I have an increasing problem with spam comments on here (for example, almost 200 so far this month) – therefore I’ve decided to switch off comments for the time being.
Plus Piazza Vittorio (Abel Ferrara, 2017) (which doesn’t seem to have a poster), via Festival Scope’s Venice Sala Web – having pointed out the selection in last month’s post, I then only managed to watch one film there myself. I also missed all of Mubi’s Argentine cinema season, apart from La mujer de los perros / Dog Lady (Laura Citarella & Verónica Llinás, 2015). I’ve not really been in a film-watching mood.
I am intending to watch Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s documentary series, The Vietnam War, which is available on the BBC iPlayer during October if you’re in the UK (the first episode is here) – David Thomson reviewed the series in the London Review of Books (note: the version being shown in the UK is the 10-hour international cut, rather than the 18-hour version being shown in the US).
‘Experimental making-of’ is usually the basic description of the film Pere Portabella constructed behind the scenes of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) – next week sees its UK debut on (region free) DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Second Run. I reviewed the film in 2015 when it was screening at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival as part of their ‘Fact or Fiction’ theme. As I pointed out, Portabella’s repurposing of what Franco was doing creates an interesting dissection of several levels of mythologising:
[…] the mechanics of filmmaking are as much an element of fascination for him as the mythology of Stoker’s Count. The two aspects come together in a sequence where Christopher Lee (who would collaborate with Portabella on another film – Umbracle – the same year) removes the prosthetics and accoutrements (contact lenses, hair, fangs) that transform him into an onscreen monster – a metamorphosis in reverse and a demythologising or deconstruction of both a film star and one of his most famous roles (something that Franco was cashing in on).
You can read the full review here.
Portabella has had a long and varied career and is still (occasionally) making films. His most recent was documentary Informe General II: El nuevo rapto de Europa (2016), which is a sequel of sorts to his 1976 epic Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública – I’ve seen the latter but not the former (yet), and the two are available together in a boxset that has optional English subtitles. [UPDATE 11/10/2017: Mubi are showing those two films for the next 30 days – here]. I watched Vampir Cuadecuc from a career-spanning boxset of Portabella’s work (it covers 1967 – 2009, containing all of his films apart from Informe General II), which is produced by Intermedio (I bought my boxset directly from them) and likewise has optional English subtitles on all of the films. I particularly recommend his short films (Poetes Catalans (1970) is my favourite – I wrote about it on the old blog in a 2014 ‘best of the year’ post).
All watched on VOD (various platforms) as my DVD player died at the start of the month.
Camilo Restrepo’s essay film about violence in Colombia – La impresión de una guerra / Impression of a War (2015) – is available to watch on Mubi UK for another week.
Jonás Trueba’s La reconquista / The Reconquest (2016) is unexpectedly on Netflix UK (I had a one-month free trial this month – which I won’t be extending into a subscription because I didn’t watch very much, although there are quite a lot of recent Spanish titles on there…and a number of Jason Statham films), as is the very good documentary I Called Him Morgan (Kasper Collin, 2017).
Festival Scope has just started its Venice Sala Web again (effectively a range of films from the current Venice Film Festival as VOD) – I haven’t watched anything yet but have taken advantage of their 5 tickets for 10€ offer (films are otherwise 4€ each). The viewing dates for the films are staggered throughout the festival’s run and it’s worth seeing them sooner rather than later as sometimes titles can disappear (speaking from previous experience).
This is the last of the older pieces that I’m intending to reprint on this new(er) blog, but it differs from the others: this wasn’t originally published on the old blog but at Mediático, an academic media and film studies blog focused on Iberian and Latin American media cultures. At the time, I described the film as a rabbit hole that I fell down – I haven’t experienced many instances (before or since) where a film gets so completely stuck in my head, or where my deconstruction of a film (working out how it works) feels genuinely exciting. In the post I wrote on the old blog by way of introduction to the subject (linking to the article), I said:
I’m someone who thinks through writing (anyone who has spoken to me immediately after a film viewing will know that I’m rarely coherent in my thoughts at that stage), but it’s not often that I write due to a sense of compulsion – Rocío is, however, one of those instances. I wrote because the film was stuck in my head, because I couldn’t find anything written about it in English (beyond a New York Times story about the trial), because in the emphasis placed on the censorship of the film people seem to have avoided writing about it as a film (which is a shame because it is an incredibly rich, and visually distinctive, piece of filmmaking), and because it tapped into the sheer enjoyment I get from properly delving into an unfamiliar film and working out how it ‘functions’. I decided to focus on the two aspects that pulled me down the rabbit hole – the story of the injustice suffered by Fernando Ruiz Vergara and Rocío, and the visual components of the film itself.
Of all the writing I’ve done since finishing my PhD and stepping out of academia, this is the piece that I am happiest with – my thanks to Catherine Grant at Mediático for saying that I was free to republish it on my own site.
I’m currently researching contemporary Spanish documentary as part of my interest in ‘el otro cine español’, but I’ve become sidetracked by a documentary from a completely different era. My interest started with a book review of El caso Rocío: La historia de una película secuestrada por la transición [The Rocío Case: The story of a film hijacked by the Transition] in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine (May 2014): intrigued by the title and the fact that the book came with two DVDs (one the uncensored version of Rocío (Fernando Ruiz Vergara, 1980), the other a documentary (El caso Rocío (José Luis Tirado, 2013)) about the making of the film and the legal repercussions), I ordered it. Then I watched Rocío, and promptly fell down a rabbit hole.
The most straightforward way to approach the matter is probably to start from the outside and work my way in – to outline the cause of Rocío‘s notoriety before discussing the film itself. Rocío is about the annual pilgrimage to the Virgin of Rocío in the region of Huelva (Andalusia) but, in focussing on the history of the specific locale of Almonte (a hive of activity in relation to the pilgrimage), Fernando Ruiz Vergara also uncovered and recorded oral testimony of repressions suffered in the aftermath of the military coup in 1936. It was this latter aspect – specifically the naming of names, as the facts (ninety-nine men and one woman were killed in Almonte in the months following the coup) were not disputed – that was the cause of the film’s hijacking by the Spanish judiciary. The descendants of the man ‘named’ (in an act of self-censorship the filmmakers had actually cut the sound at the moment his name was said and presented an image of him that was partially obscured) as the ringleader of the repressions (José María Reales Carrasco, former mayor of Almonte) presented a criminal complaint to the courts in Seville in 1981. They accused director Fernando Ruiz Vergara, screenwriter Ana Vila, and the onscreen witness Pedro Clavijo of injuring the reputation of their father (who was deceased), deriding the Catholic religion, and publicly insulting the ceremonies held in honour of the Virgin of Rocío. The judge ordered the removal of all copies of the film from the public domain at the time of the complaint, and by the time the case reached the court the following year the complainants were seeking prison sentences for all three defendants on the charge of slander, in addition to a fine for the ‘injuries’.
The slander charge would be dropped. In the documentary El caso Rocío, Francisco Baena Bocanegra (the lawyer who represented Ruiz Vergara and Vila) says that if the slander charge had stayed then the defendants would have won because they could meet the requirements of proof, and this was precisely why that charge was dropped but the more difficult to defend ‘injury’ stayed (take a moment to think about the Kafkaesque nature of that set of circumstances). By this stage the frightened 73-year old Clavijo denied making his onscreen statements (a clearly desperate measure, since it obviously was him onscreen) – in response, and of their own volition, seventeen of the older residents of Almonte travelled to Seville to back up their neighbour’s statements for the court but the judge did not allow their evidence to be admitted. After this development Fernando Ruiz Vergara insisted on taking full responsibility for film, which meant that the charges against Vila and Clavijo were dropped: the director was sentenced to two months and a day and ordered to pay a fine of 50,000 pesetas (today, 300€ plus inflation) and compensation of 10,000,000 pesetas (today, 60,000€ plus inflation), ‘in civic responsibility’, for the injury done to José María Reales Carrasco. As part of the sentence the film was also prohibited from being distributed or shown within Spain unless the two sections that referred to Reales Carrasco were removed. Ruiz Vergara refused to let the distributor cut the film, but in 1984 when the sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Tribunal, the cuts were made – the director fought to have intertitle cards inserted to indicate when a sequence had been censored. The film was shown in Spain in that form after 1984 (José Luis Tirado has uploaded that version to Youtube with English subtitles – UPDATE Aug 2017: it has been taken down), but the version that appeared on Spanish television in the 1990s lacked the intertitle cards or any acknowledgement of the censorship. Meanwhile Fernando Ruiz Vergara moved to Portugal in self-exile and would not direct another film (Tirado interviewed him shortly before his death in 2011).
What makes the case even more jaw-dropping is that it took place post-Franco, after 1977 and the end of official censorship, and towards the end of Spain’s transition to democracy: the decisions by the court span both the Transition and democracy. The judge, Luis Vivas Marzal, would later say in relation to Rocío that:
‘es indispensable inhumar y olvidar si se quiere que los sobrevivientes y las generaciones posteriores a la contienda, convivan pacífica, armónica y conciliadamente, no siendo atinado avivar los rescoldos de esa lucha para despertar rencores, odios y resentimientos adormecidos por el paso del tiempo’ [it is essential to bury and forget if one wants survivors and subsequent generations to the dispute, to coexist peacefully, harmoniously and conciliatorily, it not being wise to stoke the embers of that struggle to revive resentment, hatred and resentment numbed by the passage of time (my translation)] (Espinosa Maestre 2013: 38).
This was the prevailing attitude, commonly referred to as ‘the pact of silence’, of the Spanish Establishment during the Transition – let sleeping dogs lie. The problem is that is while the victors of the Civil War had almost forty years in which to commemorate their dead, the losers were condemned to silence during the dictatorship, unable to publicly mourn their dead and indeed often not knowing exactly where their dead were buried – they were now being told to move on and not reopen old wounds. As historian Pura Sánchez says in Tirado’s film, what the Rocío case highlights is that while the pact of silence is presented as a consensus, it was actually an imposed consensus because the sides involved were not equal.
There is one notorious instance of a drama (representing historical events) falling foul of censorship during the Transition: Pilar Miró, despite being a civilian, was hauled before a military tribunal because of what her film El crimen de Cuenca (1981) depicted of the Civil Guard. But documentary films, specifically those that addressed things the Establishment wanted off limits (which is why the slander charge was dropped in the Rocío case – because the evidence presented by the defence would have very publicly opened a can of worms), bore the brunt of ‘unofficial’ censorship or officious obstructiveness (which could take the form of withholding or blocking funding, or threatened legal sanctions): the more famous examples are El proceso de Burgos (Imanol Uribe, 1979) and Después de… (Cecilia Bartolomé and Juan José Bartolomé, 1981). Alejandro Alvarado argues that the obstacles placed in front of such films – whether during production, distribution, or exhibition – further marginalised the documentary in Spain and was partly responsible for the near disappearance of the form for more than two decades after the early 1980s (2013: 67). But even within this context, Rocío seems to be a case apart because of how long the censorship has endured. In 2005 an attempt was made to screen the original version of the film as part of a conference on ‘historical memory’, but the Reales family resurfaced and amazingly (given the momentum behind the historical memory ‘movement’ since the millennium) managed to stop the screening (the intertitled version was shown instead). In 2014, it was still illegal to exhibit Rocío uncut in Spain. The uncut DVD that comes with the book has a label stating ‘edición limitada como documento para El caso Rocío‘ [limited edition as a document for The Rocío Case]: the classification of the documentary as a document rather than a film would appear to be how they have got around the legal issue in this instance.
El caso Rocío (subtitled trailer) questions whether Fernando Ruiz Vergara was truly aware of what he was getting himself into by including the contentious sections. But given that he and Ana Vila were threatened during the filming (and the subsequent self-censorship), he must have known that trouble lay ahead. For his part, he says in Tirado’s film that once he had seen their faces there was no possibility of leaving out that part of the town’s history (he also points to the need that people had to talk about what had happened). While the various historians interviewed by Tirado emphasise Rocío‘s importance as a social document, both as a celebration of Andalusian identity, and as a nascent example of what would become the movement to reclaim historical memory in Spain, two of the other participants – Isidoro Moreno, an anthropologist who was one of the talking heads in Rocío, and Vitor Estevâo, who was DoP and one of the camera operators – argue that Ruiz Vergara could have concentrated solely on the religious pilgrimage and still have made more or less the same film (that is how Moreno phrases it, but Estevâo is almost dismissive, saying that the director could have just made a ‘pretty’ film and saved himself a lot of trouble). Could he have left out the names of those involved in what took place in Almonte in 1936? Possibly, although I think Ruiz Vergara would have seen that as a betrayal of the trust placed in him by Pedro Clavijo, and it would have had a ripple effect through the rest of the film. The emphasis placed on the sequences relating to the incidents in 1936 (and the resulting censorship) in what has been written about Rocío makes it sound as if those elements were almost ‘tacked on’ to a documentary about religious pilgrimage. But they are tightly woven into the fabric of the film because Ruiz Vergara (who was also the editor) traces the history and roots of the religious tradition and how they are interlaced with (and mirror) the social hierarchies of the area – the families wielding economic and political power in the area are also at the centre of the hermandades de la Virgin del Rocío (‘brotherhoods’ – the local bodies who organise certain aspects of the celebrations for their members), and José María Reales Carrasco was one of the founders of the main hermandad in Almonte. The director constructs a mosaic in which all the pieces matter if you want to see the full picture.
The film starts with a potted history of Christianity in Spain, the arrival of the Berbers in 711 AD and resulting Islamisation of parts of the Iberian peninsula, followed by the Church’s eventual triumph and its mission to integrate itself into rural communities. In parallel, the cult of the Virgin began, the relative scarcity of women (who were more susceptible to the diseases of the time) conferring upon them a status that was reflected in the worshipping the Virgin. After this opening ten minutes, Fernando Ruiz Vergara and writer Ana Vila continuously weave back and forth between the region in the then-present (the footage of the romería (pilgrimage) was filmed in 1977 with additional material collected during the editing process the following year), the way in which the tradition had been shaped to suit both the Church and the more powerful local families, and how politics and religion (i.e. the Second Republic as a secular State) connect to the repressions in the area in the aftermath of 1936.
However the next sequence is the first hint of the striking visual composition that will mark the footage of the veneration of the Virgin of Rocío, a.k.a. La Paloma Blanca (the White Dove). It starts with Jose Hernandez Diaz (then-Professor of Art at Seville University) explaining the evolution of the Virgin statues: the original statues were mutilated by the worshippers so as to better dress them in ostentatious finery, and eventually they were mounted onto a frame so as to make them the height of an actual woman. We then watch two nuns divest a Virgin statue of its finery and take it apart so as to reveal the ravaged body underneath. In what is an intensely theatrical presentation, in a darkened room so as to highlight the white and gold of the statue and the white of the nuns’ habits, Ruiz Vergara keeps the camera close, sometimes with extreme close-ups of hands intimately unfastening and removing layers of clothing and appendages (first hands, then arms), but also regularly pulling back to show the statue in various stages of déshabillé and disintegration. The sequence stands as a metaphor for how Rocío functions as a whole: our attention will be drawn to specific elements of this religious tradition and their significance within this geographic area (exploring the social, economic, and political contexts at play), with the filmmaker and his team capturing close detail but also continually pulling back to show how these specifics interconnect and fit into the bigger picture (and in the process arguably revealing a fairly ugly framework in operation beneath the celebratory and often hauntingly-beautiful surface).
Filming in 16mm on a combination of five cameras, Fernando Ruiz Vergara and his team embedded themselves in the pilgrimage of 1977 – living and sleeping alongside the pilgrims – because the director (who was from Seville and had attended previously) knew that if they left for any amount of time, they would miss the emotion of the event and key occurrences. Camera operators could film whatever caught their attention but were also instructed to look out for certain things by Ruiz Vergara (for example, the small children forcibly being made to crowd-surf in order to touch the Virgin). The camera positioning and movement noticeably change as the romería progresses; this relates to who has ‘control’ at a given moment, the filming being more immersive when ‘the crowd’ (as opposed to those higher up the social hierarchy) takes over. During the initial procession, which is conducted on horseback and in horse and carts, the cameras stay further back, at one remove and observing from the outside. The voiceover (at this point, Isidoro Moreno) tells us that this opening stage is a reaffirmation of the pre-industrial values of an agrarian and aristocraticized society: participation in the procession is a demonstration of economic standing via the ownership of horses (but also being able to afford the necessary provisions and transport). When the procession arrive at their destination, the pedestrian crowd become evident, but at this point they are there as an audience to the equestrian class display rather than active participants.
When night falls and the revelry of the broader class base begins, the camera begins to move in closer, occasionally being jostled by the dancers, with the image often coloured by the flares and lights in the crowd. People are aware of being filmed and look openly into the camera – one man spots the camera and puts his arm around the woman next to him, only for her to realise that they are being filmed and shrug his arm off her shoulder, looking askance at him. At the open air Mass the following morning, the camera withdraws to a distance again – surreptitiously capturing people yawning and otherwise looking the worse for wear after their nocturnal activities – but once the more formal ceremony is over the camera again moves amongst the masses, in ever closer proximity. Ruiz Vergara continues to overlay the footage with voiceovers explaining how historical, political, and social contexts have shaped the romería, and it is between the footage of the Mass and the next stage that the censored sections appear. The sequence explains that the hermandades started in the 17th century, but a significant concentration of them were founded after 1931 and the start of the (secular) Second Republic. Ruiz Vergara connects this with the increased ‘promotion’ of the Virgin of Rocío in the period and parallel tensions stemming from the requirement to remove religious symbols from official institutions, in line with a secular State – the killing of the ninety-nine men and one woman (people who supported the Republic) in 1936 is presented (with support from Pedro Clavijo’s testimony) as a settling of scores. After that sombre sequence the film presents some of its most stunning (and stunningly-strange) imagery. During the next part of the romería, the participants (by this point almost exclusively male) are in pursuit of a frenetic state of possession – or a kind of religious fervour – that begins at daybreak with the ‘seizing of the saint’.
With the camera handheld and in a low position, this initially plays out like the start of a riot with men pushing to clamber over barriers and the mass of people breaking out of containment to climb onto (and fall from) platforms within the Church. The cameras are so close to the action that they put us in amongst it and the confusion intensifies – are the men working together or against each other? what are they actually doing? (there is no voiceover during this footage). A series of overhead shots then show the densely-packed (male) bodies swarming around the Virgin, the framework of her pedestal swaying as the crowd staggers forward almost fighting each other to get closer to the statue, screams audible on the soundtrack. The heat is palpable and the sudden cut to outside, the sky finally visible, is like a gulp of fresh air in this heady atmosphere.
Ruiz Vergara then alternates between shots from in amongst the crowd, jostled, and looking up at either the Virgin or people and children riding on the shoulders of others, or a vantage point slightly above the crowd (as if the camera operator were being carried, which Estevâo says often happened because the crowd lifted them up to give the camera a better view) surveying the participants, some of whom appear almost punch drunk, overcome by emotion or the heat – flushed faces with shining eyes stare into the camera. The camera slowly pulls out to a wide shot revealing the size of the gathering, with the Virgin the serene eye of the human storm (we have already seen this shot – it is briefly inserted into the sequence where the nuns undress the statue). As the swirling mass carry her back into the Church, there are close-ups of the faces of those crushed around the bottom of the pedestal and of hands grasping the poles at the four corners, all emphasising the physical experience of participation and generating a sensation of airless claustrophobia in the viewer. An aggressive human chain forms (as much elbowing each other out of the way as joining together) to half pull, half bounce, the statue back into the intended position. The heat, sweat, and dust are tangible in the hazily steamed-up images captured by the cameras, once again immersing the viewer into the crowd’s experience; the camera style and editing of the sequence is shaped by, and aestheticises, the breathless giddiness of the crowd.
Every seven years, a second procession is held in August (the annual event is held in the Spring) in which the Virgin (this time dressed as a shepherdess) is carried from the sanctuary in Almonte to the hills some fifteen kilometres away. Although just as crowded, this is less frenzied; the camerawork is steadier, and takes a more observational position in comparison to the seizing of the saint. The episode takes on characteristics of a semi-mystical event – for example, via the non-diagetic music on the soundtrack (quite distinct from other sequences), and the way the statue is filmed from inside the Church as it exits, causing it to be backlit and momentarily look like a mirage in the shimmering heat – with greater emphasis given to the pagan over the formally-religious. Once night falls and the procession travels through dusty darkness, the cameras move in closer again (and in contrast to the earlier night sequence, seemingly provide the only light source apart from fire) to capture human chains eerily emerging out of the darkness, families walking side-by-side, and a cape-clad (and fully-covered) Virgin looming over the participants once more. In an echo of what happens in the Church when the Virgin returns, the crowd lift and heave her up onto a platform in the darkness (the camera by now again observing from a distance), in preparation for her to be unveiled as the first rays of sun of the new day illuminate her face. As an undulating mass of dust-streaked bodies then commence moving the Virgin for the return journey, I was put in mind of a behind-the-scenes image from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a sea of arms all reaching up to the female form. The last sequence of the film (accompanied by Salvador Távora singing ‘Herramientas’ [Tools], a paean to labour and labourers) is a montage of mainly previously-unseen footage, emphasising the workers, the land, and community participation in the romería – notably omitting images of priests or formal religious markers – and ends on a freeze frame of a cluster of hands gripping together. These final images (in combination with the shepherdess procession), stress community unity from the perspective of the working classes, and a shared regional identity, but also effectively give the festival back to the people (as opposed to its historical co-opting by the religious authorities).
In El caso Rocío, Salvador Távora suggests that Rocío‘s impact stems not simply from showing the full historical, social, and political context of the event, but that it does so through beauty. It is a shame that so little attention has been paid to the film as a film – I’ve tried to readdress that here – but Fernando Ruiz Vergara constructed such a richly interconnecting text that it is quite difficult to separate the various elements in its composition. The fallout from Rocío finished the director’s career, but he matter-of-factly says in José Luis Tirado’s film: “lo unico que pretendo es contar cosas que no se conocen, que además son importantes en todo caso por la propia historia de cualquier historia […] Y si las cosas que pasaron están aquí – pasaron – ahí está” [All I want is to tell things that aren’t known, and that are important at any rate in the history of any story […] And if the things that happened are here – they happened – well, there it is]. I would argue that Rocío‘s importance as a documentary goes beyond its status as a social document of the time (both in terms of what it depicts onscreen and in the subsequent treatment of the film), and a precursor of the historical memory movement, to the actual standard it set in terms of documentary as a cinematic form – it is both visually striking and a brave and incisive examination of power and its abuses in a microcosm for the wider situation in contemporaneous Spain.
 The factual information regarding the trial is taken from El caso Rocío (book and film) and Alvarado (2010). (Go back)
 Both had economic interests in common stemming from land ownership, while the hermandades (usually headed by those same families) are profitable lay organisations with obvious religious connections. Ruiz Vergara researched parish records for the financial information, including details of profits, relating to the romería of 1975. (Go back)
 The role of women is very restricted in relation to the romería – the dressing of the Virgin is one of the few roles of importance that they are shown enacting in Rocío. See Sánchez (2013) for further details. (Go back)
 It seems unlikely that a film about the subject would be treated the same way today (although, that said, it is still illegal to exhibit the full version of Rocío), but freedom of expression is apparently still vulnerable to curtailment by the powerful in Spain: Banco Santander suppressed Víctor Moreno’s documentary Edificio España (about the renovation of that iconic building, owned by the bank) for fifteen months until the director went to the press and the resulting outcry led to the injunction being lifted in early 2014 (video interview with Moreno). (Go back)
Alvarado, A. (2010) – ‘Maldita Rocío: la película más prohibida, la que algunos quisieran ignorar‘, Blogs&Docs, accessed 19th August 2014.
Alvarado, A. (2013) – ‘Un lobo con piel de cordero: La censura en el cine documental después de Franco’, in del Río Sánchez et al., pp.67-78.
del Río Sánchez, A., F. Espinosa Maestre, and J.L. Tirado (ed.s) (2013) – El caso Rocío: La historia de una película secuestrada por la transición, Seville: Aconcagua Libros. (ISBN: 9788496178847).
Espinosa Maestre, F. (2013) – ‘Algunas claves ocultas de Rocío: Los sucesos del 32 en Almonte y la “cuestión agraria”‘, in del Río Sánchez et al., pp.19-46.
Sánchez, P. (2013) – ‘Así en la tierra como en el cielo: Reflexiones sobre las mujeres en los ritos festivos, a propósito de Rocío‘, in del Río Sánchez et al., pp.89-98.
This piece was originally posted on the old blog in October 2014 (how the film came to my attention is explained within the piece) – I have only edited it for clarity (some of my sentences are too long in the original version) and so that any dates referred to make sense. All of the images included below are from the film’s Facebook page, rather than my normal habit of creating screenshots (the DVD hadn’t been released at this point – when I contacted him to ask about possible ways of seeing the film, Víctor Moreno kindly gave me access to an online screener). The film pays attention to two themes that I find myself drawn to: processes of work; and marked absences in architectural spaces.
‘[I]f the myth states that Madrid has the highest “national” significance, then a critique of the “nation” as the myth conceives it becomes possible through a critical reading of Madrid.’ (Resina 2001: 69)
Inaugurated in 1953 (works began in 1947), Edificio España is a colossus occupying an entire block in the heart of Madrid, where the Gran Vía meets Plaza de España. Designed by architect Julián Otamendi (also responsible for the neighbouring Torre de Madrid, which took over the title of the capital’s tallest building in 1957), Edificio España – as its name suggests – was part of Franco’s project to change Spain’s image in the world, to build a symbol of prosperity to dispel the lingering image of an impoverished and extended postwar period. Deliberately American in style, this immense structure effectively contained a small city within it. The opening credits of Víctor Moreno’s documentary outline its vast capacity: 28 floors, 200 dwellings, 400 offices, shopping arcades, various restaurants, and a luxury hotel. At its peak, 3,500 people passed through its main foyer on a daily basis.
Although it remains imposing, its grandeur and status as the centre of city life started to fade in the 1970s as other buildings came to prominence (given the political transition underway in that era, I wonder whether there was a question of it being tainted by association – the building allowed to remain a monument to the past while the country and its citizens strove to move on). No attempt was made to bring the structure up to date with the times (no doubt in part because of the scale of such an endeavour and the problems associated with listed buildings), although it retained an emblematic status through its sheer visibility. However in 2005, when the Spanish housing bubble was still expanding, the building was bought by Banco Santander with the intention of completely renovating it – only the listed elements (the façade, the shopping arcades, the main foyer, and the staircases) would remain the same. When works began in 2007, filmmaker Víctor Moreno quickly applied for permission to film the transformation of this architectural landmark.
I mentioned the film in a footnote to my piece on documentary and censorship in relation to Rocío (Fernando Ruiz Vergara, 1980). Edificio España came to my attention at the start of 2014 when Moreno and the team behind the film went to the press to reveal that for the previous fifteen months Banco Santander had been suppressing the documentary – and through threat of legal action had forbidden them from talking about it – by invoking a clause in the contract Moreno signed when he was given permission to film inside the building. The clause said that they had the right to block the film if it conflicted with the commercial interests of the property / company – they did not explain to the director what damage they believed the film could do to their investment (it had already screened at two festivals before they invoked the veto). In fact the bank is never mentioned within the film (the opening credits state that an ‘investment fund’ bought the building for renovation, but at no point is it identified by name), which in any case is more interested in the process / work of transformation than any possible end result. It was not Moreno’s intention to make an allegory for the current state of Spain – it was supposed to be (and is) grounded in a specific physical location and set of spaces, and records the disappearance of those spaces – but he also inadvertently captured the bursting of the housing bubble, and humanises the economic situation via the hundreds of workers of various nationalities who were part of the initial stage of the renovation. Edificio España once again stands for the nation, but now as a monumental metaphor for Spain’s present economic crisis.
Once the story broke about the bank’s suppression of the film, the resulting outcry – the Spanish are unsurprisingly vigilant about the infringement of their freedom of expression (what was hard won, will be defended) – led to the bank lifting its injunction in early February and the film is now allowed to be screened in its original form. The film had its UK premiere in October 2014 at the Barbican as part of Spain (NOW)! 2014.
As stated above, the opening credits detail the scale of the structure that we can see before us in the vertiginous opening shot (which I’m guessing was filmed from the Torre de Madrid given the angle), but the filmmaking itself was almost as mammoth a task. Filming over the course of a year – with a coda filmed two years later in 2009 – Moreno collected 200 hours of footage (he explains how the project evolved in this interview), with the style of the film (handheld and observational, without voiceover or score) dictated by what was going on and the need to be able to move around quickly and freely. Although Moreno doesn’t impose a narrative on the film – we see and hear various people working on the building, but there is no voiceover and the protagonist is Edificio España itself – there was arguably a shift in his focus as shooting progressed.
He starts out interested in the empty and abandoned spaces – you can hear the work underway but we don’t initially see many people – but although Moreno remains an unobtrusive presence, as the film progresses he gets closer to people and they get to know each other, before the workers disappear when the renovation stalls. This is mirrored in the order in which we encounter the three security guards and their respective relationships with the building: first is Franco, an exiled Armenian, who seems relatively new to the building at least in so far as he asks questions about what it was like in its heyday; next is Herminio, who has worked there for two years and almost acts as a tour guide to the building and its legends; and finally José, whose life has been touched by the building – he spent his wedding night in the hotel thirty years ago – but he sees this as immaterial (he’s surprised when Moreno asks if he went to look at the room he stayed in before it was gutted – “No. What for?”). It’s the progression of an outsider coming in, becoming immersed in the place, but ultimately only being left with memories and recollections as the physical spaces disappear around them.
The film starts in a series of abandoned spaces, with captions detailing the floor and zone (apartments, offices) of the building they are located in. ‘Abandoned’ is the best way to describe them because they resemble the aftermath of an apocalyptic event: people appear to have left in a hurry. You might expect to see traces of the lives lived within these walls, but parts of their lives have been left behind: clothes litter the floor, children’s drawings are still stuck on walls, family photographs are scattered around, and kitchenware is stacked on worktops. A sporting trophy – or is it an urn? – is later discovered behind a radiator cover as one of the apartments is stripped, the labourer who discovers it stopping momentarily to read the inscription before balancing it haphazardly on the removed cover and it falls to the floor, another addition to the detritus. In the office spaces, the desks overflow with paperwork, and the stubbed-out ends of two cigarettes sit in an ashtray as if the smoker(s) left mid smoke. The lack of voiceover gives us no context for these images and an air of unreality develops: the building is stuck in a timeless limbo. As workers clear cupboards, lockers, and filing cabinets out of the building, the walls are patterned by absences…a faded patchwork of spaces no longer occupied.
Edificio España resembles a comb: the front façade is the straight edge with the ‘teeth’ tucked behind, a series of light wells that jut out the length of the building and contribute to its labyrinthine nature. Getting lost is a recurring theme – an increasingly irate José, muttering curses under his breath, gets lost going to the canteen (camera in tow), frustratingly finding himself the wrong side of a wall and doorway that are no longer passable – and even the planners are unable to work out where they are on their architectural plans (they have to open a window to orient themselves). Corridors, stairwells, and lifts are interchangeable from the outset – an Escher-like loop of narrow, confined spaces – but the sense of déjà vu increases as the building is gutted and the spaces are anonymised, homogenised, and stripped of what personality they had (although that personality is represented via the objects left behind – including a number of framed photographs of the building and its staff).
It is this stripping and gutting – actions that require effort, and that sound slightly violent – that Moreno is drawn to (‘work’ is a common theme in those of his films I have seen so far, and this one stands as a valorisation of work(ers)), both in terms of the transformation of a defined space (captions usually tell us where we are – although not when people get lost) but also the physical work that that transformation entails. This is manual labour in its truest sense, a physically exhausting itinerary of backbreaking toil done with very little mechanical aid. We see diggers and large pneumatic drills in the underground levels but there’s no way to get them higher up the building; the temperamental lifts (which frequently take people to somewhere other than they have requested) are tiny, only holding a few workers at a time. And so this building is stripped by hand, sledgehammer, and pickaxe. Parquet flooring is dug up, carpets ripped up, and walls knocked down in cramped, dark spaces made even smaller by what is being removed quickly piling up in the vicinity. The sound of the physical thuds of sledgehammers along with the recurring scrape of shovels against concrete as rubble is chucked into wheelbarrows develops into a percussive rhythm as the workers fall into unified motions that are occasionally interrupted by hi-jinx (certain people play to the camera) or a collective winding-up of the overseeing foreman (who implores them to work “con alegría”).
Moreno is a largely unobtrusive presence, sometimes simply observing from the sidelines in the larger spaces (as on the floors that have already been knocked through into one open plan space) or navigating the narrow confines of apartments in the process of being deconstructed – trying to keep out of the way of those who make up a human conveyor belt removing extraneous materials. The various ‘segments’ or strands of the film – the abandoned spaces, the workers, process of transformation, the security guards, the foremen, the planners / real estate people – are interwoven / edited in what seems to be a loosely chronological order. Just as the conversations with security guards mirror Moreno’s progress into Edificio España, his relationship with the labourers also develops over the year. Initially they look indirectly at the camera in sideways glances (perhaps wondering why he isn’t helping them – “The man only films, eh?” asks one Russian [this questioning look (for assistance) reappears in Moreno’s La piedra / The Stone (2013) where he silently observes someone trying to get a massive boulder into the back of their truck]), but as time passes they get used to his presence and openly engage with him (explaining what they’re doing or just continuing their conversations regardless of the camera).
The building becomes a modern Tower of Babel, Spanish labourers working alongside immigrant workers from a multitude of countries. Although Spanish predominates as the lingua franca of the building, not everyone speaks it and not all cultural references are shared (one Spaniard is incredulous that an Ecuadorian and a Russian don’t know of Mickey Mouse or Heidi respectively). The clash of cultures is perhaps most apparent at mealtimes. A crowded and noisy break room incorporates cuisines and conversations of distinct cultural origins: for example, there is a priceless exchange of glances between two Spaniards while they listen to an explanation as to why having two or three wives at the same time is considered advantageous in other cultures.
Aside from two instances where the audio from news broadcasts plays on the soundtrack – the first is a positive economic forecast delivered by then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (on 4th October 2007 if the audio matches the date we see concurrently on the security camera footage), the second is a report indicating that the economic storm has come into view – it is only in the interactions between workers in the in-between times and spaces that the economic crisis that Spain is hurtling towards is hinted at. The planners spinning their spiel about how many units they will fit into the building are almost in a bubble of their own (they reminded me of Mercedes Álvarez’s Mercado de futuros / Futures Market (2011) – real estate fantasies removed from reality), with their plans being adjusted due to planning requirements rather than belt-tightening. In contrast, the cost of living is a recurring theme to the conversations between workers (“We’re going up like prices…Then we’ll go down like salaries” observes one man sardonically to another in a lift) and the imminent bursting of the housing bubble can be found in one man saying that he has to find another apartment because his landlord’s daughter needs to move into his current one as she can’t afford the house she lives in (“Why move to a house if you know you can’t pay for it?” – need vs. want).
The human impact can also be seen in the only long-time occupant of Edificio España encountered by Moreno: Germán, who has held out against leaving the building for as long as possible. In the second half of the film we briefly see a front door with a paper sign taped to the wall saying ‘occupied’, on a floor that is otherwise already gutted (we see the shared internal wall with a spraypainted ‘No’ on it – one of many markers for the demolition workers, but also a sign of resistance in this instance). But it isn’t until near the end of the film that we meet the occupier as he leaves his home of thirty years for the last time. In contrast to the abandoned spaces, Germán’s apartment is light, clean and completely empty, all of his possessions removed. He opens each door in turn for Moreno to capture every room, shyly presenting his home (“Today I have many memories of my wife [who died in 2004] […] because this is like destroying her work”). The camera doesn’t follow him out of the building – he has fretted on the way down in the lift about being untidy without his tie or glasses – but watches him leave through the glass doors of the main foyer. He doesn’t look back.
The camera travels back up in the lift to witness the ‘occupied’ sign being removed and the subsequent destruction of the apartment. A sledgehammer smashes through the ‘No’ from within the last domesticated space in the building. Following the progress of Germán’s front door and the resulting rubble, the camera moves outside of the building for the first time, going to the landfill site to watch the remains of a family home pounded to dust. The film then cuts back to the interior hallway, the space of the front door now bricked up and plastered over, with a close up showing the corners of the ‘occupied’ sign still sellotaped to the wall – more traces of absences, of unoccupied spaces. The camera cuts to the other side of the 180 degree line to show the reverse of that doorway – the internal walls are gone and all that remains is a nondescript concrete space. A caption appears: ’23rd Floor. Germán’s Home’.
When Moreno briefly returned two years later, very few people were left; many had to return to their home countries due to lack of work, and one of the site managers tells him that most of the Spanish labourers are now on the dole. As he walks around the building, we see that it has been divested of its personality. Everything has been stripped back to rough concrete, a series of identikit spaces that lack the magic over which Herminio enthused when he spoke of the legends and stories that develop around buildings when they endure for a certain amount of time. The renovations came to a complete halt in 2010, the building’s still-impressive façade covering a bare structure within. This highly visible shell of a dictator’s conscious image-making can be read in a number of ways. It remains a Francoist symbol of power, and an unmissable one due to its size and position. Does Moreno capture the demolition of this symbol (predominantly by immigrants), or its endurance (the film ends underground in the building’s foundations – it is still standing, after all)? By extension the structure also represents another side of Franco’s endeavour – as Herminio explains in relation to the artistic friezes in the foyer, “To put it plainly, it’s in praise of capitalism” – and from that perspective the gutted Edificio España symbolises the failure of that system, of the banks, and the property market, on an immense scale that is impossible to ignore or obscure.
Edificio España is available to buy on DVD with optional English subtitles.
This is the last of the pieces that I am reprinting from the old blog. There will be one more piece in the Reprint series (next week), but it’s an article that was first published elsewhere.
This piece was originally published on the old blog in April 2015; it was a culmination of my investigations into ‘el otro cine español’ thus far, and also a form of preparation for attending the D’A Festival later that month. An earlier post – this one – explains why I was looking at this particular set of films. When I first started this new blog, I wrote a post outlining where I was up to with my ‘otro cine español’ project but not much has happened since (although if you click on the ‘otro cine español’ tag at the foot of this post, you will be able to see other connected pieces). My trip to the D’A Festival in April 2015 mainly stemmed from a realisation that if I wanted to see these films (and their newer incarnations), then I would need to travel to festivals because it is difficult to cross paths with them otherwise. But I’ve had to accept that I don’t currently have the resources for festival trips, and have put the project to one side for the time being – although I keep an eye on the various Spanish online platforms that might host such films. For now, this piece and the one written specifically for this blog are a summation of the project.
I haven’t attempted to update the main part of the text (I haven’t stayed up to date with the saga of Spanish film finance, although I don’t expect that the situation has improved at all – if anything, it’s likely to have got worse) but I am rejigging the postscript because the availability status of several of the films has changed (so that info is current as of August 2017).
Un impulso colectivo
Marginal cinemas – or cinema being made on the margins, outside the norms of a given industrial context – are nearly always present, if not always widely visible. In the past few years in Spain, specific actions by the Rajoy government (for example, dismantling the existing film finance infrastructure without putting anything in its place, and in September 2012 raising the IVA [VAT] on entertainment (including cinema tickets) from 8% to 21%), in combination with the dire economic situation, have thrown film production in Spain into disarray and further undermined confidence in the Spanish film industry – an industry that was already habitually said to be in near-perpetual crisis. These circumstances have exacerbated the financial precariousness of those filmmakers already operating on the margins; the current reliance on self-funding and / or crowdfunding is not sustainable in the long term, and nor does it afford people a secure way of making a living. At the same time, the visibility of these films on the margins has increased because their success at film festivals abroad has raised their profiles at home. This international recognition is often presented by the press as a fillip for a beleaguered industry that these filmmakers nonetheless remain outside of.
From an outsider’s perspective (i.e. mine), there seem to be two events that crystallised the growing attention directed at goings-on on the margins: the September 2013 issue of Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, which was dedicated to ‘el otro cine español’ (the first time I had seen these films presented as being related to each other, despite their disparities), and the ‘Un impulso colectivo’ [A Collective Impulse] section (which takes its name from programmer Carlos Losilla’s Caimán article) at the D’A – Festival Internacional de Cinema D’Autor de Barcelona in April 2014. That’s not to say that these types of films weren’t being supported and championed elsewhere – many screened abroad and / or at festivals such as San Sebastián and Seville prior to these two events – but Caimán and the D’A Festival drew attention to the films and filmmakers as a group in a way that seems important to me because cinema is not created in a vacuum, and the idea of a group (however nebulous) foregrounds that these films are not isolated or unrelated occurrences.
A brief outline of each of the 14 films in ‘Un impulso colectivo’ can be found here. In this post I am going to consider the films as a group in order to highlight some areas of commonality across the programme.
Form follows content –
The ‘Un impulso colectivo’ programme offered a panorama of marginal cinema(s) in Spain, encompassing a range of financial models (including self-financing, crowdfunding, local grants and subsidies) and diverse genres and styles (a deadpan sci-fi, a musical-comedy, essay films, documentaries, and social dramas among them). The films collectively demonstrate that lack of money does not equate with a lack of ambition or signify a lower standard of visual or technical competence. For example, in El triste olor de la carne (dir. Cristóbal Arteaga) the use of one continuous take in conjunction with recurring diegetic sound (Mariano Rajoy’s 2013 national address plays on radios in cars and on the bus, making the architect of Spanish austerity almost omniscient within the narrative) reflects the way in which financial disaster pursues, and is closing in on, Alfredo (Alfredo Rodríguez); the visual and the aural are combined to position the viewer inescapably alongside Alfredo throughout his ordeal, and create an emotionally draining experience.
There are distinct forms and structures in operation across the programme. For example, Vidaextra (dir. Ramiro Ledo) and Une histoire seule (dir. Xurxo Chirro & Aguinaldo Fructuoso) create dialogues with other texts (Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance and the work of Jean-Luc Godard respectively) in order to expand on a worldview or explore the filmmakers’ own experiences. In other films, the actual process of telling a story becomes central to the form they take: in different ways, Uranes (dir. Chema García Ibarra), Árboles (dir. Colectivo Los Hijos [Javier Fernández Vázquez, Luis López Carrasco, Natalia Marín Sancho]), Ilusión (dir. Daniel Castro), Los primeros días (dir. Juan Rayos), and Sobre la marxa (dir. Jordi Morató) all make storytelling, or the play of artistic creation, part of their structure and exploration of broader themes. In Los primeros días, the rehearsals are interwoven with cast interviews and footage of later performances; we see the text take on new meaning for the children as they live the experience, but the juxtapositions in the structure also reinforce the theme of life’s transient nature. Filmmakers also utilise Spain’s past (in the form of Spanish colonialism and the Transition) to draw parallels and highlight connections with events in contemporary Spain in Árboles, Ilusión, and El Futuro (dir. Luis López Carrasco).
‘The crisis’ and human connections –
The economic crisis and its fallout is perhaps unsurprisingly the most persistent theme, and is manifested in various guises. Most straightforwardly, Edificio España (dir. Víctor Moreno) inadvertently captures the moments leading up to the construction bubble bursting and the subsequent sense of paralysis, while El triste olor de la carne takes up the economic theme on the level of personal devastation. In a more comedic mode, Ilusión shows economic circumstances impinging on the personal (pursuing an artistic dream) and the industrial (the film industry’s unwillingness to take a financial risk) in Daniel’s quixotic quest to make a musical about the political pacts that formed Spain’s democracy. The crisis also plays out via generational discontent, as seen in Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato (dir. Yonay Boix) and Vidaextra where people in their late-twenties / early-thirties are stuck in a kind of arrested development, unable to fulfil the expectations of adulthood, at least in part because of social precarity and the impossibility of reliably supporting themselves. There is an undercurrent of frustration and anger – and in some cases the sad weariness of defeat – in many of the representations of contemporary social circumstances.
While several of the films – Uranes, Cenizas (dir. Carlos Balbuena), Sobre la marxa – focus on individuals in solitude (whether by preference or otherwise), the majority show informal communities held together by either friendship or shared experience. Several of these – for example, Edificio España and Paradiso (dir. Omar A. Razzak) – centre on a specific locations, and spaces in danger of desertion; the observed absences in those spaces serve to highlight the connections between those still present. But in the films where these communities represent support networks, there is an emphasis on physicality and the tactility of human interactions – whether the young immigrants playing football and larking about in Slimane (dir. José A. Alayón), the children throwing and dancing each other around the stage in Los primeros días, or the alcohol-induced flirtations and bonhomie in Las aventuras de Lily ojos de gato. Similarly, the conversation at the centre of Vidaextra explores the need for a sense of belonging, to feel part of something bigger than yourself, but also for the society you live in to in some way reflect your values and ideals. Most of the films in ‘Un impulso colectivo’ are rooted in a specific social context – with varying degrees of explicitness, they say something about Spain today – but in the parallels drawn between past and present, many of the filmmakers also suggest the possibility of (or more pointedly, the need for) change and a collective resistance to a continuation of the status quo.
I’ve only skimmed the surface, but taken together these films underline that the richness of cinema is to be found in its plurality; ‘Un impulso colectivo’ gave a taste of a multitude of styles and voices (although notably few women) standing together in the current ‘otro cine español’.
As far as I can tell, Árboles, Une histoire seule, and Vidaextra are not currently available in any format. Back in 2015 most of these films were tricky to access, so I’d like to repeat my thanks to the following people for allowing me access to their work: Luis López Carrasco (twice over), Xurxo Chirro, Ramiro Ledo, Víctor Moreno (for giving me access to Edificio España before the DVD was available), Juan Rayos, Lourdes Pérez at Producción El Viaje (and Jonay García at Digital 104 for passing that request along), and Deica audiovisual.
DVD: Edificio España, Ilusión (no subtitles), Paradiso, Sobre la marxa. [the links take you to the most straightforward way to buy them if you’re in the UK, but they may be available elsewhere as well]
Filmin: Cenizas, El Futuro, El triste olor de la carne, Los primeros días, Slimane, Sobre la marxa. [although Filmin can be viewed from anywhere, it will only allow you to purchase a subscription if you are in Spain – either do as I do (buy the subscription while visiting Spain), or find a friendly Spaniard to purchase on your behalf]
Márgenes: their VOD catalogue is currently down for maintenance, so I can’t link to specific films, but they have previously had Edificio España, El triste olor de la carne, and Slimane. When their catalogue is back up, I will look for links.
This was originally posted on the old blog in October 2014 (my practice now when I reprint something from the old blog is to remove the original content and in its place leave a link to the post here) and is an extended version of the review I wrote for Eye for Film (which can be found here). The figures quoted within the piece (such as unemployment stats) relate to that year. Back in 2014, immigration was already a toxic topic within political discourse in the UK (a certain far right sack of English shit – whose media time is out of all proportion to the size of his party – was mentioned by name during the Q&A in Edinburgh). Post-EU Referendum, I can only imagine that the participants in Bollaín’s timely film have now seen this foreign land in a more negative light – I certainly have.
An angry cry of indignation and a call for political mobilisation, with En tierra extraña – her seventh feature – Icíar Bollaín makes her first foray into documentary, examining the emigration phenomenon among a generation of Spaniards (mainly university graduates in their 20s and 30s) who have been forced to leave Spain due to the economic situation. The Spanish government’s official figures say that around 225,000 Spaniards have left Spain since the current economic crisis began, but independent sources put the figure closer to 700,000 – at least 20,000 of whom have ended up in Edinburgh. So it was appropriate that the film’s UK premiere was as the opening film of the inaugural Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival. Bollaín – herself a resident of the Scottish capital – explores the reasons behind this generational exodus, and the experiences of those who have found themselves in a foreign land for an extended period of time through necessity rather than active choice.
Bollaín’s original plan was to follow the stories of five people, but – she explained in the Q&A after the (sold out) Edinburgh screening I attended – people kept leaving, and she had to rethink her approach. One of the original five was Gloria, who we see organising an artistic expression of how it feels to be Spanish and far from home – she collects ‘lost’ gloves from around the city (the metaphor of the single gloves is that being an emigrant is like feeling you are missing half of yourself, which I personally find a bit twee but it functions well enough here as a connecting device). The gloves were used in a photography project (the images flash up at the end of the film) which was advertised around the city and online, with people choosing a glove from Gloria’s collection to be photographed with but also contributing their stories and experiences. The gloves find their final home on the railings outside the Spanish Embassy in Edinburgh in a show of solidarity with the Marchas de la Dignidad [Dignity March] which took place on 22nd March 2014 in Spain. The participants interviewed and filmed by Bollaín are those who turned up on the day of the photography project.
They are filmed solo or in pairs against the backdrop of Edinburgh Castle – perhaps a symbol of potentially impenetrable cultural barriers, but also conceivably a representation of a safe haven. In deeply moving, dignified, and articulate testimony, a series of highly qualified people – social workers, psychologists, teachers, and engineers among them – in their 20s and 30s (and some older women as well) explain how they came to be working in hotels, kitchens, and takeaways thousands of miles away from their homes and families. The story of a limited employment market, of short term contracts with little stability, a lack of opportunities and no clear future is a familiar one – similar situations are taking place across Europe. But arguably in Spain the problems have been exacerbated by pre-existing problems relating to their political system in combination with severe austerity measures, and they have hit the young hard – youth unemployment in Spain currently hovers at 54% (it is around 16% in the UK).
While the interviewees talk of the erosion of confidence that occurs when you are stuck doing work that you are not proud of – and that doesn’t stretch your capabilities – almost all of them also say that they have felt welcome in Scotland, and that their work is appreciated, valued, and offers the possibility of progression. Their experiences in Scotland have made many of them reevaluate how Spain treats immigrants, especially those from Latin America – and Bollaín offers illustrations of anti-immigration political campaigning in Spain (again, that’s something that Europe as a whole currently shares). Although we meet chemical engineers working as housekeepers (her revelation that she was so underpaid as an engineer in Spain that she actually earns the same cleaning hotel rooms in Edinburgh was met with a collective “Oof” from the predominantly Spanish audience at the screening), and biologists serving fried chicken, the film emphasises that there can be a life-enhancing side to being immersed in another culture. People who have been in Scotland for longer, have made it through the language barrier to develop their careers, such as the young man involved in events management at the Scottish Parliament.
But the flipside of this cultural immersion is the problematising of ‘belonging’ – on the one hand, many of the participants can’t imagine ever feeling that they belong in Scotland, but the longer they stay away from home, the more they feel ‘other’ when they return there as well. This is summed up by one woman as sometimes feeling that she has double of everything (two homes, two lives – a feeling of plentitude), but at other times that she only has half (because she is split between two places). Nearly all of them speak of the deep sense of loneliness experienced by the immigrant far from home and surrounded by a language that is not their own – another woman brilliantly describes it as only being able to offer an abridged version of yourself because your identity does not fully translate (underlined in her case by the Scottish being unable to properly pronounce her name – Mar – and adapting it into something recognisable to themselves but foreign to her self perception).
In amongst the nostalgia – Bollaín said that that was what most surprised her, that people in their 20s and 30s felt such a strong nostalgia for Spain, a longing for what they have left behind, or for those things being missed (e.g. births, deaths, and marriages, the markers in a shared life) during their absence – is a deeply-felt impotent rage at being subjected to something that is not of their making. The director’s contention is that despite what the politicians say – and Bollaín utilises news footage to give Spanish politicians enough rope to hang themselves with their disingenuous statements about enhanced employability – this mass emigration is not the same as that of Spain in the 1960s. In that era Spain was a poor country with a sub-standard education system – many of those who went abroad (predominantly to factories in Germany) were the rural poor. In contrast, those leaving today boast university educations, and head into unskilled work; the current phenomenon effectively deprives their homeland of a generation of skilled professionals and impoverishes the country in a way that goes beyond the economic.
Alongside news and archive footage (and an explanation of the socio-economic context from sociologist Joaquin Garcia Roca), Bollaín skilfully interweaves Alberto San Juan’s one-man show – Autorretrato de un joven capitalista español / Portrait of a Young Spanish Capitalist – into the film to create a recurring point of reference around which to organise the testimonies. Humorous, but also angry and educational, San Juan’s monologue questions how Spain came to be in its current economic position and proffers some explanations with recourse to history, politics, and an account of how the West (in the form of Henry Kissinger and German Chancellor Willy Brandt) interfered behind the scenes in Spain’s journey to democracy – and what Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González acquiesced to in the 1980s in order to get European membership for Spain. Cut from the same political cloth as Bollaín, San Juan pulls no punches and ends his performance by asking whether what the Spanish are experiencing now is just a continuation of Francoism under another name, wherein the vested interests of a powerful minority are protected at the expense of the common citizen. This acts as a carefully argued – although avowedly one-sided – counterbalance to the emotion of the testimonies, and as a call for mobilisation and participation in order to change Spanish politics.
At times profoundly moving (people trying not to cry is lump-in-my-throat material for me generally but the loneliness and trying-to-be-stoic-in-the-face-of-despair just made me want to hug them), En tierra extraña burns with indignation at the circumstances foisted on a generation who did what they were supposed to but who have had little choice but to abandon the careers and futures they thought lay ahead of them. While the film doesn’t offer solutions, it suggests that there is cause for hope – in one section of San Juan’s show he says that the streets of Spain fell silent on 23rd February 1981 (when Lieutenant Colonel Tejero attempted a coup d’etat in the Spanish Parliament) but that they woke up and unfroze on 15th May 2011 (the start of the protests and the Indignados movement). He argues that they won’t be silenced again, and during the Q&A Bollaín pointed to the abandonment of the Partido Popular’s medieval proposed abortion law and the appearance of new left-wing party Podemos as proof that people can make a difference when they group together. In calling Spain’s political class to account, Bollaín gives a voice to those left outside (a common theme across her filmography) – of both their country and political system – and at a time when poisonous polemics about immigration are sweeping Europe, her humane and impassioned documentary deserves to be seen far and wide.
The film is available on-demand at Vimeo.
I reviewed Land of Mine in 2015 (I saw it at the Gijón International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award) – and I mentioned it in one of my festival diary posts – but it finally goes on theatrical release in the UK today (after receiving an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category earlier this year). It’s a well-made film; although conventional in its narrative structure and character arcs, it adeptly pulls the audience into the story, constructs multiple sequences of high tension, and shines a light on a little-known event from the end of WW2. It also boasts several very fine performances. My 2015 Eye for Film review is here.