Billy is an unusual short (71 minutes) documentary feature, first screened at the Seville European Film Festival in 2020 and scheduled to be released in Spain in September 2021. It is another of the UK premières that have been offered by HOME at this year’s ¡Viva!. The film opens with a sequence that appears to come from a European Western (actually El hombre que mató a Billy el Niño, Spain-Italy 1967). A young blonde cowboy on horseback is being chased across across a dry scrub landscape into a small town by a group of ‘Federales’. A voiceover tells us that this isn’t a Western, although there are guns, chases and sheriffs and good guys and bad guys – but it’s too early to reveal them. All this while a woman dashes out of an adobe house to bring in her child in an almost direct hommage to the opening of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. The voiceover tells us that in fact this is a film about events only a relatively short time ago in a location that is also not too distant. This is immediately followed by a montage of talking heads all giving descriptions of ‘Billy the Kid’. A close-up of a pistol being fired at the camera turns into an animated credit sequence, also re-calling Leone, announcing ‘Billy’. This is certainly an arresting opening and soon the voiceover returns to tell us that Antonio González Pacheco, a police inspector in the Social Political Brigade of the Francoist regime in Spain during the late 1960s, died without having been tried for his crimes of torture and murder despite the demands of his victims and their families. The coronavirus delayed the post-production of the film and it also took Pacheco and one of the witnesses to his crimes. When shooting began Pacheco was alive, now he is dead but the need to expose his crimes remains.
As the witnesses began to identify themselves as members of various anti-fascist political parties that they joined as university students and young activists, I remembered the Spanish political thriller that featured in ¡Viva! 23, Seven Days in January (7 dias de enero, Spain-France 1979) that offered a compelling fictionalised account of the police and fascist ‘guerrilla action’ against communist lawyers and activists which threatened to derail the transition towards democracy in Spain following Franco’s death in 1975. What I certainly wasn’t aware of was the extent to which young anti-fascists were active in Madrid during 1968 when student protest spread from Paris, Berlin, London, California and Mexico across the world. It seems to me now that those Spanish students faced a much more serious threat to their very survival, certainly compared to most student revolutionaries in the UK (though not those overseas students being tracked in the UK by intelligence services). Here in Billy we meet several of those Spanish student activists and other young activists, now in their late 60s or early 70s but with vivid memories of the late 1960s. As one of them puts it:
You could see how the police acted, how they tortured, how they repressed, how they shot for real – they didn’t shoot rubber bullets.
The witnesses constitute a diverse group of men and women who belonged to a variety of communist and anti-fascist political parties which didn’t necessarily agree on tactics. Some were determined to rely on words and the democratic process, others believed in direct action, including armed struggle. Writer-director Max Lemcke and his crew have access to a diverse range of material, including footage of demonstrations and street battles, newsreels and personal archives. Much of it is accessible for any audience but some probably means much more to Spanish audiences. A witness reminds us that it was difficult to find ‘important books’, to hear songs (such as the Victor Jara one used here) and watch movies in this period.
But who was ‘Billy’ and how did he acquire the name? Antonio González Pacheco arrived at university in Madrid in 1968 and in 1969 became a Junior Inspector in the ‘Social Investigation Brigade’. He quickly became a leading player in the ‘Dirty War’ waged by the police and fascist gangs against any left organisations. I think the term ‘Dirty War’ is used to deliberately link to the similar activities in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and other Latin American countries. The ‘Transition’ to democracy was was slow and although democratic elections produced a conservative government it did not have a majority. There was a major issue about the refusal to legitimise the Spanish Communist Party and a concerted effort by the new government to declare various Amnesties and not to investigate the activities of Francoist crimes against the people at that point. These are some of the issues discussed in Billy. Some historians mark the end of Transition with the failed coup d’état of 1981 and the election of the majority government of the PSOE or Spanish Socialist Party (a centrist party by the standards of most of the witnesses in Billy). The crucial point is that the torture and murder of leftist political activists as practised by Pacheco/’Billy the Kid’ did not stop in 1975 but continued into the 1980s.
‘Billy’ is portrayed in Seven Days in January and we get to see clips from that film and to hear the witness statement of the actor who played him. He got his name because he was a show-off who liked to parade his weapon and he was something of a dandy. Different witnesses explain how the torture terror worked and how the murders happened. The vivid descriptions are shocking and so is the observation that the fascists in the police force, just as the fascists in the élite, made the transition to democracy without being investigated or imprisoned and keeping their positions in many cases. The 1970s also saw an ‘International’ organisation of fascist police groups with meetings arranged with similar groups in Italy and West Germany.
I found the testimonies riveting, although the plethora of different political parties and revolutionary groups was a little confusing. The documentary is not publicly-funded or made by a media corporation. It was completely crowd-funded and all the contributors are listed in the long credits. It can therefore be a partial account (Francoists were invited but declined to be interviewed), though some of the witnesses have different views about direct action. The filmmakers have, however, decided that too many talking heads in long sequences would make the film unwatchable for any but the most diehard supporters. They have therefore used the Billy the Kid film as well as a Lucky Luke animated version of the Billy the Kid story and even an old black and white TV advert for Nesquik similar to the ‘Milky Bar Kid’ UK ad from 1961. The witnesses describe Billy in different ways – as a clown, as someone almost ‘deified’, as a sinister man, loathed and feared etc. The name stuck from his earliest university appearances but not everyone thought it was a good idea to repeat the nickname. I see the problem for a filmmaker wanting different material but I think there is probably too much of the feature film material shown – which does suggest Billy as the ‘hero’.
Fifty years is a long time to wait for witnesses to be heard. I’m glad I was able to see this film which has a repeat showing at HOME, Manchester on Saturday 21st August at 12.45. As fascism begins to rise again across the globe it’s important to introduce younger audience to this history and these victims of torture.
Josep was a real treat for me. Showing in My French Film Festival this is a form of animation not unlike last year’s The Swallows of Kaboul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in representing the humanity found in the midst of horror. I realise that my favourite form of animation is ‘drawn’, followed by stop motion. This is why I generally go for Japanese or French drawn forms with a side order of Aardman. I’ve lost interest in most Hollywood animations. But I should warn you that the three of the reviews in English of Josep that I found expressed doubts about the drawing style (while praising the content).
The ‘Josep’ of the title is Josep Bartolí, the Catalan ‘draftsman and caricaturist’ who fought the Francoist rebels in the Spanish Civil War, finally escaped to Mexico and had an affair with the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, before being blacklisted in the US as a communist. Given the dramatic events of his life it’s amazing that he survived into his mid-80s. This animation, which is similar in conception to Maus by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis (France-US 2007) by Marjane Satrapi (which was a graphic novel before becoming a film), is narrated in flashbacks by an old man trying to engage with his grandson who clearly has talent as an artist. Like stories and memories for old people the narrative presents events outside a strict chronology and at first we aren’t quite sure how the grandfather knows about all the events. The film is presented in a ‘Scope ratio and it lasts just 71 minutes but packs in a lot.
In February 1939 Franco’s forces, with the help of other Fascists in Italy and Germany, finally defeated the Republicans in Barcelona and half a million soldiers and ordinary citizens, men women and children fled Catalonia, marching over the Pyrenees in in the snow to reach France. But by 1939 the Popular Front in France had failed to resolve political differences in relation to the war in Spain, despite support for intervention by French communists. The Spanish Republicans expected some form of support in France but instead were met by at best indifference and at worst downright rejection and horrific conditions of internment. The Spanish were put into concentration camps hastily constructed along the coast of Roussillon and at several other sites across the rest of France. Josep was one of those who found himself in a camp on the coast guarded by Gendarmes, many with Fascist sympathies, and ‘Colonial troops’ – Senegalese tirailleurs. Josep had few belongings and was only sustained by his passion for drawing which he carried out with whatever implements and canvases he could improvise. Eventually, one of the few compassionate Gendarmes smuggled in a pencil and small notebook enabling him to draw more effectively. These drawings would become the basis for a later publication named La Retirada after the name given to this exodus from Catalonia.
There are several important figures involved in bringing Josep Bartolí’s story to cinema screens. The film is directed (and drawn) by Aurel, a press cartoonist. He works for Le Monde and Le Canard Enchaîné. He has published around twenty books including two documentary comics, Clandestino and La Menuiserie, and produced numerous graphic reports for various titles in the French press. (Source: the film’s Press Pack.) Aurel had made one short film before this, his first feature. He set out to be faithful to both the story and to the different drawing styles that Bartolí used, often out of necessity. Early scenes are drawn in pencil, then ink and felt tip. At first the colour is almost completely drained from the scenes but later it emerges, most dramatically in the appearances by Frida Kahlo. Towards the end of the story, Josep is in effect painting with broad colours. The script for the film was written by Jean-Louis Milesi who is possibly best known in the UK as the writer of films for the Marseilles-based socialist filmmaker Robert Guédiguian and Josep is ‘voiced’ by the Barcelona-born actor Sergi López.
I don’t want to say too much about the events that Josep is part of or which he observes. Suffice to say these concentration camps were a disgrace and the treatment of the Republicans and especially communist Republicans (who their gaolers couldn’t properly distinguish from anarchists) was dreadful. After 1940 some of them worked as forced labour and some were sent to Nazi death camps. Some found themselves building the camps that held Jews and others rounded up in Vichy France under the orders of the Gestapo. One tiny ray of light in all this seems to have been the common decency of some of the Senegalese troops shown towards the Spanish Republicans. Some of the Spanish did eventually escape to fight with the French Résistance and I read somewhere that the first motor vehicle driven into Paris as part of the liberating allied forces was driven by a Spanish Republican. The identity of the grandfather telling the tale to his grandson gradually becomes clear.
I knew something of the historical events surrounding ‘La Retirada’ but I didn’t know about the details of the camps. Some Republicans made it to the UK, others got to the US and many made it to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. I don’t think any of those refugees/exiles met the kind of treatment meted out to Josep and his compañeros. I hope this film gets a UK cinema release in the future. It is also possible to view currently via BFI Player and Curzon Home Cinema streaming (which is taking some of the titles in My French Film Festival).
I’ve recently published a study guide (you can buy it here). Here’s the introduction:
Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish civil war, when the last of the resistance to the fascist forces of General Franco were being crushed. However the inspiration for the film was the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. In his illuminating ‘Director’s commentary’ Guillermo del Toro states his perception of “brutality, innocence and war” changed after the destruction of the ‘two towers’ in New York. He saw that the response in America to the attacks was one of fear and obedience to a national authoritarian mandate. An example of this was when the American press failed to challenge President George W. Bush’s insistence that Iraq had to be invaded because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of ‘mass destruction’. This proved to be a lie and although the military intervention deposed the dictator it resulted increased conflict in the region. More recently the authoritarian instincts of President Trump have further tarnished America’s reputation in the world.
In his commentary del Toro was emphasising that the film is not specifically about Spain in 1944, although it has much to tell us about the psychology of fascists. By using the tropes of the fairy tale the film juxtaposes the worldview of an 11-year-old girl, who is open to new experiences, and the restricted mind-set of her fascist stepfather. By mixing the ‘innocent’ world of the pre-pubescent girl with the grim realities of Franco’s repressive Spain, del Toro shows that the brutality inherent in the authoritarian mind-set has no place in civilised society.
Del Toro’s film blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy and illustrates how close-mindedness and self-interest corrupt the human spirit. There is a feeling of doom hanging over the film because we know the resistance, who fought against the fascists, lost their battle and Spain suffered over 30 more years of Francoist rule. Because of this we may feel that Ofelia is better off dead as Princess Moana than alive in a corrupt world. Whether she is dead or actually transformed into a princess is a key question in the film. As we shall see for del Toro there’s no doubt that she survives but the film itself is more ambivalent.
Although the film isn’t about the Spanish civil war only it is helpful to understand the historical context.
The Spanish Civil War
The Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931 and in 1936 the Popular Front, a coalition of left wing organisations, won power in an election. Later that year a coup d’etat was thwarted however this led to the start of the civil war where right wing groups, led by the military, rebelled against the democratically elected administration. In Morocco, part of which was at the time a protectorate of Spain, General Franco emerged as the rebel’s leader and, supported by Hitler and Mussolini, was victorious after nearly three years of war. The Catholic Church, highly influential in Spain, supported the fascists.
Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. Afterwards, the monarchy was restored and democracy returned though only at the cost of burying the past. The ‘Pact of Forgetting’, instituted during the transition to democracy, meant that there could be no recriminations for crimes committed during the Franco years but also that memorials to Franco were no longer maintained. It wasn’t until the Law of Historical Memory was enacted in 2007 that it became possible to officially exhume the past, both actually and metaphorically. Attempts were made to identify victims buried in mass graves and to acknowledge the crimes of the Franco era. However, when a conservative government was elected in 2011 support for the law was withdrawn. When, in 2018, the socialists regained power they proposed a ‘truth commission’ to ensure, amongst other things, those with criminal records for opposing Franco would have their names cleared.
Unsurprisingly a number of Spanish films from these years focused on the theme of coming to terms with the past and ghosts were often used as a metaphor:
Their here-but-not-here borderline existence, between the dead and the living, blurs the binary divide that constructs our perception of reality. Ghosts remind us that we need to confront our past if we want to move ahead and construct a better future. (Colmeiro 2011)
Del Toro was responsible for two of these: his third film as a director, The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo, Spain-Mexico-France-Argentina, 2001), and The Orphanage (El orfanato, Spain, 2007), which he produced. The blurred ‘binary divide’ between reality and fantasy is important in Pan’s Labyrinth too. This film reminds us of those who fought a losing battle against fascism to ensure, hopefully, we do not allow fascists to take power again.
Although del Toro is Mexican, tens of thousands of Spaniards went into exile in his country so the war is also part of his heritage. This no doubt helped him represent a Spanish perspective on the war convincingly unlike Ken Loach whose Land and Freedom (UK-Spain-Germany-Italy-France, 1995), whilst a gripping film, is more obviously one made by an outsider.
Pan’s Labyrinth was a considerable box office success, even outside Spain. The hegemony of Hollywood in the west means that, generally, non-American films struggle to make an impact outside their home markets. Pan’s Labyrinth was successful because of the emotional engagement audiences had with Ofelia’s plight and the supreme craft of the film. It is a terrible state of affairs that his warning against the fascist mind set is even more relevant today than it was when the film was released. After the failure of ‘free market capitalism’, seen most obviously in the financial crash of 2008, right wing populism has made strides at the ballot box in many countries. Del Toro’s humanism is a potent antidote to this inward-looking politics and his film can be read as a warning, through Ofelia’s death, that we are in danger of giving in to the fear whipped up by demagogues.
The 1960s and 1970s were frustrating times for many Spanish filmmakers. Although there had been the possibilities of a ‘New Wave’ in Spanish Cinema, the censorship of the Franco regime made it impossible to make any kind of direct comment on Spanish society and especially any critical comments about the state or the church. What this situation produced was a number of oblique commentaries employing metaphor and allegory to represent the disastrous consequences of the Fascist control of Spain after 1939. Some of these films turned out to be masterpieces of cinematic art as well as fascinating commentaries. But of course many of them did fall foul of the Spanish censor and were not seen in Spain until after Franco’s death.
Perhaps the best known film of this kind (barring Luis Buñuel‘s return to Spain with Viridiana in 1961) was The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Around the same time, right at the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975, Carlos Saura made Cria Cuervos (Raise Ravens), one of my favourite films. I’d read about Saura’s earlier film La caza but I hadn’t realised that a UK film print still existed. So kudos again to !Viva¡ for finding – and screening – the print in this year’s festival. The screening took place in the cinema’s weekly ‘classics matinee’ slot so we were also promised the chance to discuss the film afterwards. Watching a film print was a rare pleasure. This vintage print dated from the 1970s (with an ‘X’ Certificate). It did break at one point but overall it looked fine. One advantage of the black and white prints of the 1960s is that they haven’t suffered like the cheap colour processes of the period.
La caza has a simple narrative. A group of four men drive into a valley in Central Spain where one of them has hunting rights. A gamekeeper and his aged mother and young teenage daughter are the only other characters. They live in a shack locally and eke out an existence in the unforgiving terrain. For the shoot they are expected to cook the food and find the prey – in this case rabbits. The four hunters comprise three older men who know each other through work and what we assume were prior relationships in wartime. The younger man, Enrique, is the brother-in-law of one of the older men. The day is very hot, some of the rabbits have myxomatosis, there are tensions between the men and drink is taken – we know that violence will break out.
In the discussion that followed we were lucky to have Núria Triana-Toribio as our leader. Dr Triana-Toribio is the author of Spanish National Cinema (Routledge 2003) and she teaches La caza regularly on her Spanish Screen Studies course at the University of Manchester. She’s also a regular contributor to the support programme for Spanish Cinema at Cornerhouse and the Cervantes Institute in Manchester. She listened patiently to what everyone in the small group (there were about 8 or 9 of us out of quite a good audience who transferred to the education room for the discussion) had to say and then provided us with information that we mostly didn’t know. I was surprised that some of the younger people in the group found the film very violent. Violent it is, but not gratuitously so as in many contemporary films. The violence has an impact because of the realist style, the taut direction and the excellent performances all round. I’d read beforehand that Sam Peckinpah had been very taken with the film and that it had influenced his preparation for The Wild Bunch (US 1968). I could certainly see what Peckinpah might have admired (and there is a scorpion sequence, which may have prompted the opening shot of The Wild Bunch). What was most evident in the discussion was that younger people for whom the Civil War is a dusty historical event were not particularly aware of the metaphors and allegorical force of the piece – but still found the narrative gripping. The mid 1960s was a period when gritty masculine action pictures, including war combat films, westerns and crime dramas, were still a staple of Hollywood and much of European Cinema. I was reminded not just of Peckinpah but also of Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, Sam Fuller etc. A particular title that sprang to mind as I watched the film was Sidney Lumet’s British film The Hill (UK 1965), in which British Army prisoners are pushed to their physical limits by sadistic warders in a North African camp. The Hill was actually shot in Almería according to IMDB and like many of these mid 1960s dramas was shot in black and white – a straight commercial decision about the costs of filmstock I think, rather than an artistic decision. I’m tempted to take Saura’s black and white shoot as a similar decision based on economics – even though as an artistic decision it would seem to be the right one.
The allegorical force of the film is evident at even a surface level. The actual shooting of the rabbits is brutal, violent and clumsy. Some are already diseased and can barely run away. A ferret is used to drive them out of their warrens. At another point in the narrative, the camera enters a cave in the hillside in which the remains of a soldier are still visible – killed presumably in his hiding place. Two of the older men are portrayed like ageing bulls in a herd of cows – displaying their prowess, asserting their masculinity. José owns the land but Paco has become the successful businessman. I was most interested in the third character, Luis. He has turned to drink and he reveals himself as (almost literally) a ‘loose cannon’ – dangerous because he has ‘lost control’. Yet in some ways he is the most ‘modern’. He is shown reading a science fiction novel and discussing SF authors with Enrique. He mentions Ray Bradbury, whose 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 would presumably be a controversial narrative in Fascist Spain? (Its story about book-burning in a future fascist society was being adapted for a film by Francois Truffaut in London at more or less the same time that La caza was being made.) Enrique clearly represents the ‘new Spain’. He seems eager and inquisitive and he doesn’t know about all the dark deeds of the 1930s and 1940s. The film ends with a freeze frame which Rob Stone in his Spanish Cinema book (Longman 2002) equates to both the famous still photograph of a Spanish Civil War soldier by Robert Capa and the final image of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups. Allegories like this don’t work by direct correspondence but I take from the film ideas about violent macho men out of control and uncaring, who treat the gamekeeper and his family with disdain. They are turning in on themselves and eventually their society will collapse.
Núria told us that the film’s location was in reality a famous Civil War battleground that the Spanish audience would have recognised. She also explained that the actors were very well-known figures in Spain at the time. She explained that Saura was relatively well off himself and that with Buñuel as a supporter he found it possible to get his films accepted for major film festivals – and subsequently foreign distribution deals. However, the film was banned in Spain and the audience who might have read the references didn’t see it until after 1975. She suggested that the Spanish authorities were pleased with this situation. Saura’s enhanced status at festivals reflected well on Spain (La caza won the Silver Bear at Berlin) but they were able to ‘protect’ Spanish audiences from critical comments. Saura’s producer Elías Querejeta carried on making similar films with Saura and others like Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive).
This is exactly the kind of film that it would probably be impossible to see outside of !Viva¡ or another major festival in the UK (I think it played at Edinburgh last Summer). And yet this is not a film by an unknown director. Álex de la Iglesia is a prominent Spanish filmmaker who first appeared with Acción mutante in 1992 but most of his titles that have been released in the UK in the past ten years have made little impact, except for the English language literary adaptation, The Oxford Murders (2008). Perhaps it is not surprising. Núria Triana-Toribio opens her book Spanish National Cinema (Routledge 2003) with a comment on de la Iglesia to the effect that he is “the present, and possibly the future of Spanish Cinema. At the same time, his films may also be the death-knell of the very idea of a Spanish national cinema”. She goes on to explain that with all their references to authentic Spanish culture, no films could be more ‘castizo‘ – ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’. Yet this is all in spirit of parodying that national culture. And, of course, the full range of the references is only accessible by a local audience.
Balada triste de trompeta is a Spanish-French co-production, so presumably the French production partners thought that they were funding something that would work in the French market. I make no claims to a great knowledge of Spanish culture but I think I got enough of the references. The English title doesn’t help much as the narrative is essentially about two clowns and particularly about the ‘sad clown’ (the ‘sad trumpet ballad’ is sung on screen in a cinema at one point and the trumpet makes another crucial appearance in a different context). Where do they get these English titles from?
Initially it is 1937 and a circus troupe finds itself caught up in the Republican resistance against the Nationalist rebels in Spain. Forced to fight, the circus clown hacks down several of the enemy with his sword/machete but is then captured and eventually put to work with other prisoners after the war has ended, building the Fascist Monument to the Fallen in Valle de los Caidos. The clown’s son, Javier, now a young teenager, attempts to sabotage the building work but in the melée his father is killed and the boy wounds the Fascist colonel in charge. In 1973 the son has now fulfilled his father’s prophecy and become a ‘sad clown’ who is perpetually beaten up in the clown’s act. When he joins a new troupe he meets a particularly vicious clown who is the star attraction. This clown, Sergio, also beats up his girlfriend, the voluptuous Natalia. Javier feels compelled to intervene and is encouraged by Natalia – who nonetheless responds to Sergio’s violent sexual advances. (Natalia is played by Carolina Bang, who is married to the director.) The three-way battle eventually ends in a full-blown action sequence on top of the giant crucifix that stands above the Basilica of the Monument of the Fallen.
You certainly couldn’t accuse Álex de la Iglesia of holding back. This an extravaganza of comedy, horror, extreme violence and sexuality that is part Hitchcockian, part Todd Browning and part every schlocky horror film featuring clowns or children’s entertainers. All of this fits the extended allegory about the Civil War and its aftermath – with Natalia as Spain, Sergio as the brutal tyrannical Fascist and Javier as the anti-fascist. As one review that I read suggested, it’s almost as if de la Iglesia was trying to demonstrate to Guillermo del Toro exactly what a Spanish film about the war might look like. In one of the most bizarre scenes, Javier is reduced to acting as a gun-dog (don’t ask!) during a shoot organised by ageing Fascists and . . . no, I won’t spoil it.
Balada triste de trompeta won a Silver Lion at Venice in 2011 for Álex de la Iglesia as well as several other awards at different festivals. It is available as a Region 2 DVD/Blu-ray from Spain. Did I ‘enjoy’ it? I’m not sure, but I was never bored and I’m glad that I saw it. Thanks to Cornerhouse and !Viva¡ for the opportunity.