Throw Your Watch to the Water

By Lucy Reynolds

throw-your-watch-to-the-water-jose-val-del-omar.jpgThrow Your Watch to the Water, 2004

Intuiting Jose Val del Omar and his remarkable vision of the Alhambra

In a rare recording, the Andalusian filmmaker Jose Val del Omar once referred to a film of the Alhambra he hoped to make, which would create ‘an unusual dream of intuited cinematography, as the images float with no apparent coherency.’ From the 1930s until his death in 1982, Val del Omar returned periodically to film the Alhambra’s transformations across the years, in what was to become a life-long project. The palace, with its contemplative play of fountains and Moorish symbolism, served as a visual metaphor for his complex and esoteric beliefs in the elemental forces of nature. He had already developed these concepts in his Elementary Triptych of Spain [1] the collective title for three films which evoked the dense weave of Spain’s cultural and historical identity through a depiction of its landscapes and rituals. A fourth film was planned, based on his Alhambra footage, which would expand on the themes of the trilogy to become the ultimate expression of his ideas. However, his untimely death meant that this final work was never realised.

22 years later, Eugeni Bonet’s 2003 film Throw Your Watch to the Water took up Val del Omar’s lost project, guided by conversations with the filmmaker prior to his death, his accumulated film material and the hundreds of notebooks and annotations that he left behind. Bonet revisited the concepts of identity which Val del Omar first explored in his earlier trilogy, interpreting fragments of Val del Omar’s writings, what he terms ‘poetic embers’, and anchoring these within the structure of the filmmakers stated ‘intuited cinematography’. For Bonet the film is a homage to one of Spain’s most individual and, until recently, almost forgotten avant-garde filmmakers.

On one level it is a complex piece of archival construction, a retrieval project for a film that was never made. However, in Bonet’s conscientious adherence to the ‘intuited’ spirit of Val del Omar’s vision, the threads between Val del Omar’s images and Bonet’s reading of them are often difficult to disentangle. Bonet foregrounds the filmmaker’s original text, through voice-over and by the inclusion of written fragments in his distinctive handwriting, which float on the screen, fading and re-emerging in between the images. Once swift jottings in a notebook, Val del Omar’s words become the conceptual and visual keys for the film he must have planned, now made by someone else. They act as an inky denotation of the direct processes of his thoughts and intellect, through which Bonet now asserts Val del Omar’s conceptual presence in the shaping of the film, insisting on his original authorship.

However, Val del Omar’s disembodied words and voice conjure a presence who is both tangible and yet strangely fugitive; as if one is entering a room which is empty but still carries the traces of a previous occupant. It could be argued that Bonet’s strategy of an ‘intuited’ configuration of Val del Omar’s material renders the film an obfuscation, rather than an illumination, of the filmmaker. Whilst the indexical mark of Val del Omar is felt throughout the film, in his words, voice and the extravagant excess of his experimental images, he remains the enigma at its heart.

The imprint of Bonet, the archivist, a filmmaker himself, also slips from definition and identification. His ‘intuited’ approach, rejecting the delineation of subject and object required in the didactic conventions of documentary film form, makes it at the same time difficult to discern where Bonet’s own hand is in the film’s formation. Whilst the experimental excess may be attributed to Val del Omar, it is not always clear whether some devices of superimposition or time-lapse originate with Bonet or the original filmmaker. As the film progresses, these questions of identity, ownership and intent become as intriguing for the viewer as the extravagant experimentation of the images themselves.

In the uncharted history of Spanish experimental cinema, Val del Omar presents an enigmatic figure, producing films in Franco’s Spain without the context and support that other avant-gardes enjoyed. Despite the isolation in which they were made, the complex formal experimentation of his films bear comparison to many key films of the wider avant-garde canon. Their dream-like quality and symbolic richness places them in the mythopoetic traditions of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage, whilst their hallucinatory use of colour and abstracted form could be said to link them to other visionaries of the American avant-garde such as Harry Smith and Jordan Belson.

In addition, Val del Omar’s later exploration of film’s perceptual tropes is akin to the work of structuralists such as Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad, in method if not intent. He began as a maker of lyrical documentaries, such as Murcia: Christian and Pagan Festivals (1931-35) [2], which focused on the lives and beliefs of rural Spain. However, from the 1960s to the end of his life, Val del Omar rejected his earlier documentary forms in favour of an intense experimental filmmaking which utilised vivid colour and sensual imagery of a metaphysical richness to produce a cinema of pure audio-visual experience. His early interest in the rituals and religions of Spanish culture was transformed into a complex and esoteric belief system which found significance of cosmic dimensions in the landscapes and culture of Spain.

In Throw Your Watch to the Water, Bonet orchestrates Val del Omar’s hallucinatory images of the Alhambra into a feverish montage of impressions; from the palace’s fountains illuminated in a night sky and the twisting forms of flamenco dancers to pulsating Islamic engravings. The tourists who flock to the Alhambra are depicted at a relentless time-lapse pace, their transitory presence amongst the fountains and the arches of the building referred to in an intertitle as ‘Alhambra crossed by transparent bodies.’ As the film progresses the images become more dreamlike and esoteric, evolving into a densely layered pattern of images steeped in an obscure significance; a female face, a pomegranate, the recurring close-up of the Alhambra fountain and Arabic text float against images of pure colour and abstracted form. The diversity of the images show a filmmaker who was relentlessly experimental, making use of a range of formal techniques, from time-lapse effects to solarisation and re-filming, to explore film’s expressive potential.

It becomes clear as Throw Your Watch to the Water progresses that Val del Omar intended a film which would reach beyond a conscious reading of images towards a sensory and revelatory state of perception. The graphic formalism of the third movement of the film stands in stark contrast to earlier sequences. It begins with pulsating white circles against black, transforming into flashing grids and geometric and spherical shapes.

The optical disturbances at play challenge the viewer’s perceptual processes, demanding an increased awareness of their very act of viewing. Val del Omar’s experiments echo the structural experiments of American experimental filmmaker Paul Sharits, in whose films P. Adams Sitney noted the ability to ‘induce changes of consciousness in their viewers’ [3]. However, Sharits intended no metaphorical reading from this heightened consciousness, categorical that his flicker film N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968); ‘…will “mean,” in a very concrete way, nothing.’ [4] If Sharit’s vision was for an experience of blankness, of emptying out, Val del Omar’s could be said to be one of excess. Val del Omar’s use of these experimental devices was to enable the viewer to experience everything simultaneously, ‘suspended’ in the present moment of consciousness.

The title of the film, Throw Your Watch to the Water, refers to the milling tourists who throng the Alhambra. It is also Val del Omar’s invitation to discard the mechanical notions of time embodied by the wristwatch, and to embrace a different understanding of it; as a temporal, spatial dimension without coordinates; ‘time with no chronometer, time with no space, without feet nor ground.’ Bonet’s choice of the film title, with its demand for the relinquishment of linear time, implies that the film’s reverberations of historical past exist not only in its images of the Alhambra but in the very material of its changing surfaces. The patina of the faded and dissimilar film stocks are inflected with the memory-span of their making and the histories and life-span of the filmmaker himself, implicit in film’s essentially time-based material. Throw Your Watch to the Water also contains in its montaged fragments the measure of Bonet’s painstaking process towards constructing someone else’s vision; sifting, interpreting and discarding. This more immediate past unfolds before the viewer, with the strands of Val del Omar’s time threading through it.

Finally, in a way that neither he nor Bonet could have anticipated, the filmmaker now occupies an additional temporal space within this posthumous homage. No longer the subjective eye of the camera, he has become its subject, another woven dimension of the past within the temporally inflected patina of his own fading film material. Through Bonet’s archival configurations he has surfaced into the present, yet remains spectral. In the final sequence of the film Bonet shows the filmmaker, already old, tall, relaxed in the Spanish countryside. The realisation comes that this revelation has been anticipated, hoped for by the viewer, the identification of the absent presence at the heart of the film.

It is doubtful that Val del Omar would have pictured himself in his vision of the Alhambra. However, in a film that slips from easy definition as biography, documentary or found footage work, it seems necessary that Bonet imprints his own signature on the film, placing Val del Omar at on remove from his images by including him amongst them. For the notion of identity is central to Throw Your Watch to the Water. Beyond the question of authorship in Bonet’s ‘intuited’ filmmaking, the film, in its material processes, reveals Bonet’s search for Val del Omar in the jigsaw of his film fragments, at the same time uncovering Val del Omar’s own quest for his Andalusian identity in the Alhambra’s Moorish past.


[1] Galacio Acarino (1961), Fuego en Castilla (1958-60) and Agnaespego (1953-55)  
[2] Committed to the role of the arts in social change, and a friend and contemporary of Lorca and Zambrano, he was involved in the work of Spain’s 2nd Republic, documenting the Pedagogical Missions as they brought education to the remote rural regions of 1930s Spain.  
[3] Sitney, P Adams Visionary Film, The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978, Oxford University Press, p385
[4] Ibid

Lucy Reynolds is a writer and curator of artist’s film.