The role of feature films in recuperating Spain’s painful past
El olvido está lleno de memoria (Mario Benedetti)
Forgetting is full of memory
The Spanish case is particularly appropriate for Transitional Justice research: the severe brutality and prolonged violations perpetrated by the Franco regime against those on the losing side in the Civil War (1936–1939), and against all those who subsequently refused to comply with its dictates (1939–1975), are well-known. Throughout the civil conflict, tens of thousands of people on both sides lost their lives as a result of both legal and extrajudicial executions. However, political violence continued during the early years of the post-war period; estimations suggest that the Franco regime executed approximately 50,000 people, that the number of prisoners in concentration camps amounted to 300,000, and that hundreds of thousands were forced into exile. (Paloma Aguilar, Laia Balcells and Héctor Cebolla. Comparative Political Studies Vol 44, Issue 10 (October 2011)
In 2007 the Spanish government passed La Ley de Memoria Histórica, the Law of Historical Memory. This law aims at the recovery of memory, which means: to regain and retrieve scattered memory. It obliges local and regional governments to provide help – maps, archives, experts on identification and DNA – for people to unearth their parents and grandparents who were killed by the ‘guardia civil’ or Franco’s army and want to know what happened to them. Since the law Spaniards have had the right to claim recognition and restore the dignity of their ancestors.
Mass graves all over Spain
However, on the 5th of February this year Pablo de Greiff – the UN special reporter on the promotion of truth, justice and reparation – expressed concern about the fragmentation of existing information, mainly gathered thanks to the efforts of historians, investigators and the victims and their relatives. He urged the Spanish authorities to withdraw the 1977 Amnesty Law that prevents any crime committed during the Franco era from being put under trial.
According to historian Julian Casanova, the history of the Spanish Civil War is not the exclusive territory of historians. ‘To recuperate the past we need the cinema, the efficiency of its narratives and the power of its images. Feature films transmit the tension between memory – individual as well as collective memory – and political and cultural debates. Cinema does not flee from the past but brings to light its most hidden and repressed parts. (El País December 8, 2008.)
Without the restoration of memory, the truth will never become the official version of Spain’s recent history. And if recognition of crimes fails to occur, no justice can be done. In spite of numerous efforts, the Law on Historical Memory fails to have effect in towns and villages where local authorities refuse to carry out its dictates. The deceased remain in the mass graves and the elderly are dying without seeing justice done. Recognition presupposes a re-evaluation of the past. What actually has happened? What has been concealed? There is still much to be discovered, and many victims to be unearthed. Despite the decades that have passed since the dictatorship and despite the Law of Historical memory, most schools still do not teach the children about the Civil War and the post-war period. Silence still reigns.
The silence about the past has changed over time. From the grim face of the suppressive Franco regime that prosecuted the conquered part of the Spanish people to the more or less voluntary silence after Franco’s death kept by politicians and the people out of fear of another conflict, to the uneasy silence of the last two decades. A new generation grew up with little to no knowledge of the recent history of its own country. Many young Spaniards remain ignorant of the Spanish Civil War.
Needless to say that in the first part of those 75 five years, namely during the dictatorship, Franco supporters could speak, read and write about the civil war and the time in which they lived – as they were the victors. Only since 1977, both parties were committed to remaining silent about the past. The then accepted Amnesty law prevented justice during the transition to democracy.
From that moment on both the perpetrators and the victims kept silent, but each with different motivations for doing so. Franco’s supporters wanted to forget because of shame, as Paul Preston suggests. (Preston, ‘Revenge and Reconciliation’, History Today 39, 1989(3):32). The victims on the other side needed to suppress their painful memories, which Aguilar indicates as the narcotic aspect of oblivion. (Aleksandra Hadzelek, Spain’s ‘pact of silence’ and the Removal of Franco’s Statues)
Politicians, prosecutors, and judges may have kept their promise to forget, but the victims did not, could not. One of them, José María Galante said a few weeks ago while preparing for a hearing at Spain’s Nationals Court last month: ‘I agree with the idea of reconciliation. But you just can’t turn the page. You have to read that page before you turn it.’ (The New York Times, April 6, 2014)
What can films establish that historical research cannot? To answer that question we could turn to Nietzsche. Of course, Nietzsche never saw a feature film, but he did know about theatre and he loved music. As a philosopher, he believed in life, creativity, power, and the realities of the world. Nietzsche's revitalizing philosophy has inspired leading figures in all walks of cultural life, including dancers, poets, novelists, painters, psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and social revolutionaries.
The key concept in his philosophy is the metaphor. Everything that is not life itself is metaphorical. Language strips living entities such as trees, birds, people and events of their individuality and properness understood as essence, by representing them with words that are mere concepts. There is no unity between life and the way we talk about it. Recovering the past, therefore, means recreating the past, transforming it into a symbolic sphere other than that of the scientific and thus conceptual language. In other words: we need art to bring to life, to the surface what is ‘forgotten’ and what dwells in the subconscious. (Sarah Kofman,1993. Nietzsche and Metaphor: 14, Stanford University Press)
From the end of the Civil War in 1939 up to the present day, the Spanish people have had to cope with concealed and unconfessed crimes. This denial causes pain: sorrow as well as guilt and shame. The past disguised as manifestations of the subconscious – dreams and nightmares – haunts older people, and puzzles the young.
Numerous films about the Civil War and the Franco years have been made in Spain. Since 2000, over fifty feature films and documentaries on this subject premiered. Apparently, the subject matter keeps film makers and cinema goers busy; it plays an important role in Spanish society. Historical research alone cannot reveal the truth. Why the arts, and films in particular, are necessary in order to deal with the past, can be illustrated with a quote from Sarah Kofman: “Arts effort of idealization corresponds to […] the activity of the unconscious, which not only produces a profusion of images but chooses between them, accentuating some and eliminating the others, choosing the similar by hiding differences. This is what consciousness calls ‘memory’, ‘imagination’ or ‘analogical reasoning’.” (Sarah Kofman,1993. Nietzsche and Metaphor: 30), Stanford University Press)
This explains why all films are metaphorical, and not only the films made during the Franco era, due to severe censorship. Obviously, it is impossible to provide a complete overview of how films dealt with the war and its aftermath; I would rather focus on the silence and the silenced before and after the pact of oblivion instigated by the Amnesty Law. Which metaphors and cinematographic means make this silence visible and tangible?
When reading or watching movies about Spain’s past, one inevitably comes across ghosts, orphans, mirrors, haunted places, forgetting, amnesia, fear, secretiveness, violence, monsters, hunting, terror, enmity, fugitives, and cruelty. But even families are sometimes used in a metaphorical way, such as the brothers taking different stands in the Civil War in Race (José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, 1942) or the parents in Butterfly’s Tongue (José Luis Cuerda, 1999); the mother is a republican, the father favours the nationalist side. In many films, the two sides live in one house.
The post-war period can be divided into three phases: the years of the dictatorship from 1939 to 1975, followed by the transitional period until around the mid-nineties and the last period from the late nineties up to the present day.
During the dictatorship, the filmmakers who sympathized with the regime wrote the history of the Civil War in the so-called crusade films. The script for one of those – Raza / Race – was written by Franco himself. In these films, the other side in the fraternal conflict were depicted as evil, warmongers and above all ‘los rojos’, the reds. Although they were portrayed, they were not given a voice.
It took until the Sixties for Spain to provide another cinematographic side of the story. Strangely enough, the cinema of the opposition was also financed by the regime. After two decades of autarchy, Spain needed an opening to Europe and the rest of the world. The New Spanish Cinema presented Spain as a modern country with a culture that could compete with those of other countries. And indeed, Spanish movies won awards at international festivals while at the same time cinema’s in Spain were not allowed to program these films.
I Silence – the absence of the war in films made during the dictatorship
In the films of the New Spanish Cinema up until the end of the dictatorship, the war itself was absent. The narratives often take place shortly after the war. The first daring director to touch on contemporary Spain was a ground breaker; his name was Juan Antonio Bardem. In Death of a Cyclist (1955) he portrays characters dealing with guilt, fear and the haunting presence of an innocent victim. The film starts with a black car driving the road from Madrid to Burgos, which runs through the landscape where severe fighting took place during the battle for Madrid. This mise-en-scene sets the action in motion. The car runs over a cyclist, who remains lying on the road. The driver Juan and his companion Maria José disagree about whether or not to leave him there to die. Seeking help would expose their adulterous relationship …
In spite of the close eye the censors kept on Bardem because of his communist convictions, thanks to his very clever way of editing, Bardem succeeded in showing adulterous relations, evoking memories of the war and critiquing the Spanish upper class and the education system. (Jo Evans. Pudovkin and the censors, Hispanic Research Journal, Vol. 8, No. 3, June 2007, 253–265)
One of the characters is Rafa, an entertainer; he knows about the illicit relationship and perhaps also about the death of the cyclist. Rafa explains to Maria: “It amuses me to watch you all. I see all your sins. I classify them and file them away. And then I wait for the right moment to act. All the ugly things you try to hide, I dig them up and lay them out before you.”
In 1966 Carlos Saura manages to evoke the brutality of the war, by shooting La Caza / The Hunt in a valley that had been a battlefield and still is a hunting field. Three friends who fought in the Army, representing the victors, go hunting rabbits together with a young man. One of the hunters, played by Alfredo Mayo who was the nationalist hero in Race says: “Lots of people died here. It is a good place to kill.” (Sally Faulkner, 2006, a Cinema of Contradiction. Spanish Film in the 1960s, Edinburgh University Press)
The Hunt Carlos Saura
The younger hunter Enrique does not quite understand the aggression and violence that emerges in the hunting party. When the rabbit hunt has turned into a man hunt, he flees from the valley. Enrique had to “bear witness to the effects of the history that he had previously refused to identify as his own”. (Marvin D’Lugo. The Films of Carlos Saura. The Practice of seeing. Princeton 1991)
Saura takes his audience from the hunting grounds to the Garden of Delights (1970). The son of a rich business family – which can be easily read as the Francoïst state – suffered a car accident which has left him with amnesia. The family members try everything to restore his memory, not because they love him, but his father needs to know the number of the Swiss bank account, and his wife wants the combination to the safe in the bedroom. Antonio, bound to his wheelchair has to relive his childhood traumas: he is locked up and threatened. (Rebecca Naughten [April 24, 2014]
Before looking at another film of Carlos Saura that he made during the dictatorship, for the sake of chronology we should focus on one of the masterpieces of Spanish cinema: Victor Erice’s El espíritu de la colmena / The Spirit of the Beehive. The main character in the movie is not a teenager like Enrique in The Hunt but is instead a very young child. The story is set in 1940, but Anna is too young to remember the war and the dictator. Furthermore, the silence in her family is oppressive. The parents do not communicate with each other and hardly talk to their children. Sound and shadows bridge the distance between them. After having seen the movie Frankenstein, Anna wants to get to know the monster, ‘el fantasma’. But her sister won’t and cannot keep her promise to tell her about the monster and why he killed the little girl and explains that it is cinema, which means ‘not real’, only tricks. Anna knows better and finds the ghost, a fugitive who has taken shelter in an abandoned barn.
Many of the best sequences of the film are entirely silent, and the shooting style says it all. Each member of the family is introduced separately, in a different location. The house looks empty; the voices, if there are any, sound hollow. Not once in the film’s ninety-nine minutes do the family members share the same frame. Typically, in the one sequence when all four are together, a family breakfast, they are filmed separately in different shots. (Paul Julian Smith. The Spirit of the Beehive. (Sight and Sounds. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/447-the-spirit-of-the-beehive-spanish-lessons)
Erice wanted to show with cinematographic means “how a child looks at history, without knowing really who Franco was, or the motives of the civil conflict. The only thing that remains for a child is that one should not talk about some things.” (Alain Philippon, “Víctor Erice: Le detour par l’enfance,” Cahiers du cinéma 405 (March 1988): 6)
In 1975 Carlos Saura made Cria Cuervos / Raise Ravens,a film that anticipates Franco’s death. The father, a man of the army, dies; leaving three young children as orphans; their mother had died from cancer. The girls live in a quite isolated big house with a walled garden together with an aunt and the grandmother who suffers from aphasia. She did not lose her memory but has lost the ability to speak about it. Ana, the middle daughter puts her grandmother’s wheelchair in front of a board with photos of her past. Ana misses her mother very much; she evokes the memory of her at night and relives moments with her mother – moments of pain and pleasure.
II Silence during and after the Transition. Films from 1975 – 2000
Made during the dictatorship, but forbidden by the censors, Songs for after a war does not tell the story of the war and the post-war period in a conventional way. Canciones para después de una Guerra (1971) totally consists of found footage. Basilio Martín Patino depicts post-war Spain in images from newsreels to vaudeville and advertisements. The use of popular songs that accompany the variety of clips helps to restore collective memory.
During the eighties several books were made into films: Jaime Chavarri made Bicicletas son para el verano / Bikes are for the summer and Juan Marsé’s novel Si te dicen que caí / The Fallen was brought to the screen by Vicente Aranda. Juan Antonio Bardem made a film about Federico García Lorca with the title Death of a poet, which connected the film to Death of a cyclist.
The nineties started with another film by Saura: ¡Ay Carmela! (1990), the story of a theatre troupe that keeps working during the war in Republican territory. The group by accident ends up in the Nationalist zone and is taken, prisoner. In this film, universal metaphors such as orphans, amnesia and split families are missing. The film is based on an – allegorical – play by José Sanchis Sinisterra. Julio Medem portrays the war from the perspective of two families fighting each other over three generations in which war, passion, patriotism, enmity, violence, and love play important roles.
With the passage of time, the use of the specific metaphors mentioned before diminishes. The narratives – whether written or filmed – are told in a more realistic style. Jo Labanyi writes that ‘the attention to verisimilitude has the effect of reinforcing the difference of the past from the present, with the result that, at the end of the viewing or reading process, we feel a sense of relief on returning to a present free from such barbarism. The realism thus produces a sense of rupture with the past. (Jo Labanyi. Memory and Modernity in Democratic Spain: The Difficulty of Coming to Terms with the Spanish Civil War, Poetics Today Spring 2007 28(1): 89-116)
III Inconvenient silence 2000 – 2013
Also, the film critics do not appreciate those realistic, historical films as much as the gruesome fairy tales about the Franco years. Films in which the past haunts the living characters gain more praise. Especially in Spain, films with a touch of horror are popular. Recent films in which the haunting motif is dominant are The devil's Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both made by Guillermo del Toro. In The Devil’s Backbone (2001) a group of Republican boys who live in a creepy orphanage experiences the whispering ghost of the murdered Santi. The film begins with the question: ‘What is a ghost? The answer: a tragedy that is deemed to repeat itself. Perhaps a moment of pain. Something which is dead, but yet seems to be alive. An emotion which lasts over time, as an insect caught in barn stone, a blurred photograph …
Labanyi (2007) states that these haunting images and sounds bring the past to the present, while the more realistic representations take the audience to the past. But in both cases the audience have to build the story by identifying similarities and differences, working through the metaphors of points of view, montage, flashbacks, and flash-forwards, lightning and sounds. Furthermore, some viewers may have knowledge of the past while others – the young generation – have not, which makes it difficult to decipher the more complicated metaphorical language.
Films that recreate terrible historical events such as the execution of young women during and after the Civil War, 13 Roses and The sleeping voice / La voz dormida may seem realistic but are not. How could a film director with his crew and cast create the horrible reality of what happened? But a film can represent the events in a more intense, more recognizable way than historical language can.
Maybe that is why 88-year-old Pepita Patiño does not want to watch the film that represents her own past. She was able to tell Dulce Chacon, the author of the book with the same title La voz dormida, everything about her sister’s execution after her baby had been born, about her fiancé being tortured and imprisoned for twenty long years. Nothing was wrong with her recollection. She did not forget. She helped to restore the memory of the Spanish people by telling the story of her life. Because collective memory is a set of narratives resulting from the social interpretation of reality. (Joan Ramon Resina. Disremembering the Dictatorship: The Politics of Memory in the Spanish Transition to Democracy. Rodopi Amsterdam: 22, 23)
A complicated past, such as a civil war and a cruel dictatorship, requires a variety of stories, a variety of films. Some may appear like fairy tales, with others more historical or like docudramas. It is impossible to really know what happened just by viewing one or two films, reading one or two narratives, and deceiving ourselves with the concept of objectivity. Again it is Nietzsche who can inform us about objectivity. How can we understand fully? How can we learn the truth? Not by choosing one perspective and believing it is the proper perspective, understood as ‘contemplation without interest’. ‘There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity’, be. (Sarah Kofman, Nietzsche and Metaphor: 103).
The last reference to the silence of the violent past is a line from El laberinto del fauno / Pan’s Labyrinth. A nationalist captain, who is hunting the maquis – the guerilla fighters who were hiding in the mountains after the war – married the widow of a republican. In giving birth to their child the woman dies. The father, the captain, begs the maquis who are going to kill him to tell his son the time of his death. The woman who holds the baby in her arms answers: he will not even know your name.
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