The third Spanish film in my BIFF viewings offers something very different and very welcome – beautiful images of a unique landscape and its people in an artistic and poetic documentary. These images are nearly always framed in long shot and held long enough for us to contemplate the stories being told and to allow our gaze to wander across the composition, following tiny moving figures or noting the import of the situation. Before the feature screening there was an earlier short by the same filmmaker, Mountain in Shadow (Spain 2012). In the short Lois Patiño trains his camera on the ski slopes of a mountain range in Iceland. The contrasting white, grey and black of landscape and people (tiny figures) make both abstract patterns and moving tapestries. On a big screen the image seems to tremble or pulsate with life. As well as marvelling at the compositions and framings, I found myself also wondering how did you get those shots. Is the camera on another hillside hundreds of metres away with a long lens? Or is the camera in a balloon or on a helicopter? I think the latter is unlikely since the shots are held steady and the expense would be too great.
The same questions about camera positions come up with Costa da Morte. Here the long shots show us the treacherous waters of the Galician coast around Finisterre which the locals are able to navigate to harvest shellfish and goose barnacles. This is in itself dangerous but at least the locals know where the rocks are. The coast’s name is said to arise from the high number of shipwrecks caused by hidden rocks in difficult waters. As on other ‘wrecking coasts’ there are also stories about ships being lured in so their cargoes can be ransacked. Patiño shows us the coast in detail and we hear the tiny figures in the distance discussing the dangers. He also takes his camera inland to the forests and mountains of Galicia, exploring forestry and that other elemental danger of fire on the hills. I was a little surprised by the extent of these fires – Galicia is generally wet and green, but presumably dries in Summer. (The first images in the film gradually reveal loggers at work as the trees emerge from the mists on the mountains.) Again we hear stories about firefighters who sometimes re-started fires to keep themselves in work. We also see farmers and quarrymen – all in relation to their environment. This is a region where people have struggled in poverty for centuries battling against the elements. At the end of the film in the credits I noticed the name ‘Castro’ and remembered sitting in a bar in Havana which displayed Galician mementoes and support for the region’s teams. I assume that like Ireland and the Canary Islands, many Galicians from the coast looked West for the chance to make a new life.
Lois Patiño is a young filmmaker from Vigo (the biggest city in Galicia to the South-West of Costa da Morte). This is his first feature and he is an obvious talent who with this film is an obvious contender for Bradford’s European feature prize. (The film has already won prizes in other festivals.) The beautiful Press Pack on the film’s website includes the director’s statement which eloquently sums up the filmmaker’s intention:
I sought to relate the vastness of the natural space to the intimate experience of people through a double perceptual distance to the human figure (far in the image close in the sound). Eventually through the deep contemplation of the image we will dissolve in the whole and disappear into the landscape of Costa da Morte.
It was almost a relief to be presented with a feature that didn’t work for me. I confess that I missed the introduction to the film and I hadn’t looked very carefully at the brochure blurb for El futuro but that shouldn’t have mattered. And actually my struggle to work out what was going on at least got me engaged with a film that I seriously thought of abandoning (I’ve only once done that before and that was over thirty years ago).
Eventually I twigged that El futuro presents a group of young people in Madrid partying after the announcement of the election success of the Socialists under Felipe González in 1982. They aren’t celebrating a Socialist victory as such, but rather what they perceive as freedom now guaranteed, seven years after the death of Franco. I was trying desperately to remember the term given to these young people and the culture they created in the late 1970s, celebrated in the early films of Pedro Almodóvar – La Movida Madrileña. So the party features the usual drinking, smoking, drug-taking and at least one ‘outrageous’ display accompanied by a soundtrack of Spanish ‘New Wave’ and punk music. There’s nothing wrong with any of this of course. Most of us have attended parties like this. Thirty or forty years later they don’t seem much fun but they seemed important at the time. More problematic is the presentation of the material – deliberate crash editing, fluctuating sound levels, break up of the image, end of reels etc., almost as if the filmmakers (Luis López Carrasco from the Collective Los Hijos) wanted to replicate the look of those early Almodóvar Super 8s. (Cineuropa suggests he was using 16mm) It didn’t work for me. I can see that the approach does intentionally frustrate the audience’s desire for a conventional narrative flow. A good example of this is the subtitling which sometimes seems to shift from giving the song lyrics to what is actually being said in a conversation almost randomly. Are they really talking about lemon blue vomit?
What did work was the insertion of a collection of still photographs. Someone at the party refers to those ‘summer holidays in the 1960s’ when “you knew who your boyfriend was”. The photos show rather complacent looking men and women in formal poses – and they did bring back the Spain of the Franco years. At the end of the film we see a series of shots of an empty apartment at dawn with the debris of the party and then several street scenes. I think that we are meant to ask ourselves what ‘now’ might look like viewed from the past? All this may be some kind of (justified) howl of rage at the waste of youth unemployment. Who knows?
Pablo Llorca, the writer-director of A Bouquet of Cactus clearly believes in ‘independence’ as a principle of filmmaking. Unlike the majority of filmmakers who hope to gradually increase their budgets as they raise their profile, he appears to want to avoid any compromises with funders and intrusive producers. He has been making shorts and features since 1989 and this recent release surfaced at the Seville European Film Festival in 2013. It’s in Bradford as part of the European features competition. I found it an enjoyable film to watch but I think it would probably find a bigger audience with just a little extra money to smooth off the rough edges. Pablo Llorca would probably not accept the need to do this or the interference it might bring.
A Bouquet of Cactus is part family melodrama, part comedy drama and part political satire. It may be very close to Latin American telenovelas – and its rough aesthetic at times resembles TV shooting. The film opens with what appears to be Super 8 footage of a live birth before switching to bright HDTV images (?). The new arrival is ‘Miguel’ and we gradually learn that the protagonist of the film will be Miguel’s grandfather Alfonso, now estranged from his son and family and most importantly from his wealthy brother Gerardo. Alfonso has a small patch of land which he operates as a ‘market garden’ for the local town. Later we realise that Alfonso and his neighbours are being pushed off their land by a property development company in which Gerardo is involved. Alfonso is one of the last to sell and he makes a deal with Gerardo to acquire a new plot near his old family home. In addition he demands that Gerardo does not interfere with Miguel’s education. Alfonso himself has plans to show the boy the ‘real’ education that can be learned from the land. The narrative then leaps forward several years to depict Alfonso’s new life and the struggle over Miguel’s education. Although Miguel enjoys visiting his grandfather he also likes his new iPod and wants to visit Disneyland Paris.
I won’t give away the ending but I do want to point to the way that the political is intertwined with the personal. One device is to show Alfonso in a local bar on two different occasions, several years apart. The first time he rails against all politicians. The second time he seems too cynical to react to the TV news and has almost withdrawn to the ‘better past’ of a communal rural life. He is a cultured man who has decided that he needs to retreat from the material world. There are other references to the ills of Spanish society (youth unemployment etc.). I think that Llorca tries to show Alfonso as an organic horticulturalist but I’m not sure that the term means the same in Spain as in the UK (there are mentions of bags of fertiliser at one point and he tells his grandson they should burn weeds – where’s the compost bin?). Nevertheless there is an attempt to sketch out alternative economics and lifestyles.
The rough edges I referred to include the sound mix with its various levels and the occasional rough visual edits. I’m guessing that this is simply a matter of not enough time/budget. The script seems to suffer from rushed transitions towards the end of the film. Perhaps there is more to debate about the ‘realism effect’. Llorca doesn’t bother about the fact that the story jumps forwards by around 8 or 9 years but Alfonso looks no older and he still drives the same shiny car. I guess it doesn’t matter but a little make-up and borrowing a few old cars wouldn’t have meant too much outlay.
This is an affecting film and if I had a grandchild I’d probably be very like Alfonso.
This is one of the best documentaries I have seen for a long time. It tells a fascinating story about an art form and cultural practice I didn’t know about before, it features interesting and engaging individuals, it’s carefully structured and well directed – and it looks wonderful. Add in the photogenic possibilities of the Basque country and this is a winner in every regard. I saw this as second out of four films at ¡Viva! and at the start of the next screening I noticed that the montage of clips that makes up the festival’s promo reel contains a disproportionate number of clips taken from Bertsolari – I quite understand why the editor of the promo felt compelled to include so many.
A bertso is a sung poem improvised around a given topic. The singers are bertsolari and the art form itself is bertsolaritza. These are all Basque words in the Basque language Euskara. As part of an oral performance art tradition, bertsolaritza was first established in rural areas where the population might have been illiterate and oral traditions were very important. From the 19th century onwards the form began to be more formally organised and moved into urban areas. With the suppression of Basque culture from the late 19th century up until the end of the Franco period in the 1970s, bertsolaritza began to be seen as virtually the only channel for the expression of Basque ideas and values – as a form based entirely on ‘performing’ in the Basque language it was more difficult for the Spanish metropolitan forces to control.
National competitions for bertsolari began as early as the 1930s but really took off in a major way in 1980 with audiences of 10,000 and more for the championships. Bertsolari the documentary focuses on the 2009 championship final held at the Bilbao Exhibition Centre in front of 15,000 people. It uses the winner of the previous four contests, Andoni Egaña Makazaga, as a guide. He takes us through the art of bertsolaritza, illustrating how he manages to compartmentalise his brain and to store rhymes so that whatever the subject he is given he can methodically go through the possible bertsos he could construct. The film’s director, Asier Altuna foregrounds the professional relationship between Andoni and the leading female bertsolari Maialen Lujanbio as they prepare for the championship. This is a competition without clashing egos. The competitors know each other well and they respect and support each other. I don’t think that the outcome of the contest will surprise anybody – but it’s still a moving occasion.
Altuna has several other strands alongside the build-up to the championship. His camera ranges across the region and finds several arresting images including one of a group of people sitting in chairs on the beach as the tide sweeps in amongst them. In another a young woman strides, seemingly unconcerned along the edge of a precipice. These seem to be symbols for the unnerving tasks facing the bertsolari when they are given some very demanding topics around which to improvise a poem/song. Did I mention how beautifully they sing as well? Another strand running through the film tells us about the history of bertsolitza and about how it is still developing with the addition of musical accompaniment for some performers. An American academic, John Miles Folley offers us an anthropologist’s view of bertsolitza as an oral performance tradition and relates it to other similar traditions and to modern forms like hip-hop/rap. But he points out that nothing compares to bertsolitza in terms of attracting such large knowledgeable and diverse audiences – of all ages, men and women.
I do hope that some enterprising distributor picks up this film for UK cinemas or TV. I’m so glad to have got the opportunity to see it at ¡Viva!
Long clip on Vimeo: