Tag Archives: Spanish cinema

Book Proposal: Subversive Spanish Cinema: The Politics of Performance

My main research project at present is the production of a monograph entitled Subversive Spanish Cinema: The Politics of Performance. The book takes inspiration from one of the chapters of my PhD thesis, but significantly reworks this material alongside new research. Inspired by a recent post by Ellie Mackin, I have decided to share the book proposal I submitted to I. B. Tauris last year to give an overview of the project and in the case that it should be useful for others currently working on a book proposal. I was offered a book contract and I am currently preparing the manuscript for submission in April 2018.

IB TAURIS BOOK PROPOSAL – The Politics of Performance in Contemporary Spanish Cinema

Politics, Performance and the Heteronormative Couple: Ocho apellidos vascos (Martínez Lázaro, 2014)

Figure 1: Ocho apellidos vascos

One of my recent projects has been the production of an article on the 2014 box-office smash Ocho apellidos vascos (Figure 1). The article is to be included in a special journal issue on the film. The title of my piece is ‘”marriage itself as theater”: The Performative Politics of Marriage in Ocho apellidos vascos. My contribution focuses on the pivotal role of marriage in the film specifically in terms of its interlocking with performance and performativity. I propose that within the film marriage functions as a form of utopian unificatory politics that works at both personal and political levels.

I completed the article in the summer of 2016 and have recently been asked to make some changes following peer review. As a result, I’ve rewatched and been thinking and reading about the film again. I thought I’d write a post to facilitate some of the ideas I’ve had as a consequence of the extremely thought-provoking questions raised by the reviewers. I’m aware that this a rather messy and untidy piece and what the writing of it has revealed is that I still need to spend some more time mulling over what I think about this film.
In the original version of the article, my argument followed two main strands: the first concerned the performativity of the marriage ceremony and of regional identity in the film while the second linked this to what I termed utopian unificatory politics. By this I mean that the film proposes marriage as a tool for the union of the distinct autonomous regions – specifically Andalusia and the Basque Country – in Spain. One of the reviewers’ suggestions is that I link these two strands more cohesively and consider the extent to which the paradigm of performativity and the utopian unificatory politics are connected in film.


Figure 2: Marriage as central in Ocho apellidos vascos


My article details how marriage in Ocho apellidos vascos is a romantic ideal that, while sustained as the primary objective throughout the film, is ultimately unattainable and perhaps even unnecessary. The plot of the film, and indeed that of its sequel Ocho apellidos catalanes, hinge upon the prospective nuptials of protagonist Amaia (Figure 2). We quickly learn that Amaia has been ditched by her Basque fiancé Antxon. Reluctant to reveal the truth to her estranged father Koldo, Amaia persuades sevillano one-night-stand Rafa, whom she meets on her no-longer-required hen do, to pose as Antxon. Though the couple do reach the altar, Rafa is ultimately unable to go through with the marriage. In spite of this, the film concludes (spoiler alert!) with Amaia travelling to Seville to declare her love for Rafa. This ending thus sustains the heteronormative couple, unmarried though reunited, as the desired object.

How does one negotiate this network of ideas surrounding the heteronormative couple then? The film provides an embittered critique of matrimony. Amaia is jilted not once but twice: initially (and outwith the diegetic content of the film), prior to the wedding, by the unseen Antxon and subsequently, at the church altar, by Rafa posing as Antxon. Early on in the film, we witness the protagonist attempting to return her custom-made wedding dress, willing to take a cut-price refund for the item. She later, having been dumped by Rafa, tosses it on the fire in her home, watching the dress disappear into the flickering flames. The wedding dress therefore becomes a symbol of disillusionment with the heteronormative institution of marriage.


Figure 3: Performing heteronormative romance


Furthermore, there are no examples of happy marriages beyond the central coupling of the film (Figure 3). There is no mention made of Rafa’s parents. Amaia’s parents are separated. She is estranged from her father and has been for six years and her mother, who does not appear in the film, is apparently in a new relationship with a man from Seville. Merche, who poses as Rafa’s mother, is widowed, her Civil Guard husband presumably a casualty of the Basque conflict. The heteronormative institution of marriage, the film appears to suggest, is, if not an unobtainable ideal, then most certainly an outmoded and redundant concept.

With its renunciation of marriage as the ultimate objective of the heterosexual couple, Ocho apellidos vascos conforms to the genre paradigm of the contemporary romantic comedy. While the genre is renowned for its adherence to the narrative pattern that concludes with the happy ending, specifically the union of man and woman (Mortimer 2010: 4), contemporary works have shown a tendency to replace the romantic relationship with friendship (Deleyto 2003: 182). But, like the contemporary romcom, while the film might dismiss marriage as an antiquated idealism, it retains the heteronormative couple as the ultimate objective for its protagonists who are reunited in the concluding sequence, as mentioned above. In this regard then, Ocho apellidos vascos offers no escape from the heteronormative structures and structures that dominate society, politics and culture.
Without wanting to produce a dichotomous or reductive reading, should we interpret this position on marriage positively or negatively? How are we to understand the depiction of the unmarried couple and its function within familial relationships? How might the personal politics, epitomised by the unmarried couple, at the core of this film map onto national politics?


Figure 4: Forged families


In my original article, I was quite sceptical about the underlying politics of Ocho apellidos vascos. My initial reaction was that the film is proposing the utopian unification of the nation, in which similarities rather than differences are emphasised, by means of a romantic relationship, if not marriage, between two individuals from distinct autonomous regions within Spain. However, having rewatched and thought some more about the film, I’m starting to wonder if the film is amenable to a more nuanced, and perhaps more generous, reading of kinships and affective relations (Figure 4).

The traditional nuclear family, which typically revolves around the mother and father (or, in other words, the heteronormative married couple), is absent in Ocho apellidos vascos. In its place are a series of affiliations forged through choice: Rafa and his friends, who appear to be a substitute for his family; Rafa and his “mother” Merche; even Merche and Amaia’s father Koldo, who will become romantically involved by the end of the film (and whose love will be rekindled in the sequel Ocho apellidos catalanes). With this in mind, to map the politics of the personal onto the national in Ocho apellidos vascos necessitates a nuanced interpretation of the relationship between the family and the nation. What I’m starting to realise, especially in the writing of this post, is that this relationship, and the associated political stance of the film, is more complex than I initially thought. This is not to suggest, of course, that the film is without issues or flaws but rather that I need to unpack in more detail the undercurrents of personal and national politics at its core.

Childhood and Nation in World Cinemas Conference (Royal Holloway, University of London, April 2016)



I’m currently sitting in departures at Heathrow Terminal 5 having spent the last few days at Royal Holloway, University of London attending the Childhood and Nation in World Cinemas: Borders and Encounters since 1980 conference. With plenty time to kill before my flight, now seems as good a time as any to write up my experience of the conference – which, in short, was one of, if not the best conference I’ve been to in my academic career so far.

Continue reading Childhood and Nation in World Cinemas Conference (Royal Holloway, University of London, April 2016)

Expanding Views on Emigration: Economy, Travel and Windows in 2 francos, 40 pesetas

A radio crackles.  An announcer informs us that the oil crisis is destroying the Spanish tourist industry, that there are now around 900,000 Spaniards out of work and that Franco, aged 81, is critically ill in hospital.  Accompanying the initial credits, this brief soundbite succinctly situates the narrative action of 2 francos, 40 pesetas (the sequel to Un franco, 14 pesetas, which I discussed in an earlier post on this blog) within a far-from-perfect mid-1970s Spain.  Fourteen years have passed since we first encountered Martín (Carlos Iglesias), his wife Pilar (Nieve de Medina) and their friends Marcos (Javier Gutiérrez) and Mari Carmen (Ángela del Salto).  The sequel hinges upon the desire of Martín and his now grown-up son Pablo (Adrián Exposito) to return to Uzwil, Switzerland.  While Pablo sets off on his travels with his friend Juan (Luisber Santiago), Martín and Pilar make the return journey in order to attend the baptism of Marcos and Mari Carmen’s daughter.  Though light-hearted in character, 2 francos, 40 pesetas sheds light upon a historical migratory pattern typically neglected in Spanish cinematic production as well as providing an acerbic commentary on contemporary migratory flows.  In this post, I consider the depiction of the economic dimension of migration, the representation of travel and the symbol of the window in 2 francos, 40 pesetas.  This is very much an initial response to the film and given that I hope to work on this film in future research, I would very much appreciate any thoughts, comments or feedback you might have.

Figure 1: Ornate Objects
Figure 1: Ornate Objects
As the title indicates, money and economic status play a key role in 2 francos, 40 pesetas.  The opening sequence situates Martín within a lavish home, having a discussion with the maid about his son Pablo and whether or not he should be allowed entry.  We might initially think that this domestic space, adorned with ornate picture frames and furniture (Figure 1), belongs to Martín, that his decision to remain in Spain has paid off (literally).  However, from the discussion between the two characters, we quickly discern that this house belongs to someone else and that Martín is simply conducting odd-jobs there for additional income.  What this brief scene denotes is the economic gulf between the owner of such a residence – Doña Antoñita, a right-wing singer who complains about being surrounded by ‘rojos’ (‘Reds’) – and Martín, whose sparse home provides the setting for the following scene (Figure 2).  The financial fissure between these two characters is evident not just in the fact that Martín is working for Doña Antoñita, but also in their distinct domestic settings.  While the home of Doña Antoñita displays her material wealth through an abundance of ornate objects, that of Martín and his family is sparse by comparison.  The film’s focus on the economic dimension of migratory patterns is not only relevant to the historical context within which the film is set, but also comments on one of the most important push factors for migration in contemporary society.  In the context of contemporary Spain, economic gain provides the motivation both for those migrating to Spain and for those leaving Spain in search of work, a migratory flow exacerbated by the current economic climate and the subject of several recent Spanish films.  (For a more detailed commentary on this migratory development and its visual representations see here).

Figure 2: Domesticity Devoid of Clutter
Figure 2: Domesticity Devoid of Clutter

Figure 3: First-Class Cabin
Figure 3: Trains …
The film’s meditation on the economic dimension of migratory flows is apparent too in its depiction of travel and transport.  As in Un franco, 14 pesetas, vehicles constitute a key visual motif of 2 francos, 40 pesetas.  However, while the former concentrates primarily on the train as a means of transportation, 2 francos, 40 pesetas broadens its vehicular focus, including sequences on trains, planes and automobiles.  Just as trains transported Martín and Marcos across Europe, from Spain to Switzerland, in Un franco, 14 pesetas, trains provide the initial form of transportation for Pablo and Juan (Figure 3).  The economic disparity between father and son emerges through their distinct experiences of train travel.  While Martín and Marcos shared their compartments with various other travellers, Pablo and Juan enjoy a first-class cabin to themselves, albeit thanks to the kindness of a station attendant who did not want them sleeping in the waiting room.  Emphasising the generational gap in terms of attitudes towards money, Juan drops something in the cabin and remarks ‘Son 2 francos’ (‘Just 2 francs’).  The more astute Pablo replies ‘2 francos son 40 pesetas’ (‘2 francs are worth 40 pesetas’).  The relationship between travel and wealth becomes more apparent when Martín and Pilar make their way to Switzerland by aeroplane rather than by train (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Air Travel
Figure 4: … Planes …
The experience is presented as novel to the protagonists, evidenced by their amazement at the meals they receive on board and the views of the mountains they witness.  A third method of border crossing occurs through the pairing of Luisa, Martín’s sister and Pablo’s aunt (Eloísa Vargas), and Arturo, a banker (Roberto Álvarez), who drive from Spain to Switzerland (Figure 5).  This crossing is also economically motivated, as Arturo needs to deposit funds in a Swiss bank, an act later criticised by Martín, Marcos and their friends and thwarted by Luisa, who manages to swipe the cash from under Arturo’s nose.  (That her suitcase at once provides the site of concealment for the money as well as the ruse for her keeping it produces a neat twist on the symbol of the suitcase in films centred on migration; see Hamid Naficy An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (109, 257, 261-4) for more on this).  Underscoring the economic aspect of migration and border crossing, 2 francos, 40 pesetas attends to an element of migratory flows often neglected in accounts of such experiences.

Figure 5: ... and Automobiles
Figure 5: … and Automobiles
Alongside the economic dimension of migration, the diversity of migratory patterns constitutes another key element of 2 francos, 40 pesetas.  An early example of this occurs when Mari Carmen goes into labour and is attended by a Spanish-speaking black doctor from Equatorial Guinea.  While the racist reactions of Mari Carmen and Marcos make for uncomfortable viewing (as does Marcos’ joke that ‘Si es que aquí, con estos tan altos y tan rubios, todos somos un poco negros’ (‘With so many tall blondes around, we’re all a little black’)), the inclusion of this character speaks to alternative patterns of migration not typically addressed in Spanish cultural production.  The host of individuals with whom Pablo and Juan become involved function in a similar manner; consider, for example, Rita (Anahí Beholi), the Swiss Columbian who laments the fact that people are afraid of her skin colour.  Moreover, a frank discussion amongst the male characters towards the end of the film reveals attitudes towards internal migration in Spain.  Rafa, a friend of Martín and Marcos, speaks of the fact that he has nowhere to go, that his family in Spain have returned to Cordoba and he has no desire to return to his pueblo (‘hometown’).  Martín is surprised as he thought Rafa was from Catalonia.  ‘Catalán dice… Charnego que es’ (‘Catalonian?  He’s a Spaniard living in Catalonia’) remarks Marcos, indexing a further historical migratory pattern prevalent under Franco in Spain.  In this way, the film opens up alternative avenues in terms of the representation of migration, both in historical and contemporary contexts.

Figure 6: A Hopeful Gaze
Figure 6: A Hopeful Gaze
One of the ways in which the film formally registers this opening onto alternative avenues connected to migration is through a visual emphasis on the window.  As I discussed in my response to Un franco, 14 pesetas, the window underscores the liminality of the film’s protagonists, revealing their position as outsiders looking in on a society of which they are, at least initially, not a part.  The visual focus on the window continues in 2 francos, 40 pesetas.  As Juan and Pablo undertake their journey to Switzerland, the camera frames them in front of the window of their first-class cabin (see Figure 3 above), before a cut positions the camera outside the train carriage looking in, revealing a hopeful Pablo gazing out the window (Figure 6). The train carriage window furthermore provides a metacinematic frame-within-the-frame for the passing landscape (Figure 7), highlighting the tension between motion and stasis that characterises train travel.  Windows allow individuals to look out (Figure 8) as well as in (Figure 9).  They can be open or closed (Figure 10).  As I mentioned in my earlier post, the window is a symbol that lends itself to multiple readings.  Here, however, what prevails is the metonymic significance of the window as a divisive and yet permeable entity, much like the border.

Figure 7: Passing Landscapes
Figure 7: Passing Landscapes

Figure 8: Looking Out
Figure 8: Looking Out

Figure 9: Looking In
Figure 9: Looking In

Figure 10: Open and Closed
Figure 10: Open and Closed
To summarise, 2 francos, 40 pesetas, in many ways, picks up where its precursor, Un franco, 14 pesetas, left off, representing a facet of Francoist history – the emigration of Spaniards to other European countries in the latter years of the Francoist period – often neglected in contemporary cultural production.  However, the engagement with return migration in 2 francos, 40 pesetas indicates an awareness of this phenomenon in the contemporary context as well as in relation to the migratory flows of the past, a trend becoming more significant as Spanish society negotiates the current economic crisis.

Review: Stockholm (Rodrigo Sorogoyen, 2013)

Stockholm (Image taken from http://www.elmundo.es/baleares/2013/10/24/5268e7770ab740db2a8b457b.html)
Stockholm (Image taken from http://www.elmundo.es/baleares/2013/10/24/5268e7770ab740db2a8b457b.html)

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 http://criticasen8.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/stockholm-la-luna-luce-mas-de-noche.html)
“Him” and “Her” (Image taken from http://criticasen8.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/stockholm-la-luna-luce-mas-de-noche.html)

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 http://www.sensacine.com/actores/actor-417322/fotos/detalle/?cmediafile=21045863)
“Her” (Image taken from http://www.sensacine.com/actores/actor-417322/fotos/detalle/?cmediafile=21045863)

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!

Childhood in Post-Franco Spanish Cinema

As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, one of the chapters of my PhD thesis explores the figure of the child in post-Franco Spanish cinema.  Given the diffuseness of this subject matter, and the relative gap in terms of scholarship on the child in Spanish cinema (Sarah Wright’s recently-published monograph The Child in Spanish Cinema is the first book-length study of this topic), I narrowed the focus of my chapter to the intersection of childhood and history in four key films: El espíritu de la colmena/The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973); Cría cuervos/Raise Ravens (Carlos Saura, 1976); El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001); and El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006).  This term I’ve suspended my PhD studies to take up a temporary Teaching Fellowship in the department of Film & Visual Culture at my institution, and have had the opportunity to teach an Honours module based on my PhD research.  As a result, I’ve recently rewatched three of the above films (Espíritu; Cría; Laberinto) with my Honours students, and in so doing, my curiosity in the visual rhetoric that circulates amongst these films was renewed.

The most recent of the three films – El laberinto del fauno – repeatedly and explicitly engages the previous two films through visual citations.  Clearly, the films are narratively and thematically comparable in that they all deal with the child’s escape into fantasy, imagination, and fairytale, with death, and with the politics of the Civil War and Francoist Spain.  However, this post focuses on the implicit visual connections between the films.  I’m certainly not the first scholar to point out that the later film references the earlier two films – see, for example, this piece by Paul Julian Smith.  That said, I think the parallels are worth restating because they reveal the extent to which Mexican director del Toro inserts his film within a specifically Spanish history of cinematic childhood.

Indeed, within the first few minutes of the film, El laberinto del fauno visually cites both Cría cuervos and El espíritu de la colmena.  The car in which protagonist Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) stops so that the latter can get some fresh air.  As Carmen composes herself, Ofelia wanders off into the woods, looking up at the trees above her.  The point-of-view shot recalls a moment in Cría cuervos when Ana (Ana Torrent) looks up at the trees in her garden, before she sees/imagines herself leaping off the roof of a nearby building.

Still from El laberinto del fauno
Still from Cría cuervos

This is followed by a reference to the Don José sequence in El espíritu de la colmena, when the young Ana (Ana Torrent) grants the class mannequin the ability to see by attaching his eyes.  In place of a mannequin, Ofelia encounters a stone statue, and inserts a round stone, which she finds on the ground nearby, into the open eye socket.

Still from El laberinto del fauno
Still from El espíritu de la colmena

Moreover, the Falangist symbol of the yoke and arrows, which adorns the cars in which Ofelia and her mother travel, constitutes a further visual reference to Erice’s film, in which the same symbol appears on a building of the village Hoyuelos in the opening sequence.

These visual citations appear throughout El laberinto del fauno.  For instance, the Captain is repeatedly pictured shaving in his quarters – an act which reminds us of the playful moment in El espíritu de la colmena when, in the absence of their father, Isabel (Isabel Tellería) instructs her younger sister Ana how to shave.  Similarly, the mud-encrusted Ofelia’s emergence from the tree, having completed her first task, recalls the mournful Ana and her mud beard in Cría cuervos.

Still from El laberinto del fauno
Still from Cría cuervos

Furthermore, the bearded doctor of El laberinto del fauno recalls the bearded doctor, who, at the end of El espíritu de la colmena, insists that Ana will recover from her traumatic experiences.  In addition, the monstrousness of maternity embodied by Ofelia’s mother Carmen in El laberinto del fauno resonates with María’s cancerous womb in Cría cuervos.  This link is underscored by the visual echoes between the scene in which Carmen gives birth to Ofelia’s baby brother in El laberinto del fauno, with women bustling around with bloodied sheets, and the scene in which María is dying in Cría cuervos, where the maid Rosa acts as a nurse, removing bloodied sheets from the bed.  The significances of these visual citations are tied up with gender, a theme which has, for the most part, not yet been analysed in detail, and this is precisely one of the themes I investigate in my thesis.

A handful of visual citations concerned with death, devastation, and destruction also link the three films in question.  Vidal’s broken pocket watch recalls Fernando’s pocket watch in El espíritu de la colmena.  Its unreliability, combined with the careful attention the Captain affords to its cleaning, demonstrates an obsessive concern with order and precision that is destined to fail.  The train wreck caused by the maquis in El laberinto del fauno reminds the viewer of the symbolic importance of the train in El espíritu de la colmena.  The train’s derailment in the later film constitutes a symbol of how progress was brought to a halt under Franco.  The burial of Ofelia’s mother, who dies during childbirth, recalls the proliferation of death in general across these films, but also more specifically Ana’s isolated ceremony of mourning for her guinea pig Roni in Cría cuervos.  Finally, Ofelia drugs the Captain by spiking his drink, implicitly referencing Ana’s attempts to poison her father and aunt by lacing their drinks with what she believes to be poisonous powder in Cría cuervos.

Clearly, the resonances between these films extend beyond what I’ve pointed out in this short post.  However, what I hope to have demonstrated here is that El laberinto del fauno, in spite of its transnational production history (directed by a Mexican filmmaker, starring both Spanish and Latin American actors and actresses, financed by both Spanish and Mexican production companies), is positioned within a lineage of Spanish films centred on the intersection of childhood and history.  In my thesis, as mentioned above, I dedicate a chapter to the exploration of these three films in conjunction with El espinazo del diablo.  As I’m still working towards the completion of my thesis, any thoughts, pointers, comments are most welcome on what I’ve presented here.

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.

Spanish Film Review Club – Guest Contribution

Image taken from http://www.culturefix.co.uk/2013/04/review-im-so-excited-los-amantes.html

This week, I wrote a guest contribution for the Spanish film blog Spanish Film Review Club.  For the post, I reviewed the most recent film by Pedro Almodóvar, Los amantes pasajeros/I’m So Excited, considering the film’s politics in terms of personal, national, and imperial histories as well as its statement on contemporary affairs in Spain.  If you are interested, you can read it here.  Any feedback, comments, questions welcome!