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Santoalla-- the Spaces Between

A Film Review by: Jennifer Parker

July 21, 2017



Santoalla-- the Spaces Between True crime documentaries are a subgenre of documentary filmmaking that are hard to get right. If heavy handed, they can seem like an episode of Law and Order, if done well the film can be nuanced and captivating. Santoalla is a beautifully shot film by first time directors, Andrew Becker and Daniel Mehrer that sustains the whodunit premise throughout. It is successful in articulating the disintegrating culture both physically and metaphorically that makes me wonder how many decaying towns dot the landscape of Europe. Santoalla like its namesake is not without its problems. The filmmakers have a story to tell, perhaps to right a wrong but as anyone who has ever lost another human being knows, there really is no such thing as closure.

More than an attempt to solve a mystery or expose a crime, Santoalla, is about the spaces between. Between light and dark, good and evil, momentum and stasis, old and new, progress and the past lies the answer to what happened to Martin Verfondern.

As a talented musician, Andrew Becker scored Santoalla himself but he’s a tad heavy handed—telling us how to feel with repetitive minor key changes to signify who the bad guys are. The filmmakers juxtapose a trove of archival home movies and media records along with their original footage. Ultimately presenting less a clear picture of what happened to Martin than the suspension of space and time that Santoalla seems to occupy.

Martin Verfondern and Margo Pool arrived in the forgotten Spanish village of Santoalla from Holland with the dream of living off the land. Through the gentrification lens of 2017 it isn’t hard to see how neighborhoods breakdown even when only one family is the last one standing and another moves in. The verdict lies somewhere between naïve and audacious had the outcome not been so dire.

Santoalla - Margo, Martin, and the camper
Santoalla - Margo, Martin, and the camper

The Dutch couple thought they could just move to a remote location without structure and rules. Except their chosen location albeit remote was steeped in traditions of the Rodríguez family, the one thing that had held steady even as the buildings around them crumbled. No one in the world had paid attention to Santoalla for decades if not centuries and the two families found themselves and their all but forgotten landscape the focus of the Spanish media. The film is as much about Margo looking for the strength to continue without her beloved husband while attempting to solve the mystery of his disappearance.

Santoalla - Margo and fire
Santoalla - Margo and fire

Seldom do filmmakers come to a project sans agenda. There had to be something that intrigued them enough to want to make the film in the first place. No matter the outcome, it’s just way too much work to make a feature length documentary just because and Santoalla is worth seeing.