The documentary film Santoalla builds suspense, as soon as it begins by revealing a series of mysteries that have shaped this small town in northwestern Spain. From the distance, Santoalla blends into the strikingly beautiful forest-covered hills surrounding it. Close-up, the town appears to be abandoned, with houses in various states of disrepair and no residents walking its pathways. What happened to Santoalla, and where are its former residents?
The film focuses on the story of Margo Verfondern, a Dutch woman that moved to Santoalla with her husband, Martin, to begin a life for themselves in the 1990s. In her words, they dreamed of finding a place, where they could make things with their hands and live free from society’s rules. Happening upon Santoalla during a two-year road trip around Europe, the pair fell in love with its scenic views and romantic ruins. They found a home, as well as a site to nurture their dream of cultivating a destination point for travelers to live in nature, free from the distractions of society.
From their romantic hopes for the future, the film jumps to Margo, years later, as she struggles with the pain of having lost her husband and the uncertainty of not knowing what happened to him. This clash propels the film forward. Home footage and photographs from the couple’s wedding, travels abroad, and early days on the farm are juxtaposed alongside news footage of the investigation into Martin’s sudden disappearance, Martin’s home films documenting his neighbors’ actions, and interviews conducted by the filmmakers in the 2010s.
As a true crime film, the documentary’s suspense hinges on detailing the investigation to find Martin and uncover the truth of what happened to him. His story becomes intertwined with the history of the town, whose residents slowly left as agriculture became less profitable. Only one family of original residents remained, when Margo and Martin arrived in the 1990s. As early news footage suggests, these two families have always disagreed on the future of Santoalla. The film roots for the Dutch newcomers by forefronting Margo’s story. The Spanish family does appear to be hiding something; however, their vision for the town is never seriously considered on camera. Recognizing that their family has lived there for generations, how would they describe the town (e.g. as ruins in need of preservation, as structures in need of repair, or as something else)? What do they think should be the future of Santoalla?
The film gives great attention to the Vernfonderns’ vision of Santoalla as a town in decay, as well as their hopes of transforming, reviving, and “repairing” the ruins. These differences in visions provoke deep-seated tensions, petty exchanges, silence (despite their close proximity in a town with no other residents), police reports, court cases, Martin documenting the neighbors’ actions on film, as well as threats on Martin’s life (whether or not he might have participated in this escalation of threats is not considered on film). This tension culminates in a legal battle, when Martin and Margo sue for rights to co-ownership of Santoalla’s common land. Co-ownership would include the ability to change and maintain non-private properties, as well as access to town profits from selling its trees to loggers. While it remains unclear how these profits were spent previously, Martin and Margo propose to spend this money maintaining the town. When the Vernfonderns finally win their case and are rewarded rights to co-ownership in 2009, Martin suddenly disappears.
The frustration and anxiety of wanting to know what really happened to Martin situates this film in a genre of true crime, alongside the Serial podcast and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. However, the film does not end with any explicit questions or mysteries. Even though it encourages us to suspect everyone, someone eventually confesses and is imprisoned for the crime. Margo does find out what happens to Martin, and so does the audience. As with many true crime stories, however, the confession is as unsettling and frustrating as the mystery. Indeed, who is really at fault? What led to Martin’s death? What will be the future of this town?
The film concludes with the ominous image of Margo as the town’s new owner and caretaker. She calls the space her “home” and says that she will never leave, a sentiment that echoes the family that her presence in the town has displaced. As a once-foreigner (not only of Santoalla, but also of Spain), she has become a resident of the town and, to a large extent, now has the power to determine its future. Will she seek to preserve it, as the site where she and Martin once began a life together? Will she, unlike her neighbors, be open to new residents? If so, to what extent will she support their visions for this place? Indeed, what are the dangers of calling a place home and taking ownership of it? Who has a right to any place, to shape its future and/or to serve as the custodian of its present and past?
Like the best of true crime films, Santoalla draws us to look beyond the crime itself, to feel for the victim and murderer, and to question the systems that led to the crime. What differentiates this story is the crime is set in a place relatively absent of infrastructure. The two families seem to live in a kind of wilderness far from others, where even the mailperson doesn’t typically go. As the only residents in town, when they fight, the courts and the police have no unbiased (or even uninvolved) witnesses to turn to for insight. In this way, the film speaks to a new wilderness, a space of abandoned agricultural towns that no longer offer the profit they once did. What will happen to this place and its ruins? Should it be rebuilt or preserved, and for what purposes?
Finally, the crime committed is deeply tragic. From the beginning of the film, the neighbor’s mentally ill son, Carlos is represented with mistrust, despite Margo and Martin’s loving words about him. He is first introduced on film after Margo speculates that the neighbors must have done something to Martin. A problematic and predictable suspect, Carlos might have been the only one that could have gotten close to Martin. Did Carlos kill Martin? Without giving away the film’s conclusion, I walked away with this question in mind and feeling unsettled. Despite the confessions given, it remains unclear, to me, whether or not justice was served, or what it could look like, given the circumstances of this particular case.