Features

Sketches of Spain

Impressions of a contradictory land filled with romance and brutality

Sara Baras in Flamenco Flamenco
Courtesy Music Box Films


This is a story about Spain and documentary film, or my impressions of Spanish documentaries from the 18 months I lived in the country. Though I never mastered Spanish grammar, I know this much: the past is tense there.

In 2015, my wife and I moved to a small coastal town near Valencia, the city where the Republicans capitulated to Franco’s forces in 1939. Around the corner from our house, on a cobblestoned street, was a 600-year-old fortress church, riddled with bullet holes from the fighting almost 80 years ago. The local town council was still trying to wrest a beachfront archaeological site from the heirs of a minister of Franco’s cabinet who had built his summer mansion there in the 1960s.

The Spanish Earth

The years of the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship had somehow become current concerns. Various English expat neighbours fed me a steady supply of reading recommendations, including Javier Cercas’ bestseller The Soldiers of Salamanca, as part of the “historical memory” movement in recent Spanish literature, More often, they were recent non-fiction accounts of Spanish history: Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through A Country’s Hidden Past, Amanda Veill’s Hotel Florida: Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War and Paul Preston’s horrific account of the war and its aftermath, The Spanish Holocaust.

This renewed focus on the trauma of the Franco era began in Spain in 2000, when the first mass graves were opened by journalist Emilio Silva. An award-winning trio of television documentaries made between 2002 and 2004 by Montse Armengou and Richard Belis for the Catalan television programme Thirty Minutes helped create public momentum on the issue. In 2007, the socialist government passed the Historical Memory Law, officially condemning the crimes of the Franco government and publishing the locations of some 2,000 graves around the country.

One consequence of the Franco years in Spain is the absence of a coherent national documentary film tradition. The dictatorship, from 1937–1975, invented its own historical narrative. The state-sponsored newsreel program, Noticaro Documental (NO-DO), controlled archival materials and was the only means of visual information available to the Spanish public. All cinemas were obliged to show these newsreels before feature films, presenting an idealized Spain free from social conflict. They complemented an education system that portrayed Franco as a hero who saved a once-great Catholic imperial nation from the communists and atheists who would have destroyed it.

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress


Following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain’s transition from a totalitarian religious state to a modern democracy was achieved through a pacto de olvido or pact of forgetting, along with general amnesty for the former rulers. A generation later, there’s a pervasive urge to fill in gaps in the fractured history.

The first Spanish documentaries I saw in the country were at the local museum where a couple of recently unearthed amateur local films from a half-century ago were being screened: ethnographic records of religious parades and fishermen in the port, when today’s grandparents were young men and women. Other Spanish films of the new millennium show that same desire to tie together the threads of memory. For example, Un instante en la vida ajena (A Glimpse of Other Lives), a 2003 film by José Luis López Linares and Javier Rioyo, chronicles the home movies of Madronita Andreu, the daughter of a Barcelona industrialist, from 1920 to the 1970s. Then there’s Mercedes Alvarez’s The Sky Turns (2004), in which the director, the last child born in her village, returns home after 35 years to chronicle its last, philosophical, generation of residents.

Spain is burdened by its history but also creatively inspired by it, and, overall, the forces of light seem to be gradually winning. A decade after the 2007 economic crisis, Spain is finally back on its feet economically. It has a legacy of splendid public spaces, architecture, art and gastronomy, and so much regional diversity that it should probably go by the plural noun “Spains.” The following films were chosen from my narrow perspective as an extranjero (foreigner) in a new land. It is not intended as a portrait of the country, but to borrow the title from Miles Davis’s famous album, some “Sketches of Spain.”

La processó de les filles de Maria (The Procession of the Daughters of Mary)

dir. Fructuos Gelabert i Badiella, 1902, 1:38

Like the rest of Europe, Spain embraced the new medium of film in the early years of the last century. This short film was made by Barcelona native Fructuos Gelabert, a filmmaker and screenwriter who shot more than 100 films in his life. It’s of a religious procession—mounted soldiers wearing plumed helmets, a marching band, little girls in white dresses and costumed adults carrying standards—and it is one of the earliest film artifacts of Barcelona. The surprise is how familiar it looks.

Such religious and folkloric celebrations, which the English poet and mythographer Robert Graves observed and wrote about when he lived in Mallorca, continue as a direct link to the medieval and even, in the solstice events, a pre-Christian past. Often, the processions kick off to a fiesta, such as the festival in San Fermo (depicted in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises), the Holy Week celebrations in Seville and La Tomatino Buñol, a big tomato fight which was banned in the Franco years for having no religious significance, though it returned to all its pulpy glory after his demise.

Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan (Land Without Bread)

dir. Luis Buñuel, 1933, 27 min.

One of the great “what-is-it?” films of documentary history, Las Hurdes is Luis Buñuel’s portrait of a region of grotesque poverty in Western Spain. The film runs on continuous loop at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, near Picasso’s Guernica painting, where it includes Buñuel’s 1936 textual coda to the film, casting it as a protest against fascism. It’s far more credible as a surreal parody of the then-nascent form of ethnographic documentary (think Nanook of the North), in which the onscreen information contrasts with the bored, insulting and often illogical narration. It remains an amazingly rude film. Sample narration: “We had a difficult time trying to photograph the idiots. The degeneracy of these people is caused principally by hunger, by lack of hygiene and by incest.” In Dutch filmmaker Ramon Gieling’s film Buñuel’s Prisoners (also on YouTube), he went back to Las Hurdes and screened the film for the current residents. 70 years later, it still made them mad as hell. Buñuel left a legacy of a fierce irreverence and skepticism for received pieties, both in Spain and the rest of the world.

The Spanish Earth

dir. Joris Ivens, 1937, 52 minutes (Available at OpenCulture.com)

An artifact of the war and of 20th-century intellectual idealism, The Spanish Earth was produced by leading American writers Ernest Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, Archibald MacLeish, John Dos Passos and Dorothy Parker, who backed Dutch director Joris Ivens to promote the cause of Spain’s democratic Republican government against right-wing forces backed by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Ivens planned the documentary to contrast the farmers in the village of Fuentedueña working on an irrigation project along the route between Madrid and Valencia with the besieged city of Madrid, with different rhythms in each location.

The scenes in a country village between Madrid and Valencia feel stagey and self-consciously poetic. The attack on the familiar streets of Madrid and its population is often distressingly immediate, in spite of the distraction of Hemingway’s flat Midwestern tough-guy narration. There’s another version with Orson Welles doing the voiceover, and a French version with Jean Renoir. No one can say all the best people weren’t on the right side.

Flamenco and Flamenco, Flamenco

dir. Carlos Saura, 1995, 102 minutes | 2010, 92 minutes

Both a specifically Andalusian folk-art form and, since the 19th century, emblematic of Spain as a whole, the strutting, swirling, clapping world of flamenco dance and music is, as scholar William Washabaugh writes, “Spain’s own tragic identity marker.” Carlos Saura’s two films, 15 years apart, are nothing but performance by some of its top practitioners in dance, song and guitar, shot on stages by Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now) in a near-abstract spectacle of movement, sound and colour. Context is minimal, though the emotional impact of the music and dance—anguished, exuberant, and fiercely proud—needs little translation. That intense, spine-chilling sensation it evokes is called duende, meaning spirit or soul. [Saura followed these films with the 2016 dance doc Jota]

Spanish Western

dir. Alberto Esteban, 2014, 62 minutes (Available with awkward English subtitles at RTVE.es)

Spanish Western unveils a great chapter in international film history. During the 1960s and early ’70s, the Tabernas desert of Almeira in southeast Spain, one of the poorest regions of the country, was where they made the Spaghetti Western—more than 600 of them—including such famous titles such as Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Locals were employed and the region’s fortunes rose—Franco even inaugurated an airport—but eventually the heroes and villains, including Franco, moved on. The local crews chipped in to buy the sets and keep them in repair in the hopes that the movies would return. Nowadays, it’s a theme park. The film blends the locals’ memories with clips of the old films, archival interviews with Clint Eastwood and an interview with Henry Fonda’s startling Spanish doppelganger.

Available with awkward English subtitles at RTVE.es.

Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation

dir. Stefan Haupt, 2013, 89 minutes

The Spanish art, “par excellence, is building,” wrote Jan Morris in her book on Spain. Spain is a country of castles, towers and powerful cathedrals in almost every large town. But there is nothing anywhere, in Spain or on earth, like architect Antoni Gaudí’s basilica, La Sagrada Familia (the Holy Family) a bizarre and jaw-dropping gothic and Art Nouveau-influenced 18-steeple structure which looks like an enchanted mountain of molten wax. Filmmaker Stefan Haupt’s narration focuses on the people who have carried on Gaudí’s legacy through the decades, with various creative and spiritual agendas. The main contrast in approach can be seen between two of the church’s façade sculptors. Japanese-born Etsuro Sotoo, a former Zen Buddhist who converted to Roman Catholicism out of his devotion to Gaudí, commits himself to understanding the architect’s mystical vision of nature. In contrast, Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs, whose angular modernist sculptures clash with Gaudí’s curvilinear organic forms, honours the architect’s achievement with his own originality.

Santa Fiesta

dir. Miguel Ángel Rolland, 2016, 74 minutes (Available on Vimeo On Demand)

Outsiders tend to stereotype Spaniards as a bloody-minded people, a reputation its many progressive citizens would like to end. There’s a way to go. In 2015, filmmaker Miguel Ángel Rolland completed his secretly shot exposé Santa Fiesta, chronicling the torture of animals during various Spanish festivals, typically celebrating a saint’s day. Up to 60,000 creatures—bulls, horses, pigeons and rats—are killed each year in festivals that typically celebrate saints. As a film subject, this gets a little relentlessly disgusting, though there’s another side to the story. The animal rights movement blossomed in Spain almost as soon as human rights emerged, and their slogan, “la tortura no es cultura” (“torture isn’t culture”), is familiar at marches and protests against bull-fighting, a sport that, according to polls, the majority of Spaniards oppose. We return to Franco, who declared bull-fighting the “national fiesta” in Spain, and even banned the American children’s book, The Story of Ferdinand, about a fighting bull who preferred sniffing flowers to charging matadors, as pacifist propaganda.


Santa Fiesta from Miguel Angel Rolland on Vimeo.

El Bulli: Cooking In Progress

dir. Gereon Wetzel, 2010, 108 minutes

El Bulli, the world’s most famous restaurant, run by chef Ferran Adriá, closed in 2011, and this film, shot in the winter of 2008–2009, is something of a memorial. We have seen the TV chef as middleaged soccer hooligan (Gordon Ramsay) or the documentary of a kitchen zen master (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), but with Adriá, we are on stranger ground. Think Dr. Frankenstein meets Salvador Dalí: “The more bewilderment the better,” declares Adriá, a master of molecular gastronomy, vacuumizing, spherification and techniques that fracture the usual associations between what things look like and how they taste. German director Gereon Wetzel follows Adriá for a year, like a fly on the laboratory and kitchen wall, as the great chef and his lieutenants, like fashion designers, create an El Bulli season, then present their discoveries to the restaurant’s 40-chef kitchen. If you find the film confusing (a water cocktail?), then you can go suck on one of Adriá’s fluorescent fish popsicles. Remember, the Spanish were the early masters of the surreal.


EL BULLICOOKING IN PROGRESS trailer international from FILMad on Vimeo.

El sol del membrillo (Dream of Light or The Quince Tree Sun)

dir. Victor Erice, 1992, 138 minutes

Victor Erice’s El sol del membrillo is an art film about making art, a wondrous 2.5-hour-long movie about a painter, Alfonso López Garcia, trying to paint a picture of a quince tree in his Madrid courtyard over a period of two and a half months. As he works, the world moves on (Iraq is invaded, the Soviet Union is collapsing) and friends and workmen come and go. The film made several best-of-the- nineties lists, and won film of the decade in a Cinematheque Ontario poll of film programmers around the world. Trying to capture the painter’s experience in a frame proves to be a case of dreaming the impossible dream.

Lost in La Mancha

dirs. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2002, 93 minutes

Miguel de Cervantes’ early-17th-century novel Don Quixote de la Mancha is not only the cornerstone of Spanish literary canon, but a tale that seems emblematic of Spain—trapped in romantic fantasies of a storied past and sacred oaths crashing into the brutal present. So, while Lost in La Mancha is the story of quixotic American director tilting at windmills in Spain, it still qualifies as Spanish.

Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam failed to shoot a modern film version of Cervantes’ novel called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 2000, with French actor Jean Rochefort as Quixote and Johnny Depp as a modern-day Sancho Panza. We see the ever-optimistic Gilliam, shooting in the semi-desert in southeast Spain, confronted with rain, NATO jets, and an ill leading man, managing to obtain about three minutes of useable film in the week before the production is shut down. The co-directors, who were on hand to shoot a making-of doc, lucked into this sad but funny story, later narrated by Jeff Bridges.

A postscript: After an estimated seven times trying to make his Don Quixote film, Gilliam finally wrapped it this past June, with Adam Driver and Stellan Skarsgård in the lead roles. [Watch the trailer here.]

Sometimes the windmills fall.