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.
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.
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!).
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!