'Santoalla': Edinburgh Review

An engrossingly atmospheric true-crime tale of village strife.

This debut documentary by directorial double-act Daniel Mehrer and Andrew Becker world-premiered at the long-running festival in the Scottish capital.

A quietly absorbing true-crime tale from Brooklyn-based newcomers Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer, Santoalla chronicles the mysterious disappearance of a Dutch farmer in northwestern Spain. On one level a microcosmic story of how the only two families in a mini-hamlet disastrously fell out, the documentary implicitly speaks to wider matters of international cultural frictions. As such, it looks set for further play via nonfiction-oriented events and channels, though for small-screen play a little further trimming may be required.

Handling nearly all key creative duties between them, Becker and Mehrer have crafted a solid, even-handed survey of their chosen material, allowing viewers access to a beautiful, damply verdant, enticingly tumbledown corner of Europe. Galicia, tucked up above Portugal and notable for its rugged Atlantic coastline, can currently boast one of the more vibrant filmmaking scenes in Spain, via award-winning directors such as Lois Patino and Eloy Inciso. But other industries there have struggled for decades, with many rural villages suffering from depopulation and abandonment.

An extreme example is Santoalla, located in the municipality of Petin — the latter totaling around 1,000 people in its 12 square miles. That's about 100 times less dense than a Dutch city such as Amsterdam, making it an ideal option for Martin Verfondern and his partner Margo Pool when they were looking for somewhere to live "a quiet life without rules" and farm in an organic, self-sufficient manner.

The couple relocated in the 1990s and initially got on well with the neighbors — the longtime resident Rodriguez family, headed by religiously devout matriarch Jovita. The jolly Dutch duo's experiment in smallholding was often featured on local news media, excerpted here by Becker and Mehrer. But around 2002, relations cooled between the two Santoalla 'camps,' reaching crisis point in 2008 when Verfondern and Pool took the Rodriguezes to court over profits from a lumbering operation in a nearby forest — legally controlled by a "society" comprising Santoalla residents. The lumber money emerges as the real nub of the story, with Verfondern disappearing in January 2010, shortly after the verdict (in his favor) was announced.

Becker and Mehrer often fall foul of the contemporary curse of documentarians worldwide, relying too heavily on background music to underline each and every mood and development. Their mishandling of the grainy courtroom footage is a particularly egregious example of this, with crashingly intrusive percussion making it sound as if proceedings had been invaded by a maniacal drummer. Elsewhere their inexperience is much less apparent. They profitably linger on the picturesque environs of Santoalla while Margo recounts her side of events; the duo returns for a brief coda in which the conundrum of Martin's vanishing is finally (and somewhat abruptly) explained.

Less ambitiously poetic and boundary-blurring than the most obvious current festival-circuit parallel, Maya Kosa and Sergio da Costa's award-winner Rio Corgo — which focuses on a slightly more "hectic" micro-community over the border in Portugal — Santoalla isn't without its longueurs, even at 83 minutes, and can veer into the repetitive at times. But it scores in its judicious combination of archival materials (some of it shot by camcorder-fan Verfondern himself) with the directors' own interview-based footage, taking that most ancient of squabbles — a feud between farmers — and turning it into a poignant elegy for tragically lost opportunities.

Venue: Edinburgh Film Festival
Production company: What Delicate Pictures?
Directors-screenwriters-cinematographers: Andrew Becker, Daniel Mehrer
Producers: Cristina de la Torre, Andrew Becker, Daniel Mehrer
Editor-composer: Andrew Becker
Sales: What Delicate Pictures, New York

Not rated, 83 minutes