¡Viva! 2014 #4: Bertsolari (Spain 2011)

Bertsolaria Maialen Lujanbio in performance

Bertsolaria Maialen Lujanbio in performance (photo from http://www.flickr.com/people/www_ukberri_net/)

Viva14This 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:

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