Spread Through Inland

This is the kind of documentary I like to watch. A film about communities. So often cameras are pointed at the unusual, and that is usually something violent, destructive, anti-mundane. The predominance of this type of story, whether in news or documentary features, gives it a disproportionate place in our sense of the world, and I love to see that counterbalanced with genuine respect and equal awe at how things hang together, how we work co-operatively, how the good in the world is of just as much interest.

Spread Through Inland is a look at the communities of central rural Portugal. Life has changed there substantially in the past 40 years. Up until the 80s many communities still had no running water or electricity. There was very little monetary currency in circulation among villages, barter for staples like corn and bread was still a common mode of exchange between neighbours. People passed down knowledge through oral tradition, because communities were underserved with formal education and literacy rates were relatively low.

Depopulation has been one of the biggest impacts upon the region. It was not simply the draw of urban centres for jobs, but also emigration to other countries that drained rural communities of their people. When schools were established, they were not geared around promoting rural trades, but conveyed the dominant cultural contempt for folk knowledge and skills. All this left the region with an aging population whose valuable expertise and crafts are dying out.

But although this is a challenge that they seek to tackle, this is not a eulogy for a dying people, but a celebration at the myriad ways in which they build and rebuild their communities. Money from the EU has lead to the refurbishment of many villages, with new facilities and basic infrastructure, including internet. The old lives side by side with the new, with people sharing memories and histories online. We meet farmers, shepherds, potters, weavers, tinsmiths, artists, musicians, and clowns.

I found it really interesting to see all the secondary effects of depopulation that you might not immediately think of. Like food doesn’t taste the same, because there are fewer herds, the herds are smaller, and more likely to graze close to home, so the diet of the animals have changed, they are less likely to be eating the wild herbs on the hillsides, so it has altered the taste of the meat. Also, the abandonment of so many grazing areas has provided a hazard for greater forest fires, which combined with climate change, are becoming a more deadly danger. One fireman suggests that a substantial force of forest rangers is needed, to avert the likelihood of fires becoming a regular occurrence. That would be of huge benefit to the country both in terms of cost and lives, and could be an attractive occupation to keep people within their rural communities.

The farmer I think said it the best, about how this region was considered just “the countryside” or “out in sticks”. It’s as though outside of urban areas is just a void, pretty to look at, but otherwise empty. Spread Through Inland shows this to be utter nonsense. The region is full of sociable communities filled with vibrant people, who have an untapped wealth of knowledge, skill and creativity, and are as diverse in their worldviews and passions as people anywhere.

Really warm documentary.