¡Viva! Film Notes – Secaderos

Dr Carlos van Tongeren, University of Manchester, explores Rocío Mesa’s Secaderos, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2024 on 5, 13 & 25 Apr.

Rocío Mesa’s film Secaderos addresses the contemporary dynamics of life in the countryside, as opposed to life in the city. What does the countryside look like today? What does it mean for different people? How can we think about its possible futures? These questions are particularly important if considered against the backdrop of climate breakdown and the ongoing transitions in food and energy production. While there are estimates that by 2050 70% of the world population will live in cities, the rural parts of the world will not just go away. We’re seeing key challenges around these rural transitions all over Europe: farmers going on strike; rural populations protesting against the construction of large solar parks and wind farms on their land; and right-wing populist parties trying to tap into this anger to score electoral points. In Spain, specifically, the depopulation of rural regions is not a new phenomenon: it started with the rural exodus under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the 1950s and it continues until this day due to generational change and an ongoing lack of infrastructure and economic opportunities. These forgotten, depopulated parts of Spain are now collectively known as ‘la España vacía’ (‘vacía’ means ‘empty’) or ‘la España vaciada’ (‘emptied’), a term that emphasises how depopulation is often not a matter of choice but a consequence of specific economic and cultural policies.

In this broader context, Secaderos presents an interesting take on life in the Andalusian countryside (the film is set in a village in the province of Granada), as well as on different perceptions of the countryside by those who inhabit it. The film builds two parallel stories around two protagonists; the young Vera, who lives in Madrid and is spending the summer holidays in the village of her grandparents; and Nieves, an adolescent who lives in that same village and who helps her parents harvesting and drying tobacco plants during the daytime while she spends most nights partying with her friends. The two families are united by the tobacco barn or ‘secadero’, a piece of agricultural infrastructure used for drying tobacco, even if their respective relations with it are radically different: Nieves and her family, on the one hand, use the ‘secadero’ for their work, but don’t own it; Vera’s grandparents, on the other hand, are the owners of a plot of land with a tobacco barn on it and have decided to sell it to local real estate developers. This distinction is important, as it shows that life in the countryside means different things for different people. For Vera, the village is a happy garden of Eden where she makes new friends, swims, plays, and connects with nature; for Nieves, it is a place that entraps her and that she repeatedly tries to escape from.

As Secaderos follows Vera and Nieves on the hot summer days, it also takes us on an interesting and quite experimental cinematic journey. Parts of the film are sober and realist as they revolve around the everyday activities and conversations of the two families and their friends and neighbours, played by mostly non-professional actors who speak with a local accent. Other sequences build on a local form of magical realism, as exemplified by the appearance, right at the beginning of the film, of a magical creature or monster, who resembles a large bird with feathers made of tobacco leaves. Initially, it appears that this figure is merely a figment of Vera’s imagination, as only her and some of her very young friends can see it. Later, it becomes clear that this magical creature is in fact a symbolical character as it starts participating in the children’s short-lasting struggle against the destruction of the ‘secadero’ owned by Vera’s grandparents. In a way, then, this magical creature represents some of the key messages of the film, such as its defence of a connection with nature, and its attempt at resisting the destruction of traditional lifestyles by economic development, as reflected by the replacement of the tobacco barns by modern apartments. By using magical realism to develop this critique, Secaderos is reminiscent of other Spanish films protagonised by children who interact with magical and imaginary creatures to stand up against injustice, such as Guillermo del Toro’s El Laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) or Víctor Erice’s 1973 masterpiece El Espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive). (The special effects supervisors of Secaderos, Montse Ribé and David Martí, also worked on Pan’s Labyrinth). In its depiction of a conflict between disappearing local lifestyles and economic investment, Secaderos can also be compared to recent films such as Alcarràs by Carla Simón or As Bestas (The Beasts) by Rodrigo Sorogoyen, both of which address the tensions and injustices around the ongoing energy and food transitions alluded to above.

Secaderos may surprise you not only as visually rich film, but also because of its diverse uses of sound. We tend to associate the countryside (rather stereotypically perhaps) with quietness, silence, orally transmitted folk songs, and other forms of traditional music. Secaderos sometimes plays ironically into that idea: the nostalgic song that accompanies the ending credits, for instance, is ‘En los pueblos de mi Andalucía’ by La Niña de la Puebla, a type of traditional flamenco that resembles the copla song by Conchita Piquer that Vera’s grandparents listen to in an earlier sequence. Nieves and her friends, however, listen and party to reggaetón; and in other scenes, we hear music by local indie artists from Granada, such as Soleá Morente (daughter of the acclaimed flamenco singer Enrique Morente) and a fantastic collaboration between Niño de Elche and Los Planetas on an album called Fuerza Nueva. As such, Secaderos playfully draws on existing stereotypes and tropes around the backwardness of the countryside, but it can also be seen as an attempt to show the diversity of rural worlds and infuse new life into them.