¡Viva! 2013 #5: Els nens salvatges (The Wild Kids, Spain 2012)

The three central characters – after hours in a shopping mall, (l-r) Oki, Alex and Gabi

The three central characters – after hours in a shopping mall, (l-r) Oki, Alex and Gabi

vivalogoPatricia Ferreira was picked out by Rob Stone (Spanish Cinema, Longman, 2002: 11) as one of “a growing number of talented and committed female directors in Spain”. Since her début feature in 1999 she has completed five more and she came to ¡Viva! to introduce Els nens salvatges and then to answer questions after the film.

Els nens salvatges is in one sense a familiar genre – a form of youth picture focusing on three teenagers and their parents. It didn’t occur to me until later that structurally the narrative resembles Rebel Without a Cause – two boys and a girl who hang out together, get into scrapes and have to deal with various issues associated with their parents. Meanwhile, in school and on the streets they have run-ins with teachers and fellow students. However, in its origination and treatment the Spanish film is quite different. Ms Ferreira explained that the idea for the film came from an incident some 15 years ago that prompted a debate about youths and parents and the Spanish school system. She suggested that Spanish people would remember the story. Her re-working of the story, co-written by herself and Virginia Yagüe, offers us Alex (Àlex Monner) as a graffiti artist and Gabi (Albert Baró) as a kickboxer. Laura, aka ‘Oki’, (Marina Comas) is the girl from the better-off family who recognises something in the boys’ behaviour that she finds attractive.

Patricia Ferreira has a documentary background and she liked the idea of being an outsider in Barcelona and ‘observing’ the youth of the city. She also decided to try to offer a naturalistic view of relationships in which both Catalan (including Majorcan Catalan) and Castilian are spoken in certain situations. She took a long time in preparation and this was a problem in casting the three leads. Around 15 young people are growing and changing their appearance quite quickly and her early picks had outgrown their roles as shooting approached. She explained that she didn’t want to work with ‘non-professionals’ and she eventually found the young actors who do very well in their roles. The film is essentially realist but it is presented in CinemaScope and looks very good. As I’ve indicated, the characters and the situations are all familiar. Oki has a mother who dotes on her and a father who tries to ‘buy’ her off with expensive presents. Oki gives up on her flamenco classes as part of her ‘rebellion’. Alex has parents who seem to have little time for him, especially his father, and Gabi’s father is the typical macho man who wants his son to be a fighter. We are even offered a sympathetic young school counsellor (played by Aina Clotet who was the lead in Elisa K at ¡Viva! in 2011).

(from left) Cornerhouse Film Programme Manager Rachel Hayward, Patricia Ferreira and an interpreter (sorry, I didn't catch the name)

(from left) Cornerhouse Film Programme Manager Rachel Hayward, Patricia Ferreira and interpreter Elena Alonso from the Instituto Cervantes.

It’s the school scenes that seem to have created the most interest. We see the behaviour of students in the classes of a couple of teachers and we see a staffroom meeting discussing what to do about a particular incident. Frankly, I didn’t find any of these scenes to be particularly shocking. They seemed quite ‘real’ and experienced teachers will have seen all this before. The central issue in the film is what all the events lead up to in the final scenes. Before the screening Ferreira explained to us that the film was inspired by a real event. She told us this, I imagine, because she thought that we might find the final part of the narrative to be ‘unreal’ or ‘unlikely’. But the film is edited in such a way that the final act and its impact is discussed before we actually see what happened. I’m not sure this worked for me. This is a shame because everything else worked very well. This is certainly an interesting film and well worth watching. The crux of the issue seems to be that Patricia Ferreira’s approach means we ‘observe’ what the character in question does rather than, as in a mainstream film, being shown or told what he or she feels. I didn’t observe anything that helped explain why the act was committed. Perhaps that is the whole point. The moral seems to be that if teens are misunderstood or if parents and schools don’t treat them with respect, bad things might happen. I don’t mean that to sound trite. The film shows young characters who are occasionally thoughtless in their desire to have fun but not in any way threatening. When something does happen it’s a shock because it seems to come from nowhere. I can’t say much more without giving away the ending which I don’t want to do if the film is going to get a UK release. It has won awards at various festivals and it should work on distribution here.

Overall, a successful event, I feel. I enjoyed the film and the Q&A. This was the last ¡Viva! screening I was able to get to this year. My impression is that it has been another successful festival with two days still to go if you are in Manchester.

Here’s a trailer (no English subs):

¡Viva! 2013 #4: Las largas vacaciones del 36 (Long Holidays of 1936, Spain 1976)

Las_Largas_Vacaciones_Del_36-Caratula

vivalogoThe Cornerhouse programme of ‘Matinee Classics’ continues during the ¡Viva! Festival so that there is a rare chance to see a screening of an earlier Spanish classic film in the usual Sunday/Wednesday afternoon slot. Las largas vacaciones del 36, directed by Jaime Camino, is a familiar reflection on the experience of the Civil War, made more intriguing by its release in 1976 during the last days of the Francoist regime and soon after the release of Cría cuervos by Carlos Saura (a clever and popular satire of the impact of the regime).

I wasn’t able to find out much about the film before or after the screening, so I’ll have to respond directly to what I saw. I’d classify the it as a family melodrama, except that its style is relatively muted and high emotion is reserved for the closing stages of the film. The title refers to the holidays taken by a couple of bourgeois Barcelona families each year in a village in the hills surrounding the city. In July 1936 the families are in their summer residences when the Civil War begins and they remain there trapped by the war until the fall of Barcelona in early 1939.

The script focuses on two families with one firmly associated with the Republican cause and the other much more pragmatic. This second family reluctantly hides a rich fascist and his partner (and their car) but is then ready to receive the Francoists in 1939. There is a flurry of action in the first few days of the war as the local Republicans secure the village, but for most of the film narrative, the families have to pass the time, finding ways to survive as food runs out and establishing a temporary school for their children. The focus on children ties in with the censorship demands of Francoist cinema (which proscribed what kinds of films would be sanctioned for production), except that these are rather older teenagers. There is nothing very remarkable about the script or the characters, except perhaps the role of the maid Encarta (Angela Molina) who is quite outspoken and has a relatively explicit sexual encounter with one of the teenage boys that perhaps challenged the censor at the time. However, though the film appears quite conventional it does offer an interesting take on the impact of the war including the experience of both boredom and hunger and what it might have been like to have been a middle-class teenager cocooned from the action. The performances are very good and visually the narrative benefits from its unique location above the city. I was reminded of British ‘home front’ films from 1939-45 when characters watch the bombing raids on the city below, signified by the searchlight beams and fires. The film won a prize at Berlin in 1976 and it fits well into the home front genre of war films.

One of the interesting aspects of watching what I presumed was a 35mm print was the variable quality of the reels – damage at reel changes is to be expected, but it was noticeable that some reels had gone ‘pink’ while others had retained a good colour balance. Overall it was fine. In the days of digital projection it’s good to be reminded of both the good and bad points of archive film. I would certainly recommend the film as an archive treat. It shows again on Wednesday this week with the chance to discuss the film with Carmen Herrero, Head of Spanish at Manchester Metropolitan University.

¡Viva! 2013 #3: La vida empieza hoy (Life Begins Today, Spain 2010)

Rosita (Mariana Cordero) browses a sex shop in the hope of finding something to stimulate her husband.

Rosita (Mariana Cordero) browses a sex shop in the hope of finding something to stimulate her husband’s interest.

vivalogoI can’t help but compare this film to the recent British attempts to directly address the over 60s cinema audience, but Life Begins Today predates them. It’s also, at least for me, funnier and more poignant than The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet or Song For Marion. The narrative is built around several pensioners who attend a ‘sex class’ in a local education centre. The class is run by an indefatigable teacher who wants her students (with ages ranging from 60s to 80s) to recognise that sex should still be important in their lives. We get to see the impact of the classroom experience on three students and their various family members and relationships. The individual characters are quite well-drawn and varied enough to maintain our interest.

Pepe is the youngest and taken aback that his mistress treats his retirement as a prompt to leave him. Does he want to re-kindle some passion in his relationship with his wife Rosita? He doesn’t try – but she realises that it is up to her. Herminia is trying to lead her own life after the return of her singleton daughter – who seems to treat her as a possible dementia sufferer. Fortunately she bumps into Julián who has returned after many years from Argentina. He doesn’t need much encouragement, which is just as well because his son doesn’t know how to receive him and as convention demands it is his teenage grandson who understands him best. So far, so familiar sex/age comedy. More intriguing perhaps is the representation of the angry and repressed widow Juanita who in the end gets the last laugh from the film.

I hesitate to comment too much on the success of the comedy in the film. It’s all too easy to be entertained by a film in a language that you don’t know – ignoring or not noticing the aspects that in an English language film would be off-putting. Still, I wonder if the fact that both script and direction are by women means that many of the traps in this kind of filmmaking are avoided or handled more successfully. My experience is that, very often, female filmmakers deal with sex and sexuality much more effectively than men.

There was a very good house in Cornerhouse’s biggest screen for this showing and they all seem to have a good time. I suppose it’s asking too much for a UK distributor to pick up the film for more screenings? One last thought, are masturbation jokes finally spreading beyond the usual teenage boys comedy? Have filmmakers finally realised that most people masturbate at some point?

Trailer (in Spanish, no subs):

¡Viva! 2013 #2: Violeta se fue a los cielos (Violeta Went to Heaven, Chile/Argentina/Brazil 2011)

violeta

Francisca Gavilán as Violeta Parra

vivalogoI don’t think I’ve seen a film by the Chilean director Andrés Wood before and I wasn’t familiar with the work of the subject of this film Violeta Parra (1917-67). Wood’s 2004 film Machuca has been on my waiting list for films to watch on DVD for some time so I jumped at the chance to see this new film which was the Chilean entry for the 2013 Foreign Language Oscar.

Violeta turns out to be an unusual form of biopic. Music (or more generally ‘artist’) biopics have tended to replace the 1930s and 1940s fascination with politicians and national heroes. Conventional films of this genre feature familiar aspects of the artist’s life – discovery, first success, fame, struggles with integrity, decline etc. Wood offers something very different, ‘layering’ snatches of Violeta’s career one on top of another, out of chronological order, in such a way that we build up an impression of  passionate and proud artist, not prepared to put up with audiences or commissioners who don’t appreciate her work. We keep returning to an interview on television in 1962 in which she responds to a particularly unpleasant interviewer. She came from a poor background and she attempted to keep alive aspects of Chilean folk culture in her music and her painting. She performed in Poland and painted in Paris and she fought the conservative establishment in Chile. She died before the dictatorship of Pinochet attacked many of her fellow artists. No hagiography this, it shows Violeta as a woman with desire, anger and demons whose relationships with her children were not straightforward – the script is based on writings by her son. The film looks good with cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz finding ways to represent the dusty plains and Andes trails of Chile as well as Paris and other locations.

Violeta Parra was a major figure in Chilean culture, I have discovered. She led performers into a New Chilean Song movement of folk-based socially committed music which spread throughout Latin America and throughout Iberian culture generally from the 1960s. I’ve no idea whether or not Francisca Gavilán’s portrayal is ‘authentic’ but it certainly worked for me and her performance of many of Violeta’s songs was stunning – I was especially taken by the songs delivered in a powerful voice of thudding drum beats which were quite mesmerising. But perhaps the most dramatic song in the film is about the Sparrowhawk and the Hen – a song with metaphorical meaning for Violeta. Cornerhouse Cinema 2 was packed for the screening but I don’t know if there is a distributor prepared to release a title like this in the UK. Unlike the Frida Kahlo biopic Frida (US 2002) there are no star names known in Europe and North America. Violeta se fue a los cielos is showing again in Viva at 20.40 on Saturday evening and it is well worth a visit. I should see it again.

¡Viva! 2013 #1: El mundo es nuestro (The World is Ours, Spain 2012)

El mundo es nuestro

vivalogoA wonderful start to my ¡Viva! festival viewing at Cornerhouse Manchester, this must be the most entertaining film I’ve seen for a while. Just under 90 mins is the perfect length for a comedy. Imagine if you can the 1970s classic, Dog Day Afternoon, re-worked as a kind of Cuban satire with elements of a 1980s Almodóvar comedy. A pair of dim-witted but fairly harmless hoodlums decide to rob a bank in Sevilla on Good Friday dressed as ‘penitents’ (characters in religious processions dressed like Klan members), one in black and one in white. But once the robbery is underway they are completely thrown by the sudden appearance in the bank of a would-be suicide bomber who wants his slot on TV news in order to make an announcement. Soon, the police have surrounded the bank. What happens over the next 70 minutes or so is predictable I suppose, but the script is fast-moving and quite witty so I was laughing too much to worry about things like that.

Every social problem in Spain – and there are a lot since this is a very topical film – is covered in the selection of characters. So we have a mealy-mouthed bank manager, a fascist entrepreneur who will eventually evoke Franco, a gay auditor, a put-upon female bank teller, a young graduate forced to work as a warehouseman, a timid unemployed man trying to sign on for his benefits, a journalist working on trivial stories etc., etc. The police officer in charge of the operation is not only a woman, but, seemingly worse, a Northerner from Burgos. This is the kind of film that should be being made in the UK since we have nearly all the same problems and there aren’t enough really funny films slagging off bankers and corrupt politicians.

The film is showing again on Monday 18th March at Cornerhouse when writer/director/producer and actor Alfonso Sánchez along with his co-star and fellow sevillano Alberto López will be present for a Q&A. It promises to be a great night, so check to see if any tickets are left and get along there if you are in Manchester.

!Viva¡ 2013

viva2013

March means !Viva¡, Manchester’s annual festival of Spanish and Latin American film which this year runs from Friday 8th March until Sunday 24th March at Cornerhouse cinema and visual arts centre. This year’s programme promises the familiar mix of features and documentaries, education events and visiting filmmakers plus a complementary gallery programme featuring the work of Yoshua Okón in ‘Octopus’. The artist will be appearing in a Q&A session on Saturday 9 March with clips of his video work.

We’ll be making two visits to the festival and reporting on parts of the film programme. There are ten UK premieres and we are particularly excited by the range of work from Latin America this year with films from Ecuador, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Chile and Colombia alongside Mexican and Argentina. There are several new Spanish titles including genre films. Lobos de Arga (Game of Werewolves) is a ‘werewolf comedy’ that will be introduced by Andy Willis in a ‘1 hour intro’ on 12th March. Other highlights include this year’s Oscar contender from Uruguay, La demora. This is a family drama by the Mexican director Rodrigo Plá whose earlier La zona was a hit at !Viva¡ in 2008.

!Viva¡ is a friendly festival with tickets at standard prices. The festival is spread out with two or three films on most days. Several of the films play twice. Why not visit Manchester for the day? You can download the festival programme from its homepage. Our first report will come later next week.

La caza (The Hunt, Spain 1966)

José (Ismael Merlo), Paco (Alfredo Mayo), Luis (José María Prada) and Enrique (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) pose with their 'kill' in La caza.

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).