An ethnographer with 5.5 M followers

The great documentary filmmaker of the Spanish rural world lives in Huesca.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
30 March 2024 Saturday 22:22
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An ethnographer with 5.5 M followers

The great documentary filmmaker of the Spanish rural world lives in Huesca. At 71 years old, Eugenio Monesma has a vast filmography of 3,200 documentaries on lost crafts, popular festivals, folklore and traditional gastronomy, knowledge that has often disappeared or is in danger of extinction. After decades reaching the public on television, his work is now experiencing a second youth on social networks thanks to the more than 5.5 million followers gained since 2020. “Who would have told me, an influencer at my age !”, he jokes.

His is an eye shaped by and for the rural. Charcoal makers, dowsers, espadrilles, miners, mattress makers, blacksmiths, craftsmen of wind vanes or combs made from animal horns, organ tuners, shepherds, tanners and hundreds of other humble professionals have passed through its lens. “I am interested in the lives of simple people, who with their wisdom have managed to survive in a hostile environment,” he says from his studio in an industrial estate in Huesca.

Monesma was born in 1952 in the city of Huesca. With a carpenter father and a housewife mother, his love for cinema grew in parallel with the film festival that the city has hosted since 1973, and with his first Super 8 camera he shot the anti-war allegory Check of Kings. Her other great hobby was the mountains, and at the age of 18 she was already escaping the patron saint festivities to spend a few days with a nomadic shepherd. Both passions came together in the early eighties, when she began her collaboration with the Aragonese Institute of Anthropology to collect on video traditions and crafts that were being lost.

First there were the navateros, who built log platforms to lower the wood down the river. Then he passed through San Juan de Plan (Huesca), where he recorded 33 documentaries in which the women of the town, led by Aunt Serena, recreated ancient crafts and recipes such as suet balls for him. And the big leap came: he left his permanent job in a factory, bought good equipment and opened a video store allergic to blockbusters that helped him contract the recording of weddings and communions, pay the bills and finance his ethnographic projects.

In the beginning, he was not always welcome. “They were considered poor people's jobs and their protagonists felt ashamed, they didn't understand why someone wanted to record them,” he says. But a job well done and word of mouth attracted new contacts and proposals for collaborations. TVE bought his first series of jobs. In the nineties, it was the regions with European funds for rural development (Leader and Proder) who hired him to record the life and customs of their territories. Prolific times in which he orchestrated a team of 20 professionals to record throughout Spain.

Monesma has always approached his work with an open mind. It usually arrives in the town with the help of an artisan who will reproduce the entire creative process before his camera, with results ranging from a carriage in Mecerreyes (Burgos) to a wool mattress in Lumbier (Navarra) or a primitive hut in Argüeso (Cantabria). ). She does a lot of research before filming, but she usually doesn't have a script or hardly any equipment, since the key to it lies in living with people and listening without putting up barriers or acting smart. “You have to eat, sleep and even get bored with them. With time and trust, they open up and naturally reveal to you their anecdotes and knowledge, which are enormous,” he assures.

His commitment to go unnoticed clashes with the current television format, where the journalist usually monopolizes the spotlight in his forays into the rural world. “They say they want to dignify them, but they take ownership of their work to leave them only yes or no for an answer,” he criticizes.

His vast filmography is not only nourished by professions. In its archive there are documentary series on the history of ritual and functional stones, protagonists of the program The Secrets of the Stones (Aragón TV), or on the testimonies of the losers of the Civil War, which gave shape to the series Lost Ilusions . He has also collected profusely popular festivals, clothing and hundreds of grandmother's recipes. They are the pillar of its traditional Fogones program, the longest running program on Canal Cocina after 23 years of uninterrupted broadcast. “Here we are more about rotten pot and marmitaco than about nitrogen or half-artichoke portions,” he laughs.

His latest adventure took place in 2020, when they proposed using the networks to monetize his work, a word he had never heard. She talked about it with his sons, Darío and Eloy, who initially took care of the technical part. In just three years, its success is overwhelming: more than 5.5 million followers on social networks (1.52 million on YouTube, almost 3 million on Facebook and 1.1 million between TikTok and Instagram) and many more millions of views in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Brazil, Russia and the United States. “I am very surprised. I thought it would only appeal to those nostalgic for the past, but many are kids attracted to seeing that their hands are used for something more than using their cell phone,” he says.

His recent success does not alter his routine. She goes to bed early, no later than 8:30 p.m., and gets up at 4:00 a.m. to respond to the comments that come to her on social media. He continues filming for the cooking show while planning new escapades to record the last breaths of a dying world. “It's like collecting stamps, I always go for the most difficult one,” he concludes.