with lessons that can be applied elsewhere. Because of my experience in making the film, I have gone from being somewhat interested in these issues to trying to make it the prime focus of my documentary work, and I am developing other projects with similar concerns.