Work: What Counts?

I’ve just taken a whole week off.  The first full week I’ve taken off work in a long time.  My first week off since the Christmas break, (during which I was working a part-time job so I was still working).

I’m not very good at taking time off.  For the last five years I’ve had to juggle PhD research, term-time teaching, and part-time work, not to mention domestic chores and keeping up with family and friends.  By now I am well accustomed to a hectic schedule in which every moment has to be utilised effectively and efficiently.  Working a lot and being busy is thus borne out of necessity.

There are other reasons supplanting my chaotic schedule.  Firstly, I feel incredibly guilty if I do take time off.  This phenomenon – often referred to as “PhD guilt” – is, by all accounts, a commonly experienced sentiment: you can read more about it here and here.  In addition, I actually enjoy what I do.  I mean, I get to watch Spanish films, read interesting books, write about these things, and call it “work”.  And this is related to the third reason for not taking time off: what counts as “work” in my case?

I ask this question because I think it is fundamental with regards the much-discussed work-life balance, which often seems to tip towards the latter rather than the former in the case of academics.  Clearly, time spent working on my thesis counts as “work”, whether that involves reading, writing, thinking, planning, editing, watching, analysing, and so on.  But does writing blog posts count as “work”?  What about answering e-mails?  And chatting on Skype with two colleagues about our edited book project?  What about reading and sharing academia-related links, and connecting with other academics, on Twitter?  And watching Spanish films?

The truth is: I enjoy what I do.  I enjoy doing these things.  Yes, there are days when I would rather not watch a film and analyse what’s going on, or when I would rather read anything other than material connected to my research topic.  But on the whole, I enjoy reading, watching, writing, and so on, and that’s why I think I personally find it hard to take a week off, in which I do not do any of the above.  I feel at a loose end, purposeless, like I’m not sure what to do with myself.

However, that said, I’m glad that, following my supervisor’s advice, I took a week off.  It allowed me to catch up with friends, and begin packing (my husband and I are moving house this summer).  In addition, I feel rested, refreshed, and energised to begin what will be an intense summer of thesis-ing (and house-moving!!).

I’ve been thinking about these issues – time off and what counts as work – a lot over the last week, and I wondered whether I was alone in this, or whether this is something others have experienced too.  How often do you take time off?  Do you enjoy it?  Do you feel guilty?  What are the benefits and/or disadvantages to taking time off?  What counts as work for you?  Please feel free to leave me feedback as I’d be interested to hear how others experience this facet of academic life.


Review: Stockholm (Rodrigo Sorogoyen, 2013)

Stockholm (Image taken from
Stockholm (Image taken from

I finally got round to watching Stockholm(Rodrigo Sorogoyen, 2013 – trailer here) the other night.  I’ve had the DVD for a while, and I’ve been looking forward to watching it.  The film won the 2014 Goya for Best Newcomer for Javier Pereira, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Actress.  I can’t remember now where I first heard/read about it, although it was most likely on Twitter.  There were two aspects of the film I found particularly intriguing: firstly, the fact that the film was crowd-funded, and secondly, the much-discussed ‘twist’ halfway through the film.  It more than lived up to my expectations.

The film’s financial profile is particularly relevant, given the dire economic climate in Spain generally, and with regards to the film industry in particular.  I’ll offer a brief overview of the scenario here.  State funding of Spanish cinema has halved in the past four years, with the most recent budget cuts (October 2013) meaning that the national cinematography fund will receive only €33 million (£28m) in 2014.  This constitutes a 14% drop on last year, and is only just enough to cover the industry’s debts.  These cuts have been described as politically-motivated by, among others, Enrique González Macho, President of the Spanish Cinema Academy, who has remarked that this represents the extent to which the current PP government are scared of the culture and cinema, and their potential for change and impact.  These cuts have significantly affected the amount of films being made in Spain.  Indeed, 2013 saw 28% fewer films in production, and, consequently, enforced unemployment.  To add to this, VAT on ticket sales has risen to 21% in Spain.  (You can read more about this here.)

Against this dismal financial backdrop, the producers of Stockholm turned to the crowd-funding website Verkami to secure funds to complete their film.  The DVD includes a press conference, in which one of the producers talks about their move from the more creative side of filmmaking to the financial side as a necessity because the various sites in which they would usually seek funding had closed down.  The credits list all of the Verkami contributors, in a gesture that underscores the value of their contribution to the project and acknowledges that contribution as part of the labour through which the film was produced.

Alongside the film’s alternative path to funding, the second element I was initially intrigued by was the much-discussed ‘twist’ halfway through the film.  Stockholm begins as a very conventional teenage/youth scenario, in which boy meets girl and claims to be in love with her.  While she initially resists his advances, they spend the entire night walking around the city, until eventually they end up back in his apartment.  And this is where the twist occurs – which I won’t reveal in order to avoid any spoilers for those who are still to watch the film (and I recommend that you do!).  Suffice to say, this twist constitutes a moment of rupture that splits the film in half, separating the initial, conventional ‘boy-meets-girl’ narrative of the first half from the tense, dramatic, second half of the film, which is more akin to the thriller than the romance genre.

"Him" and "Her" (Image taken from
“Him” and “Her” (Image taken from

The film’s aesthetics constitute a site in which these two intriguing aspects of the work converge.  Because of its modest budget, Stockholmwas filmed in just twelve days.  The limited funds, and thus time, available led to a strikingly minimalist aesthetic.  Indeed, the majority of the film’s action takes place on the streets of Madrid at night in the first half, and within the apartment of the unnamed male protagonist (known as ‘Él’ (‘He’) in the script) in the second half of the film.  This split between an exterior and an interior location mirrors the narrative and genre split between the two halves of the film.  This is further underscored by the colour palette of both halves.  Darkness, at times tinged with accented red and blue lighting, dominates the first half, symbolising intrigue, the unknown, and the excitement connected with these qualities.  By contrast, a stark, bleached whiteness overwhelms the second half, signifying the cold, harsh truth the characters face the morning after their night together.  These diverging aesthetic approaches produce a fissure in the texture of the film, a fissure embodied by the unnamed female protagonist (known as ‘Ella’) quite literally in the colours of the clothing she wears: a black cardigan over a white dress.

"Her" (Image taken from
“Her” (Image taken from

All in all, this is a striking film, aesthetically pleasing, with an engrossing soundtrack, and displaying incredible performances by both lead actors.  Highly recommended!


Spanish Cinema Symposium with Icíar Bollaín, University of St. Andrews, May 2014

Last week I attended the Spanish Cinema Symposium with Icíar Bollaín at the University of St. Andrews.  I was very much looking forward to the event, not least because it allowed me to escape my huge pile of marking for the day!  I did live-tweet throughout the day, but I found that I was unable to keep up with the demands of live-tweeting and note-taking.  I decided to write up my notes into this blog post, for those who were following my tweets and were interested to learn more about the day’s proceedings.

After a brief welcome and introduction by St. Andrews’ own Bernard Bentley, the day kicked off with Professor Núria Triana Toribio (University of Kent), and her presentation entitled ‘Cine es pañal: Spanish “Realismo Social” and Icíar Bollaín’s Mataharis’.  Triana began by noting that Bollaín positions herself, and is positioned by critics, as part of a European realist tradition, before arguing that Mataharis constitutes a moment of rupture within this framework.  In an inspired reading of the opening credits, Triana argued that the image in which one of the female detectives changes her baby’s nappy (hence the talk’s title, ‘Cine es pañal’ (nappy)) represents a dramatic shift both in terms of Bollaín’s filmmaking, and within the wider context of Spanish cinema.  In the context of Bollaín’s oeuvre, this moment, and more generally this film, marks a departure from the social realist tradition of which she is a part.  For Triana, the inclusion of this nappy-changing moment indicates a turn to the quotidian, in comparison with the filmmaker’s earlier focus on the ‘big topics’ or ‘headlines’ of social realism: the depiction of immigration and social integration in Flores de otro mundo (1999) and the treatment of domestic violence in Te doy mis ojos (2003) are examples of this earlier trend.  With regards Spanish cinema more broadly, Mataharis’ reworking of the film noir genre is demonstrative of the turn to genre in 2008.  Triana traced this turn to genre in Spanish cinema through a series of changes at the level of practice within the Spanish film industry, including television companies venturing into film funding, El Orfanato – a horror film – winning the Goya for Best Film, and the realisation that genre allowed filmmakers to speak to both national and international audiences.  She concluded her talk by comparing detective Eva (Najwa Nimri) and her return to work – which can only occur once she has run the bath, organised dinner, and settled the children – with Jeff’s return to work in Out of the Past (1947) – which occurs after a dramatic revelation and passionate encounter with the lady in his life.  With this comparison, Triana demonstrated her thesis: that Bollaín’s Mataharis reworks genre/gender with a focus on everyday realism.

Nimri in Mataharis
Nimri in Mataharis

After a brief break for coffee and cakes (which were delicious!), Dr. David Archibald (University of Glasgow) offered a presentation on the topic of ‘Cinematic Representations of Anti-Fascist Women in the Spanish Civil War’.  He focused on representations of women fighting – or not – in the Spanish Civil War, and how this concept is treated in different cinemas.  His presentation offered a survey of diverse films and their depictions of women in the Spanish Civil War context, including For Whom the Bell Tolls (Wood, 1943), El árbol de Guernica (Arrabal, 1975), ¡Ay, Carmela! (Saura, 1990), and Libertarias (Aranda, 1996).  He then turned his attentions to Tierra y libertad (Loach, 1995), starring Bollaín, arguing that this film illustrates the complexities of the female figure at the front.  For Archibald, Bollaín’s character is politically aware but also displays warmth, solidarity, and compassion with her comrades.  However, he acknowledged the film’s limitations in terms of the representation of women in conflict, given the symbolic use of the female body through the character of Blanca, who is shot in the back precisely at the moment in which the POUM are betrayed.  Overall, Archibald’s paper offered an overview of how leftist women have been differently depicted across distinct geographical and historical contexts.

Following a break for lunch, we returned for a screening of También la lluvia, introduced by the director herself.  I have seen the film a number of times, but it was such a pleasure to see it on a big screen again.  It contains a number of actors I enjoy watching (Tosar, Bernal, Arevalo), and I find the metacinematic dimension of the film really interesting.  I am not going to spend time unpacking the film in any more detail here (perhaps a future blog post in that…).  But I wanted to at least mention this element of the programme, because I think it was an inspired decision.  Not only did it allow the audience to relax after lunch (always a sleepy moment in the day for me!), but it also provided fodder for the question-and-answer session that followed.

Tosar and Bernal in También la lluvía
Tosar and Bernal in También la lluvía

After the film had finished, we had another quick coffee and cake break before the Q and A session with Bollaín.  Bernard Bentley collected questions from the audience and wrote them on the board.  Bollaín offered responses to most of the questions raised, talking openly and articulately about her life and work.  She began by discussing why she wanted to become a filmmaker as a means of telling her own stories, noting that it stemmed from her career as an actress, in which she felt that she was a vehicle for someone else’s story.  She spoke in detail about the process of script-writing, about how she prefers to work with a co-scriptwriter rather than on her own, about how she spends a lot of time researching the topic she is working on in the film.  She stressed the need for more female authors in the film industry, noting the male bias which persists even in the contemporary context.  Picking up on Núria Triana Toribio’s earlier presentation, she discussed the motivation behind Mataharis, which reflects her life at the time of production – in which she was dealing with babies and nappies, juggling work and motherhood.  For Bollaín, this film represented what was missing from the big screen: representations of women in their 30s, simply dealing with everyday life.  She was also asked about her methodologies when working with different actors, detailing her recent forays into working with non-professional actors (in También la lluvía and Katmandú, un espejo en el cielo (2011) in particular), and praising an actor with whom she has worked several times: Luis Tosar.  The conversation was frequently punctuated with clips from Bollaín’s oeuvre, including the very amusing short (featuring the aforementioned Tosar) ‘Por tu bien’ (which you can watch here – and you should – it is very funny!).

Tosar in Por tu bien
Tosar in Por tu bien

In addition, Bollaín also spent a considerable amount of time speaking about the creative processes of filmmaking.  She noted that she loves editing, finding it the most creative part of filmmaking (other than the writing of the script).  In a lovely metaphor, she compared it to going to the market to get the ingredients you need, but it is when you start editing that you start cooking.  She also commented that she always changes the endings of her films during the editing process.  She spoke at length about the procedures they had to follow in Bolivia when making También la lluvía, including going to the local assemblies to ask permissions, having to provide materials for the local communicates and so on.  Finally, she spoke about her current project, which is a documentary about Spanish people, with qualifications, leaving Spain and working in menial jobs in other countries.  She stressed a desire to convey the reality of their situations, which is at odds with how Spanish politicians portray their circumstances, in that they insist that these people have made decisions to better/further their careers and so on.  She also noted that she will be filming another script written by Paul Laverty – who wrote the script for También la lluvía – next year.  As a closing remark, she observed that she is impressed by the way academics dedicate themselves to film.

All in all, this was a highly enjoyable, successful event, and a real pleasure to attend!