This was a real treat with extra enjoyment from the Q&A with director Koldo Almandoz that followed the screening. Almandoz is a documentary filmmaker and someone who makes a living by working in different ways with local arts and social groups. He had a short film screened at Cannes in critics’ week as early as 2003. His first ‘long’ film merged documentary and fiction and this second film, though a fictional narrative, is deeply rooted in the landscape and small community on the outer fringes of his home town of San Sebastian. When he originally conceived the idea for the film it was about two brothers now retired who share a building by the river (the ‘Urumea’?) but who no longer speak to each other. Eventually, however, the writer-director became interested in a third character, a young man who came to Spain as a small child from Western Sahara when he was six years old. (The ex-colony of Spanish Morocco is now largely controlled by Morocco but the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic still claims sovereignty and is recognised by most African countries.)
Khalil (Laulad Ahmed Saleh) took over as the lead character in the final version of the script. He lives with his mother who makes sure he is well-fed and still attends a technical school (in the UK an FE college) where he is hoping to finally pass his exams. His father did work in a local factory but has now died. The area itself has seen industrial employment decline. Khalil gets by from a combination of small-scale drug dealing and the poaching forays of José Ramón (Patxi Bisquert). José is the one of the two brothers. He worked in a factory and now tends his garden and stuffs animals when he isn’t hunting, fishing and trapping illegally. The other brother is MartÍn (Ramón Agirre), who by contrast was a university lecturer in Paris but he has recently returned in somewhat mysterious circumstances. He keeps busy with more intellectual pursuits.The only other main characters are a young woman in the local petrol station, with whom Khalil has an off/on relationship, and a second young woman who is employed as a park ranger and tries to catch Ramon in flagrante with his traps.
This description of characters and locale perhaps suggests a conventional drama. To a certain extent this film does work out as a drama narrative but it is genuinely an art film interested in a central theme of people ‘moving’ and the changing context of migration. The Basque country has changed over the last 20 years or so and now there are people like Khalil who have been through the local school system and who represent part of the future of the region. The characters are all on the move, none more so than Khalil whose small motorbike takes him from school to the lorry park and petrol station, to José Ramon’s house and back home. On a couple of occasions he goes out in José Ramon’s boat down the river and once to the sea, illegally fishing for elvers. Khalil is embedded in the community but the girl at the petrol station wants to leave. To comment on Khalil’s position, Almandoz includes a scene where a man suddenly switches from speaking Euskara (Basque) to Spanish when he talks to Khalil. This could be interpreted either as emphasising that for him Khalil is “not one of us” or that the man simply assumes that Khalil must be a recent migrant.
Much of the time in the film the emphasis is on the landscapes rather than moving the narrative forwards. In the Q&A Almandoz repeated the neo-realist maxim that the story was made to fit the landscape and not the other way round. Cinematographer Javier Agirre captures changing light on the river and produces remarkable images of the local wildlife – a kingfisher, a heron, an owl, a wild pig and a hedgehog. There is a sense in which as the industry and the people leave the area, the fauna comes back. The film’s title is ‘the deer’. There is a deer in the film but Koldo Almandoz told us that he just wanted a title that didn’t explain the whole film.
Almandoz also told us that he wanted to make a film about his home town but he wanted to avoid what he called the typical Basque film that celebrated some aspect of the Basque country’s uniqueness and special achievements. He wanted his film just to show the people in this very specific location, not as heroes or villains, just people. I must add, however, that on two occasions MartÍn sings with a local choir. The choir produces an absolutely glorious sound. Almandoz told us that when he shot the film he thought he didn’t want any non-diegetic sound but later he accepted that the music produced by Ignacio Bilbao and Elena Setien worked well with the images. The festival brochure suggests that it was inspired by Jonny Greenwood and Sigur Rós. I enjoyed the non-diegetic score but the choir sound really got to me. I’ll remember this film and I’m certainly thinking about going to San Sebastian. The film has been released in Spain and France. It has been a critical success rather than a crowd-pleaser. Koldo Almandoz says that he grew up watching films from other language cinemas (he gave the films of Aki Kaurismäki and Abbas Kiarostami as examples) and implied that he was happy if his films were seen at festivals. He finished the Q&A by explaining that he has several future projects in mind but that he doesn’t only live in the world of cinema. Sometimes he works to feed his family and to pay the bills – but he didn’t say what kind of work that would be. He came across as a very interesting guy.I hope to get the chance to see his work in future.