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Review: Camagroga


- Spanish documentarian Alfonso Amador provides us with an exhaustive depiction of tiger-nut farming in the village of Alboraya, near Valencia

Review: Camagroga

Sure to be one of the most tranquil and relaxing films of the year, Camagroga is Alfonso Amador’s second documentary feature, after a career spent previously making fiction. His subject matter couldn’t be more specialised: here he takes a long look at agriculture in the area of La Huerta de Valencia, and specifically the careful process of harvesting tiger nuts (whose milk is the main ingredient of the drink horchata). This slow and sometimes soporific film world-premiered at the digital edition of this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest; in the autumn, it will be shown again at the festival’s physical version.

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Camagroga is a film of aesthetic distinction, made with evident sensitivity to its characters and world, but it fails to get the pulse racing. A good comparison to make is with last year’s Honeyland [+see also:
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, the double Oscar nominee similarly centring on artisanal food production, and the people who uphold such traditions. Camagroga is just as visually lush, but it lacks the conflict and urgency. The casting process in cinema has been described as a “dark art”; perhaps it’s just so within documentary, with the farming family that Amador selects remaining opaque all through his repetitive, cyclical narrative.

Shooting in Academy ratio with curved edges to the frame, Amador introduces us to a less-than-lively world of ploughing, planting and watering for the early stages of the chufa crop life cycle. The central family overseeing the farming process is made up of three generations: grandfather Antonio, his daughter Inma, and her son Marc (in an intriguing ellipsis, we never find out the fate of Marc’s father). The film is broken up into four seasonal segments, all named in the Valencian dialect (for instance, tardor instead of otoño, for autumn). This provides an accurate impression of the time required for the crop to grow properly, and the intricate harvesting process needed to refine and store the nuts. Humans leave the picture, as the cinematography begins to luxuriate on nuts pouring through metal tubes, and settling in enormous heaps in a multi-tiered storehouse. But unlike in many great films centring on food, we miss the “food porn” element: there’s no tactile sense of what this clearly refined delicacy actually feels like to enjoy.

Camagroga also brings to mind some of Italian neo-realist Ermanno Olmi’s films, with their similar focus on agricultural labour, and the love and pride that emerges from nursing the soil. When Amador engages the workers in interview segments, he’s most curious about their motivation to continue working in farming traditions stretching back to the 19th century, for little benefit in the modern world of more industrialised food production. It’s simple for the elder Antonio, who says: “When La Huerta catches you, there’s nothing more beautiful, because if you live the land, you live life.” A touching sentiment, but one that leaves us wanting to know far more about the farmers themselves, rather than simply seeing their indefatigable labour put on show.

Camagroga is a Spanish production staged by Xavier Crespo’s Dacsa Produccions. Further support comes from the Conselleria d'Educació, Cultura i Esport, the Generalitat Valenciana and the Institut Valencià de Cultura.

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