by Elatia Harris
Zev Robinson: It was a long process of discovery. The last place I thought I’d end up, after living in several large cities including New York and London, was a Spanish village of fewer than 800 people, where my wife is from, and where my father-in-law works and harvests his vineyards.
When we lived in London, I remember looking at a bottle of wine in a supermarket that originated from this region, and thinking how few people understood all that went into its making. After we moved here, I was taking a walk through the vineyards one day, and got the idea of making a short film about how the grape gets from the vines here to bottles in the UK.
EH: Are you a wine connoisseur — in a big way?
ZR: I knew nothing about wine at the beginning of all this, but am always interested in processes, the history that brings an object into being.
At the time, I had been working with video in the context of the art world, installations and experimental shorts, and thought that the piece on wine would be something similar. But within six intense, all-absorbing months, I had 70 hours of materials which was edited into an 80 minute documentary. I discovered wine as a complex culture, with rural and urban environments closely tied and interdependent.
EH: So, the wine route led you to Arribes?
ZR: I was invited to visit Arribes, a region I had never heard of. When I got there, I saw that there wasn’t too much in the way of wine, with only 700 hectares left, albeit with grape varieties not found elsewhere. But as an isolated region with a traditional way of life, it attracted the artist in me.
EH: Arribes is hardly convenient to you, in the Valencia region — or to anywhere. Yet you came to know it so well, over many trips.
ZR: Each trip was filled with fascinating stories and new discoveries, with the greatest revelation for a city boy like myself was how people lived in a truly self-sufficient and sustainable way. One couple never had a car or tractor, everything was done with donkeys and on foot. A man worked as a smuggler when he was a child, swimming across the Duero River that separates Spain from Portugal to take consumer goods across and then play cat and mouse with the police forces who would confiscate the contraband. One woman wanted to study and become a teacher more than anything else, but could not go to school because she had to tend to her family’s sheep and goats from an early age.
Over the years and decades, my understanding of the importance of food and agriculture has continuously grown, from the harm of pumping our food chain full of various chemicals, to the importance of farmers and their work. But it had always been in the service of those of us – the majority – who live in cities and who may want quality produce, but for whom agriculture is a largely abstract, unseen quantity. Arribes turned the tables on me, and I now see food, agriculture and sustainability as the basis of all things. The basis of survival.
EH: You are among those film makers who grew up in film — in art, generally.
ZR: I was born in Israel, raised in Toronto and Montreal with two main interests, art and film, with the two connected from the beginning. I hesitated over which of the two I’d pursue, but in the end chose paintng, doing my BFA at Concordia University in Montreal, and then going to New York in 1983 to do a MFA at Hunter College. In 1988, I moved to Florence, Italy, for a variety of reasons, including seeing more art, and travelled around Europe for the next couple of years. I visited Madrid in early 1990 and fell in love with the city.
EH: And something fateful happened there…
ZR: I couldn’t stay in Madrid, but had the premonition that I would return and get married. I returned to Madrid to live in early 1991, and by the end of the year I was married. After that, we toggled between different cities in Spain, and London, living in London for about 10 years.
EH: When did you know that film making would become a big part of your life?
ZR: I had often dreamed of doing films, but even 8mm was too expensive and elaborate an undertaking when everything was going toward my painting. But digital technology gave the means to film and edit. I started doing that shortly after forming Art After Science, with Adrian Marshall, to create a variety of time based and interactive art projects. I created some thirty videos, and La Bobal, my first wine documentary we were just talking about, was intended as another one of those.
In 2005, after spending ten years in London, we then moved back to a small inland village in the province of Valencia, about 50 miles east of the city of Valencia. There are few distractions here, and I can continue to develop new projects, many of which were completely unexpected when we moved here.
EH: Did filmmaking get in the way of painting?
ZR: The only conflict is one of time, they each take up too much of it. Outside of that, the two complement each other very well. Painting is a more meditative activity, and sometimes, even if I’m busy with a film, I need to get into the studio and paint. It lets me clear my mind, and allows for a bit of silence.
Filmmaking, on the other hand is a more elaborate, more social, and busier process, involving many steps, including planning trips, filming, editing, showing and promoting the final film. But it is also a process of discovery. By the end of each film, I find my perspective on the world has changed.
EH: What has Spain brought out in you, as an artist?
ZR: Painting in such intense light is always a great experience and pleasure.
EH: That's right on the money. Light like a knife, I've heard it called. But as a film maker, you are engaging with Spanish people, not only the cutural patrimony of Spain. Like the light.
ZR: While working on the documentaries, I have traveled across the country and met hundreds of people, each with a unique story and point of view, and when I edit the material, I feel an obligation to tell those as stories accurately as possible, showing people as unique individuals, but how those individuals add up to a portrait of a culture. So Spain, with a unique history in many ways and a variety of cultures, has posed that challenge. With the deep crisis that Spain is going through now, the challenge is to make what was filmed a few years ago still relevant and include the current situation.
I don’t know if I’d be making documentaries had we had stayed in London, and certainly not documentaries about wine, food and agriculture.
EH: To look at your paintings and to view Arribes, one sees they're not aesthetic strangers.
ZR: I compose my shots, and people have said that my cinematography looks like paintings. I’ve been influenced equally by both media. It’s been an obsession with the visual, whether paintings, films, photography or reality, and I’m constantly looking at the world as if I were going to paint or film it.
EH:The people we meet in Arribes are right at the resource frontier. Some of their problems are timeless, some detail the kind of scarcity we know European peasants lived with more than a century ago, and some are rather futuristic — and frightening because of that.
ZR: Because Arribes is so isolated, on the edge of Spain, with a river separating it from Portugal, it has always had to do with little, and to be self-reliant. So there’s scarcity in that sense, yet they are self sufficient, and most of the people we met owned and worked the land, or at least their parents did, and had enough to eat. Now, with the crisis hitting Spain very hard, with high levels of unemployment, people are returning to their family homes and land, because at least they have food and shelter, so it depends on what is meant by scarcity.
There is a scarcity of those things that are often aspired to — nice cars, better paying jobs, luxury items, distracting entertainment. All the classic reasons why people leave the countryside and move to the city. But when those aspirations are taken away for economic or social reasons, and you are left without the possibility of food, all of a sudden Arribes offers a relative abundance, and it is the city where there’s scarcity.
In reality, there is a scarcity of food in cities, as it all has to be brought in from other places, including other countries. And it may very well be an unsustainable situation, so there’s reason to be anxious.
EH: Who would you particularly like to view the film? It's very haunting. Whom should it haunt?
ZR: Everyone should see it. The film deals with a basic question of how we organize our urban and rural spaces, whether can we do so in a healthier way, and what our priorities are.
One of the things I found curious and that made me want to create the film was that we met several people who moved to Arribes from large cities, Madrid, Barcelona, and from the UK, looking for an alternative and a challenge. One of them is an advertising executive who left his job in Madrid, but can still work nationally and internationally via the internet, with an occasional trip for a meeting. So there’s a question of how can we make the countryside more attractive, and the work less harsh and more profitable, and distribute populations in a more sustainable manner.
I’m not interested in preaching to the choir, but to raise questions and open debates about whether we can do things a bit differently.
EH: Tell me a little about the feedback on Arribes so far…
ZR: So far the reaction has been great. I was given unique, sometimes emotive, content to work with, and the audiences have responded, both in Spain and in London. I think it is a glimpse into another world, but also the issue of food and sustainability is gaining urgency.
After showing it in London where it went over well and there was no adverse reaction to the graphic pig slaughter, I was invited to speak about the film at a tourism conference in the Alicante region of Spain. The audience included university students. They were an audible, squeamish audience to the pig slaughter scene when I showed the trailer. I said that I found it odd, because many of those students were only a generation or two from a family tradition that would have included producing some or all of their own food, including the killing of animals.
People at screenings have talked about the cruelty of killing a pig, but I see it as part of an eternal cycle of life. In the film, people talk about their fondness for the animals that they have to kill. The pig slaughter is at the center of community life. Far more cruel to have animals jam-packed in barns, fed hormones and antibiotics, and then killed without having had the chance to live. That is seen as more acceptable because it is out of sight.
We’re divorced from, and in denial of, what is happening to our food systems. If nothing else, I hope the film will make people realize that their meat comes from living animals.
EH: What are you working on now?
ZR: I am now editing the material I filmed across Spain and adding new material for a project called “Made in Spain” that will combine short videos, a video installation or two, and my wife Albertina Torres’ photography project focusing on the old and rural aspects of this country. We'll be ready to start showing that in the spring of 2014.
Web Resources for this Post
Arribes trailer – https://vimeo.com/49137785
Site of Zev Robinson and Adrian Marshall www.artafterscience.com
Albertina Torres photos for the Made in Spain project http://www.albertinatorres.com/
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Please join us on Facebook for upcoming events https://www.facebook.com/pages/Arribes-Everything-else-is-noise-Arribes-el-resto-es-barullo/505072499521943
Rachel Laudan – The Sustainable Life in Rural Spain? Arribes and Arcadia –http://www.rachellaudan.com/2013/08/sustainable_life.html#more-6380
English translation of “Arribes: This is the Future”, written by Estefanía Vasconcellos in the Spanish national newspaper El Mundo – http://zevrobinson.com/documentary/arribes-this-is-also-the-future/