Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala were two 20 year-old Basque activists living as refugees in France in 1983 when they were kidnapped by Spanish Guardia Civil officers in plain clothes and taken back to San Sebastian where they were tortured in secret. Eventually they were taken across Spain to the hills of Alicante where they were shot and buried in quick lime. This was one of the first actions associated with GAL, the officially-sanctioned Spanish ‘anti-terrorist’ squad. The bodies were discovered but not identified in 1985 and it was 1995 before a local Alicante Police Commissioner re-opened the case after reading a newspaper story about GAL.
Director Pablo Malo’s film has been described as a ‘docudrama’ as he constructs a narrative which parallels the ensuing legal investigation in 1995 and the re-constructed events of 1983. This is very definitely a powerful film, from the rapid editing of the title graphics and the dramatic orchestral score through to the scenes of torture and murder which I found impossible to watch at times (the film has an advisory ’18’ certificate). The narrative begins with a brief local radio studio scene which attempts to represent some kind of ‘truth and reconciliation’ scenario. When it flashes back to the French city of Bayonne and the kidnapping and murders of a whole group of ETA activists it seems that it will be a story from the Basque Nationalist perspective. The dialogue offers a mixture of Basque and Castillian Spanish. The ‘balancing’ forces in the narrative are the presence of the Alicante investigator and the statements about the high numbers of police and army assassinations carried out by ETA (in 1983 the Guardia Civil claim that at least 48 such killings took place). Nevertheless, the lead character is the Basque lawyer Iñigo played by Unax Ugalde, who in 1995 agrees to pursue a private prosecution on behalf of the dead men’s families.
The ¡Viva! brochure suggests that the director drew inspiration from Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda and Bloody Sunday by Paul Greengrass. Certainly there is a parallel between the Irish and Spanish struggles and the reconstructions of events but I was reminded more strongly of a film like Battle of Algiers in terms of the torture scenes and the attempted even-handedness and of other Spanish and Argentinian films in terms of the ‘disappearance’ of activists. There is a seemingly deliberate ploy in the script to balance Iñigo’s partisan lawyer with the brilliant young legal specialist Fede who is hired to do the paperwork and to find the links and the weaknesses in witness statement. Iñigo Gastias, the young actor who plays Fede has a very innocent-looking face and when he challenges Iñigo it is difficult not to be affected by his sense of what is ‘right’. While the narrative never actively supports the actions of the Spanish state, it does work hard to raise questions about how justified the Basque activists are in their approach to the investigation.
A title card at the beginning of the film tells us that most of the characters are the ‘real’ historical characters and that the others are based on similar historical characters who have been ‘fictionalised’ for dramatic effect. I certainly found the story convincing. End credits told us what happened to the police officers (and local governor) who were prosecuted and how long they actually served in prison – which didn’t seem very long.
The visual style of the film is based on a preponderance of tight close framings with fast-cutting for action scenes. At the start of the film it did take me a few moments to adjust, following the action and trying to read the subtitles that were on the screen for only a brief moment. Playing on the biggest screen at HOME at this space made for a riveting opening but I think that it could alienate audiences without much knowledge of the geography and the political struggles of the Basque country. When the title ‘Baiona’ came on screen it took me a few moments to realise that this was Bayonne and that we were in France (Wikipedia tells me that this is the Gascon name for the city).
The film has generated interest (and I presume controversy) in Spain after a modest cinema release and has also been seen in festivals internationally. I believe it is on Netflix in North America. It doesn’t attempt to explain anything about the politics of Basque nationalism but as a crime procedural/courtroom drama it works very well with strong performances and crisp presentation of the story. I wish I had been able to attend the introduction to this film on Saturday and the Q&A with the director that followed the Saturday screening.
Trailer with English subs: