Discussing Cinematic Representations of Violence in Hispanic Contexts

This discussion between myself and Niamh Thornton took place through Skype instant messages on Friday 7th February.  Our aim with this conversation was to expand on our previous blog posts.

[09:42:41] Niamh: In your blog I was really interested in the shared use of the media as a motif. In Pacific Rim TV news is used as a form of commentary and economical mode of storytelling. In Bordertown and the Virgin of Juarez the female protagonists are both journalists.

[09:45:12] Fiona Noble: It’s really striking that this is a feature shared by the films we are both working on – and I don’t think that this is exclusive to these films.

[09:45:43] Niamh: Do you think that it’s about telling stories about disenfranchised others in the films you are writing about?

[09:46:14] Fiona Noble: I can think of other examples in the Spanish context which include media reporting/representation as a visual motif – Las cartas de Alou springs immediately to mind but there are many others.

[09:47:29] Fiona Noble: Yes, I think on the one hand there is as you say the need to tell the other’s story.

[09:47:38] Niamh: In films and literature about Juarez it is a repeated trope. Frequently, they are journalists from outside (US, Spain, UK…).

[09:48:23] Fiona Noble: So, it is the external other who tells the story, who has the voice?

[09:48:54] Niamh: Yes, and the power to go above the local strictures.

[09:49:42] Fiona Noble: I think this provides a point of contrast then between the films/contexts we are working with – it is usually the Spanish characters who are journalists in the films I’m working on.

[09:49:58] Niamh: There is an important Mexican female journalist character (likely based on a real individual) in Bordertown who provides valuable information. But, the film is still focused on an Other as victim.

[09:50:43] Fiona Noble: Ilegal is the perfect example of this – protagonists Luis and Sofia are a journalist and private inspector, respectively.  The plot places them in a position similar to that of an illegal immigrant, and so seems to expect us to empathise.

[09:51:28] Niamh: Is the assumption that we wouldn’t empathise if we followed the story of one of migrants?

[09:51:55] Fiona Noble: It seems that way – at least that is how the film has been read by others (i.e. Santiago Fouz Hernandez).

[09:52:36] Niamh: There are films that do take that position, though. Is that not the case?

[09:52:57] Fiona Noble: A more empathetic/sympathetic portrait of immigrant experience, you mean?

[09:53:12] Niamh: A more subjective one

[09:53:32] Fiona Noble: Yes, I think that’s what I was trying to map out in my original post.

[09:54:03] Fiona Noble: Ilegal is now ten years old – the more recent Retorno a Hansala seems to gesture towards a more subjective representation of immigrant experience.

[09:54:35] Niamh: Do you think that this trope of outsider experiencing/witnessing these events is successful?

[09:55:01] Fiona Noble: I think it can be.

[09:55:24] Fiona Noble: In the Spanish case, most films about immigrants/immigration are not made by those who have direct experience of this phenomenon (Santiago Zannou is the only director I know of who is a second-generation Spaniard, whose parents were African immigrants). So, I think to have this outsider framework can show a certain degree of respect for the distance between director/production team and topic.

[09:56:39] Niamh: Necessarily?

[09:56:54] Fiona Noble: That said, I think it can also be an extremely risky strategy – as in Ilegal where the immigrants are mere secondary characters, barely glimpsed in the background, while the Spanish protagonists take centre stage. What are your thoughts on this?  How does it play out in the films you are working on?

[10:01:45] Niamh: I agree. That is often the case with Juarez. In the films on Juarez the victims are often multiply marked as others: working class, indigenous, country girls vs urban, cosmopolitan, middle class journalists. Also, the victims are to be read as “good” victims i.e. religious (sometimes to the point of superstition), virginal and innocent. They have none of the messiness of “bad” behaviour of real life. How does that play in terms of the immigrants you consider?

[10:06:32] Fiona Noble: It varies.  In Ilegal we are offered next to no information about the immigrants who are the victims of persecution/ill treatment/death. They are illegal immigrants who are smuggled into the country. This is all we know. Retorno takes a slightly different approach: it begins with an unidentified illegal immigrant drowning. The film then follows legal Moroccan immigrant Leila and her attempt to come to terms with the death of her brother Rachid while attempting to make the crossing to Spain from Morocco.

[10:08:51] Niamh: In both films about Juarez the women survive being left for dead and arise from the grave in ways that are reminiscent of horror films.

[10:09:59] Fiona Noble: And, is it indicated that their “good” characters has something to do with their survival?  Is this a sort of triumph over evil?

[10:11:26] Niamh: It does appear to be. They are deserving of re-birth/second chance. But, their “goodness” and naïveté means that they must be protected by these stronger US women.

[10:12:13] Fiona Noble: So, we’re back into the hegemonic conceptualisations of self/other that we spoke about before.

[10:12:30] Niamh: Yes, no doubt. I suppose, now the question arises whether we are comparing like with like? Is there something unique about the migrant story and its tropes and can we talk about violence and its ethics alongside films about other themes? That being said, the border looms large in the Juarez film and there is some crossing of it by the privileged journalist and the victims. This might take us back to thinking about violence and how we write about its representation on screen. Can we have common strategies when writing about violence?

[10:16:08] Fiona Noble: I think this is an excellent point – one of the things I’ve been thinking about in response to our dialogue has been about the cultural specificity of violence. In your post you talked about having to make ‘multidisciplinary borrowings’, and, I wonder, to what extent we can compare the films/contexts we are working on?

[10:18:33] Niamh: Considerably, it would seem. But, also, it’s necessary to return to context and specifics.

[10:19:43] Fiona Noble: It certainly seems that our films share a similar visual grammar.

[10:20:39] Niamh: Yes. It can be useful to have tools from other contexts to use. Do you think that Spanish filmmakers pay much attention to the Mexican-US border narrative?

[10:21:33] Fiona Noble: That’s a really interesting point.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any specific examples where other border discourses come into play in Spanish films about immigrants/immigration.

[10:22:18] Niamh: I suppose it’s difficult to tell unless a filmmaker expressly lays claims to influences.

[10:22:41] Fiona Noble: I guess.  The example that springs to mind is Inarritu’s Biutiful.

[10:23:15] Fiona Noble: This film does situate contemporary immigration in Spain within a wider, global context. Although the link to Mexico is more historical than current – indexing Republican exile to Mexico in Spanish Civil War through Uxbal’s father.

[10:24:25] Niamh: Yes. There is that film which has 3 stories: one in Mexico-US, the other in Cuba and the third in Morocco. I can’t remember the name.

[10:24:39] Fiona Noble: Babel?

[10:25:27] Niamh: No. But that is an interesting example of the wider context and linked global experiences

[10:26:05] Fiona Noble: I’m not sure of the one you mean.

[10:26:28] Fiona Noble: But, it sounds like it would be an interesting one for both of us.

[10:27:29] Niamh: Just found it online, Al otro lado. Yes, because one of the stories is about a child going from Morocco to Spain. All of the migrants are young children and therefore necessarily sympathetic.

[10:28:05] Fiona Noble: Title sounds familiar – will check it out. I wonder if there’s a distinction to be made when events are based largely/primarily on fictional narratives (Pacific Rim) and when they are based on real events (such as the Juarez films).  How does the treatment of violence differ in these contexts? You did talk about this in your post, but I wondered if we should elaborate on this.

[10:29:16] Niamh: It’s interesting because the distinction is about intention, but not necessarily about visual grammar. For example, Pacific Rim is very deliberately about spectacle in a way that would be tasteless if it were about a real event.

The violence inflicted on the women in Bordertown, for example, is ridiculous, because it seems that the director fails in making it convincing although his intention is to be sensitive. In the key attempted murder scene the woman is being strangled by a man who is raping her. He has his face contorted in ways that are exaggeratedly grotesque, while her face is acting “real” anguish. The problem is that a woman’s body on screen is always already objectified, so in an attempt to avoid this we are shown the violence either in long shot or the camera lingers on her pained and tearful face, and his grotesque expression, but the contrast between their performative styles in this one is jarring. Consequently, for me, it is unsuccessful.

[10:36:07] Fiona Noble: Which brings us back to the points you made at the beginning of your original post – about the difficulty of representing/writing about onscreen violence. That is, in spite of its prevalence.

[10:37:27] Niamh: Yes. Do we have new conclusions from today’s discussion, I wonder?

[10:37:45] Fiona Noble: Or more questions?

[10:38:15] Fiona Noble: I think we have ascertained that the films we are working on, in spite of their distinct production contexts/subject matters, share a certain visual grammar.

[10:38:18] Niamh: Which can be more productive in ways…

[10:38:28] Fiona Noble: Absolutely.

[10:38:57] Niamh: This is true. Also, we are still convinced that multiple tools are required to analyse these. Context can never be forgotten, but should not limit comparisons.

[10:39:41] Fiona Noble: I agree. And, we’ve also talked about the relationship between subjectivity and mass media across the distinct contexts, and the various possibilities/problems that this framework offers.

[10:40:39] Niamh: All worthwhile. It’s been good chatting about this. I certainly find it useful to know the commonalities and differences.

[10:42:51] Fiona Noble: I completely agree. Much definitely remains to be said not only about the complexities of representing violence onscreen, but also about scholarly approaches to the topic. The fodder of future blog posts and Twitter exchanges, I’m sure.

The Death of the Immigrant in Spanish Cinema

As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, one of the chapters of my PhD thesis considers the representation of the immigrant in contemporary Spanish cinema, with particular emphasis on the theme of death.  The prevalence of death in Spanish films that take immigration as their focus of course represents a particular reality: specifically the very real threat of death faced daily by immigrants, whether in transit, due to poor living and working conditions, or because of xenophobic violence.  In the context of Spanish cinema, these issues have been diversely represented in films such as 14 Kilómetros/14 Kilometres (Gerardo Olivares, 2007), Malas temporadas/Hard Times (Manuel Martín Cuenca, 2005), Las cartas de Alou/Alou’s Letters (Montxo Armendáriz, 1990), Bwana (Imanol Uribe, 1996), Taxi (Carlos Saura, 1995), and Salvajes/Savages (Carlos Molinero, 2001).  Beyond this significance, my investigation of the intersection of immigration and death in contemporary Spanish cinema is conceptually motivated, addressing both the aesthetics and ethics of the cinematic representation of the death of the immigrant other.  In this post, inspired by Niamh Thornton’s recent meditation on the ethics of the use of war photography in fiction film, I consider the aesthetic and ethical implications of the representation of the death of the immigrant in two films: Ilegal/Illegal (Ignacio Vilar, 2003) and Retorno a Hansala/Return to Hansala (Chus Gutiérrez, 2008).

At the crux of this constellation of ideas – immigration, death, and cinema – is the notion of visibility, of making visible.  As phenomena that prove problematic at the level of rendering visible, how are immigration and death represented by cinema, a predominantly visual medium?  How do immigration and death intersect on screen?  How are they made (in)visible?  Recent theoretical interventions related to this topic include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of a ‘subjectivity of the dying’ (Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity 173), and Emma Wilson’s exploration of art and culture as a space for the exploration of death and its meanings (Love, Mortality and the Moving Image).  A gap remains, however, in terms of the specificities of these issues in the context of immigration and race.  This post is a mere starting point for thinking about these questions.

The metafilmic credit sequence of Ilegal immediately underscores the question of the visibility of the immigrant and of death.  A black and white image depicts ocean waves washing over various items of clothing, soaked through and strewn haphazardly on the sand, abandoned on an unidentified shoreline.  In a metacinematic gesture, the image is presented as though seen through the lens of a video camera, encased by a circular black frame and edged with textual indicators, such as a battery meter, a flashing red recording light, and the date.  The camera continues recording, encountering an abandoned boat, flooded with seawater and filled with more discarded items, an eerie intimation that something tragic has occurred.  This reading is supported by the scene’s tense, melodramatic soundtrack.  The film’s opening sequence implies, but does not make visible, the death of the immigrant.


Still taken from Ilegal

The camera through which these images are presented belongs to journalist Luis, the film’s central character.  The focalisation of the image through the journalist’s camera establishes a hierarchical paradigm of looking, in which the Spaniard looks and the immigrant is looked at, that will pervade the film.  This paradigm is intensified by the spectator’s alignment with the film’s journalist protagonist.  The metafilmic opening described above not only encourages the spectator’s identification with the Spaniard rather than with the film’s many migrant characters, but also reinforces the immigrant’s positioning as the object of the gaze.  The fact that the immigrant is only an implied presence in this sequence can be read as a critique of journalistic and mass media representations of immigrants and immigration.  Such representations often disregard the individuals involved, and tend to be more concerned with the totalling of casualties or with creating paranoia around the notion of an uncontrollable flood of immigrants.  In this way, Ilegal’s opening sequence immediately foregrounds the visibility of both immigration and death as a challenge to visual media such as film.

In spite of this stimulating credit sequence that draws attention to the aesthetics and ethics of the representation of the death in the context of immigration, Ilegal is at risk of repeating and perpetuating this approach, given its narrative and visual focus on the plight of its two Spanish protagonists, Luis and Sofia.  As Santiago Fouz Hernández and Alfredo Martínez Expósito point out, Luis in particular ‘has no qualms about obtaining and then exploiting images of migrants against their will’ (Live Flesh: The Male Body in Contemporary Spanish Cinema 171).  His dubious motives thus call into question the seemingly cautious, evocative and ethically-driven credit sequence described above.  The film becomes even more problematic at its conclusion, when Luis decides that the images he has captured have provoked too many deaths; because of this, he launches the tapes into the sea.  A tracking shot of the tapes floating in the water before they land on the seabed provides the background image of the film’s closing credits.  Like its opening sequence, Ilegal’s final images replace the immigrant with a visual remainder of his/her existence, erasing not only the body of the immigrant, but also the visual traces of that body.  In sum, the aesthetics and ethics of Ilegal’s representation of the death of the immigrant opens up, even if the film ultimately falls short of addressing, pertinent questions concerning the visibility and visibilisation of this phenomenon.

Like Ilegal, the opening sequence of Retorno a Hansala immediately addresses the visual representation of the death of the immigrant.  The sequence depicts the death of an anonymous, unidentified immigrant, who drowns while in sight of the Spanish coastline.  Accompanied by the choking sounds of the individual in question, the camera takes on the perspective of the drowning immigrant, dramatically circling above and below the water, and eventually becoming submerged below the water level.  The sequence ends with images of the seabed, the ripples of the water dabbled with sunlight.  The film’s title appears in white text, superimposed over this image of the seabed.  The text dissolves, and the image fades to black.



Still taken from Retorno a Hansala

By aligning the camera with the perspective of the dying immigrant, and in so doing opening up a space for the articulation of a ‘subjectivity of the dying’ (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Touching Feeling 173), Retorno a Hansala undermines the aforementioned paradigm of looking established in Ilegal, whereby the immigrant is always situated as the object of the gaze.  The visual prioritisation of the dying immigrant’s point of view prefigures the film’s narrative focus on Leila (Farah Hamed), a Moroccan immigrant who has been living in Spain for five years.  As the title suggests, the film tracks Leila’s return journey to her home town of Hansala, the purpose of which is the repatriation of her younger brother’s body.  Unlike Leila, Rachid was unsuccessful in his attempt to make the crossing from North Africa to Southern Spain.  In comparison with Ilegal, Retorno a Hansala thus approaches a more ethical account of immigrant experience, and particularly of the representation of the death of the immigrant.  That said, the problem of visibility remains insofar as the identity of the dying immigrant remains undisclosed, although it would not be too much of a stretch to surmise that this opening sequence adopts the perspective of Leila’s brother Rachid, whose lifeless body washes ashore in the sequence immediately following the credits.

The closing credits of Retorno a Hansala, which are rendered in white text on a black background, and accompanied by the sound of waves crashing ashore, distance the film from journalistic and mass media representations concerning immigration.  The credits appear on the left-hand side of the frame, while a series of over-exposed photographs, presumably of immigrants although the contents are difficult to establish, fade in and out one by one.  An avalanche of words and numbers follow these images, reminiscent of the vocabulary used in journalistic reporting regarding immigration, and of the incessant tallying of immigrants, whether in terms of the number of foreigners living in the country, or in terms of the number who die trying to make the crossing (examples include: ‘a bordo de una patera’ (‘on board a raft’); ‘83 “sin papeles”’ (83 undocumented’); and ‘Trece inmigrantes ahogados’ (‘Thirteen immigrants drowned’)).  In this way, the end credits of Retorno bleakly parody media discourse on immigration.  In so doing, they indicate a critical self-awareness of the problem of visibility, in terms of both immigration and death, contained within the opening sequence.

As I said above, this post – which has been written in dialogue with this post by Niamh – is merely a starting point for thinking through extremely complex questions concerning the ethics and aesthetics of onscreen violence and death.  In an attempt to continue this thought-provoking and necessary discussion, Niamh and I will follow this post with a conversation about the commonalities and distinctions between the distinct films and contexts we are both working on.  In the meantime, any questions, comments, or thoughts are very welcome.


Fouz-Hernandez, Santiago, and Alfredo Martinez-Exposito. Live Flesh: The Male Body in Contemporary Spanish Cinema. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007. Print.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, N.C.; London: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.

Wilson, Emma., Love, Mortality and the Moving Image. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.