Watchin' Stuff: The Secret History of Basque Cinema

Our latest post comes to us from Cinefamily’s first guest blogger: Ben Pearson, who regularly writes for Tiny Mix Tapes!

Sometime in between Citizen Kane and Gallo Wine commercials, Orson Welles directed a travelogue miniseries for British television called Around the World with Orson Welles. The world, evidently, means Europe, since that’s where all the episodes took place, but I still have to give Welles props for his itinerary, which featured two whole episodes’ worth (one-third of the entire series) of one of my own filmic obsessions, the Basque Country.

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Amazing cinematic histories abound in countries across the globe (Japan, France, Italy, Czech Republic, Germany, South Korea, Mexico, Iran, Romania, Russia, the US, Spain, India and Nigeria are but a few that immediately spring to mind), but the Basque Country doesn’t appear on many lists.  And with good reason: it isn’t even a country, but rather a region straddling the Spanish-French border where about 3 million people called Basques (not to be confused with the other Basque) live.

What’s a Basque person, anyway? That’s a question that a lot of people – from the 19th century ethnologists who went around measuring Basque people’s skulls, to Orson Welles, to the Basques themselves – have tried to answer. I have a M.A. from a Basque university (Deustuko Unibertsitatea), and I still really don’t know myself, but I can give you a few facts: a) their popular sports include competitive wood chopping, boulder throwing, and grass cutting; b) they’re the oldest native inhabitants of Western Europe; c) they dig berets; d) their language has a lot of Xs and Ks and Zs in it, and isn’t related to any other language in the world; and, e) they make really good alcoholic cider.

To get back to the point: for a tiny place that’s not even a country, the Basques have some kickass national cinema, even though their industry has really only been around since the ‘70s due to the restrictions Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco put on the region during his regime.

Nevertheless, the Basques have a much longer history of cinephilia, including one of Europe’s most awesomely chill film festivals, the San Sebastian International Film Festival, which started in the 1950s and, more importantly, conveniently sells its tickets at ATMs and is therefore objectively the future. Private film clubs also proliferated in the region during Franco’s dictatorship, serving double duty as secret places to discuss politics (which was illegal) and use the Basque language (which was also illegal). This might explain the political bent of a lot of early Basque films, which dealt – often sympathetically – with the Basque separatist/terrorist organization ETA.

Thankfully, after Franco’s death, the very first Basque provincial government decided to help the region’s cinephilia turn into filmmaking by dedicating a whopping 5% of its total budget(!) towards creating a local film industry.  It was an economically farsighted decision, but without it (and many similar pro-film decisions made by subsequent governments, such as a wacky quota system requiring a certain percentage of Basques in each film in order for the production to secure government funding), the following sampling of my favorite Basque directors and films might not have existed.

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Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive

Basque cinema started off with a bang in 1973, with first-time director Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive.  Released just a few years before Franco’s death, the film predates the Basque government’s film-promotion initiatives, but it’s still widely considered to be the best Spanish film of the ‘70s (Buñuel was working in France, and Almodóvar hadn’t yet started making films.) Erice daringly wraps a subtle critique of Franco’s Spain into the film, which is delivered mostly from the perspective of a young girl named Ana (Ana Torrent, who would grow up to star in the seminal Basque films Vacas and Yoyes, as well as The Other Boleyn Girl and Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis). Thanks in part to the young Torrent’s skills, The Spirit of the Beehive is one of the best portrayals of childhood I can think of, and its languid pace really compliments its deep interest in man’s connection with nature.  Here’s a clip of Ana and her BFF learning about ‘shrooms from her father, a beekeeper.

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Montxo Armendáriz’s Obaba
In addition to having what might possibly be the most Basque name on the planet, Montxo Armendáriz also had the balls to adapt the most acclaimed Basque novel, Bernardo Atxaga’s “Obabakoak” (which translates to, “those who are from Obaba”), for the screen.  The novel’s formally complex, using lots of narrative tricks to link together its loosely-related vignettes that span history and the globe — stressing, I think, the Basque Country’s interconnectedness with the wider world, rather than portraying it in the same “quirky, exotic” way others have (I’m looking at you, Orson.)  Instead of trying to adapt the book literally, Armendáriz reinvents the novel’s framing device, connecting all the film’s stories through the lens of a young film student named Lourdes (Bárbara Lennie, who also appears in the upcoming Almodóvar flick The Skin I Live In) who visits the imaginary rural Basque town of Obaba with her camera for an assignment.  Blending horror, romance, historical drama, magical realism, and a truckload of lizards, Obaba has something for everyone.  It also holds the distinction of being the absolute most difficult film to Google, since your spelling either gets automatically corrected to “Obama”, or else the majority of your results link to pages written by people who didn’t know how to spell “Obama.”  Here’s the film’s Spanish-language trailer, which is all I’ve been able to get my hands on since I saw the film at San Francisco International Film Fest a few years ago.

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The Films of Julio Médem
I’ve watched Julio Médem’s debut 1992 film Vacas more than any other film.  I’ve written a couple papers, and a graduate thesis on it.  In short, you probably shouldn’t ask me about it unless you want to be bored to tears.  I’ll try to be brief.

The film’s hard to describe, as the clip below demonstrates, but it mostly follows three generations of neighboring rival Basque families (and their cows), from the Carlist Wars of 1870 to the beginning of the 1935 Spanish Civil War. Successive generations of the families’ patriarchs are played by the same actors, which can make for a confusing first viewing, but something about the trick – and its emphasis on lineage and purity – makes sense for Médem’s portrayal of an ethnicity that, in modern history, has been plagued by ethnicity-based oppression (under Franco) and, later, ethnic separatist violence (by ETA).  But if there is a moral to the film, it’s deeply buried under Médem’s heavy layers of cinematic acrobatics that tightrope-walk on the border of excess without ever falling into it.

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Since Vacas, Julio Médem has dabbled more in sex than questions of Basque identity, with most of his films being quirky and original romances of one kind or another, including his most popular stateside film, the smoking hot (and only somewhat misleadingly titled) Sex and Lucia (2001) and his most recent work, 2010’s English-language lesbian romance Room in Rome (shameless self-promotion here.)

I much prefer Médem at his most controversial, though, like this totally insane clip from his over-the-top, visually-arresting, anti-patriarchy rant/reincarnation epic Chaotic Ana (2007). Warning: NSFW! Not for the nudity- or scat-phobic.

But even Chaotic Ana’s anti-imperialist variation of a Cleveland steamer didn’t make as many waves as Médem’s heartfelt documentary on the Basque Country and the terrorism that plagues it: 2003’s The Basque Ball: The Skin Against Stone. The film caused a media firestorm in Spain when it was released, as right-wing politicians and pundits accused Médem of sympathizing with the terrorists. As is usually the case with good art, the film was too nuanced and complex to be so easily categorized.  Whatever your opinion, it’s impossible to deny that it’s the most comprehensive documentary ever made about the Basques (the “special edition” version is over seven hours!)  Here’s the final few minutes of Médem’s documentary, featuring a hopeful image of the Basque Country of the future from the aforementioned Bernardo Atxaga.

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