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:
The different language cinemas of Spain are not necessarily known for the work of female directors and so this second film by the Catalan director Mar Coll offered a rare treat during the ¡Viva! Weekender at HOME in Manchester. The ‘her’ that everyone wants to do their best for is Geni (short for Eugenia), a 38 year-old middle-class woman in Barcelona who we first meet in her doctor’s office. She has clearly suffered both physical and mental damage as the result of a traumatic accident – though the precise nature of this is not revealed until much later in the narrative. Eventually we realise that Geni is not making the progress back to ‘normal’ bourgeois life that is expected of her. In a marvellous performance by Nora Navas, Geni is revealed as unable to be as articulate as she once was and to have become forgetful and lacking in the kind of confidence and social skills she needs to return to work as a legal executive (it isn’t clear if she is actually qualified as a lawyer).
Geni is married to Dani, an architect and she is part of an extended family with a wealthy father and grown-up siblings, though one of her sisters is also in some form of therapy. All the family attempt to ‘care’ for her but none are able to appreciate how she feels and consequently they seem to be trying to erect a cocoon for her within which she will find a way to return to normality. Her one chance of ‘breaking free’ comes when, by chance, she meets an old school friend who she hasn’t seen for twenty years. Mariana (Valeria Bertuccelli) is a ‘wild’ Argentinian who claims to have travelled the world but who is now trying to get a job that will allow her to live abroad permanently. Perhaps Geni can join her in some way? In practice this proves quite difficult. The narrative has an open ending that didn’t please a couple of people sitting behind me but seems the best outcome in the circumstances. The dissatisfied audience members thought that the film was depressing but as another of their group said, “this is reality”.
I ‘enjoyed’ the film mainly because of the central performance and I felt that I had come to understand how she felt. It occurs to me that many of us don’t face the same questions until we retire – when we don’t have the constant pressures of work (or running a home) to pre-occupy us. I’m not sure if it is better or worse to confront the pressures to conform when you are 38 than it is when you are 68. Reviews of the film refer to it as a ‘tragi-comedy’. I did think it was sometimes like the ‘comedy of embarassment’ that I personally find hard to watch. Most of the time I felt anger on behalf of Geni rather than laughter at the situation. The weakness in the film is that the other characters don’t get much opportunity to make their case, apart from Mariana. She says that Dani is a bit of a ‘dickhead’. That may be true but we can’t be sure from how we see him behave – he does try to fulfil the caring role but spurns Geni’s demands for intimacy. I don’t mind the open ending but we do need a bit more about who he is and a bit more about the rest of the family as well.
I can’t remember much distinctive about the look of the film but the soundtrack has some lively jazz, including Django Rheinhardt. I’m grateful for Rebecca Naughten’s usual perceptive review for pointing out that Mariana ‘erupts’ into the narrative in a red coat. She is also the means by which Geni watches a rather wonderful B movie which the subtitles refer to as ‘What Have We Done to Deserve This?’ – a reference perhaps to the early films of Pedro Almodóvar, suggesting that Mariana might really have been having fun (she appears in the film as a nun)?
The screening of Tots volem el millor per a ella was preceded by a 10 minute short, Somos Amigos (We Are Friends, Spain 2014). This classy widescreen effort hones in on the current period of austerity with a wry tale about ‘downsizing’ and the imperative to never mix ‘friendship and business’. The director Carlos Solano is listed in the HOME brochure as a former student of Mar Coll. I presume this was at ESCAC (Escuela Superior de Cine y Audiovisuales de Cataluña), part of the University of Barcelona.
Researching Tots volem el millor per a ella, I discovered that it had already shown in the UK at the ICA as part of the ‘Catalan avant-garde season” – though it isn’t really an avant-garde film – and in Birmingham as part of a season of Catalan, Basque and Galician films. It would be good if it got a wider UK release.
Trailer (in Catalan with Castillian subs – please correct me if I’m mistaken):
The third and final part of the annual ¡Viva! Festival at HOME in Manchester starts today and runs until Monday 9th November. It features five new Spanish features plus a range of events with talks, intros and Q&As.
The annual Spanish and Latin American Film Festival has been split in three this year because of the move from Cornerhouse to HOME. The weekend begins on Thursday 5 November with Felices 140, a new Spanish film about the eternal question “Can money buy you happiness?” This film shows again on Monday 9th November.
Requisitos para ser una persona normal (Requirements to Be a Normal Person, Spain 2015) plays on Friday and Saturday. Also on Friday and Saturday is Pos Eso (Possessed, Spain 2014) an animation by SAM who is described as a veteran of Aardman Animations. This gets a 1 hour intro from Steve Henderson, Editor of Skwigly Magazine, on Saturday afternoon. Saturday also sees a talk and a Q&A associated with the Basque film Lasa eta Zabala (Spain 2014).
It’s a busy period and so we can only attend one day and we aim to report on Sunday’s screenings of Lasa eta Zabala and Tots volem el millor per a ella (We All Want What’s Best For Her) (Spain 2013).
There are Catalan and Castillian language cafés on Sunday and Monday and a Spanish language film study day on Tuesday. Download the ¡Viva! Weekender brochure for more details.
There are few Spanish and Latin American films getting a UK release these days so this is an essential festival. We support ¡Viva! whenever possible.
This unusual film was introduced by its writer-director Alejandra Sánchez who joined ¡Viva! programmer Rachel Hayward for a Q&A after the screening. Ms Sanchez is a documentary filmmaker who has here moved into ‘documentary drama’. In 2006 she made a documentary about the violent attacks on women in the city of Juárez near the US border. She made contact with a woman whose daughter had been killed in Juárez in one of these attacks and who was now looking after her two small grandchildren. Ten years after her daughter’s death this woman was herself attacked and shot several times outside her house. Somehow she survived the shooting (which Alejandra Sanchez argued was prompted by her work as an activist in the campaign about violence directed towards women). The director then decided to dramatise the story of the two children, one of whom witnessed the shooting. She wrote a script and then decided to cast the real teenagers to play themselves. As well as this element, she also used photographs and ‘home movie footage’ of the children and their mother as part of her film.
In the film the two children, Jade and Kaleb, now teenagers, are visited in the hospital where their grandmother is in a coma by a journalist, Martha, who has been summoned by the family’s lawyer, David. Martha (Nora Huerto) is asked to take the teenagers on a trip, away from possible danger, with the hope that they will be able to meet up with their grandmother in Mexico City when she has recovered and go with her to a safe house in Canada.
Seguir viviendo thus turns into a road movie. The brother and sister are understandably traumatised by this second attack. Kaleb never speaks (a device suggested by the director) but his sister eventually comes round. Later it is revealed that Martha has lost her small son in a car accident and one stop on the road trip is at the bar owned by her former lover, the dead boy’s father. There isn’t a great deal of plot but the road trip includes some of the familiar generic moments, including a drive down the coast and various overnight stays in motels and at least one village house. The film has an ‘open’ ending with a song and an animated sequence – which I certainly wasn’t expecting. During the Q&A Alejandra told us that she chose the ending against advice because she preferred it to the more realistic end point of the airport where the teenagers would board a plane to take them to the safe house.
Why was the children’s mother murdered in the first place? Why are women being attacked in Cuidad Juárez? These are the questions that several people in the audience wanted answers for. Alejandra was not able to answer such questions directly (it may have been simply a translation problem). She said that the attacks and killings had been going on for more than 20 years and that you really had to live in Mexico to appreciate what this meant. I took her statements to imply that the children’s mother was killed almost as part of the overall violence of the city rather than for something that she did and that the grandmother was attacked because she was an activist campaigning for better police and judicial action against the killers. This discussion did, of course, raise the spectre of violence associated with Mexico’s drug gangs, especially in the areas near the US border. A Guatemalan filmmaker in the audience said that this violence should be discussed and audiences needed to be educated about it and why it has happened – otherwise the representation of Central American societies remains simply barbaric for outsiders. This is something people feel strongly about and indeed it does need discussion. Both Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis asked questions which tried to focus on how Alejandra felt in dealing with such highly emotional (and possibly personally dangerous) filmmaking. There are a couple of scenes where the characters think they might be being followed and Alejandra admitted that the paranoia was ‘real’ for herself and the teenagers and her crew.
This an emotional and at times very moving film and Alejandra Sanchez is a brave filmmaker who deserves support. The film is technically well-made but it is quite short (81 mins) for a feature and I did feel that the final section lacked something. I fear that the film will mainly be seen at specialist film festivals but I hope it does find a wider audience and that it encourages other filmmakers to be equally brave and authorities to initiate action against the violence and towards support for the victims.