The History of Spanish Cinema
– Phoebe Farr
What do you know about Spanish cinema? Perhaps Guillermo del Toro, the Latin American director rings a bell, perhaps it doesn’t. Or are Paz Vega or Fernando Rey names you are familiar with? If not then one has to ask, why? Why is it that we have only heard of names such as Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem? Is it purely because these actors have made it to the bright lights of Hollywood and therefore are simply handed to us on a plate? Or is it worse than that? Have we just become too lazy to watch films which we know will contain subtitles and the possibility of viewing an unfamiliar culture is not even an idea we want to contemplate? If this is true then what does this say about the society we live in? We, or should I say the English speaking world, would be in uproar if any other country boycotted our movies simply as a result of the language barrier so why do we do the same to countries who do not speak English as a first language?
Spanish cinema has always struggled to make an impact internationally, yet their film makers have had some of the greatest influence on the industry. Take Luis Buῆuel for example, when he collaborated with Salvador Dali in 1928 they created Un Chien Andalou, a silent surrealist film unlike any other at the time, so radical in fact that Buῆuel carried stones in his pockets for the first showing for fear of being lynched. Yet only eight years later Spanish cinema would see the beginnings of Francisco Franco’s forty-year dictatorship. Franco’s regime was to be the longest in European history which as a result left Spanish cinema unable to develop in the same direction as European and American cinema. As Franco’s power was growing in Spain, Latin American film movements were taking place in countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and Cuba. ‘Third cinema’ was an effort amongst Latin American film makers which denounced neo-colonialism and the capitalist system. The 1970s saw the beginning of liberalisation for Spanish cinema with film movements taking place in both South America and Spain. At last Spanish speaking film makers were free to make their own choices in cinema.
Spanish cinema today
– Heather Coleman
However, Spanish cinema today is still struggling to make itself known globally. Since Spain’s ‘New Cinema’ movement, Spanish cinema has found its calling – the horror genre. Contemporary Spanish cinema is well-known for its use of the more traditional horror codes and conventions, opting for ghosts, creepy children, and dark fantasy worlds in order to create a convincing narrative, rather than simply using blood and gore in order to shock audiences. Some may even say that Spanish cinema demonstrates the genre at its best. The Others (2001) directed by Alejandro Amendabar is noted as being one of the first modern Spanish horrors to succeed overseas. However, the film is an English language film and its actors are English speaking (Nicole Kidman). Furthermore, this seems to be becoming a common aspect within Spanish cinema in order to reach viewers internationally. Other Spanish produced English language films are Agora (2009) also directed by Amendabar and The Oxford Murders (2008) by Alex de la Inglesia.
Just as there are in any country, there are particular directors today who stand out more than others within the Spanish film industry and abroad. Guillermo Del Torro is one of these. He is a Latin American film maker who over the past decade has succeeded in making a substantial impact worldwide with his creative dark fantasies, Pans Labyrinth, The Devils Backbone and his most recent, Mama. Del Torro’s is clever in the way his films can represent different time periods and genres for instance post-civil war, modern political themes, like the recession and genres such as horror and sci-fi (Splice, 2009) . Yet he holds a special authorship within his films that makes them so memorable. As the director is becoming increasingly well-known he is beginning to opt for alternative genres to that of horror and other challenging projects which as a result sees his name within more blockbuster films than ever, The Hobbit (2013) which he produced, Kung- Fu Panda (2011) and Megamind (2010) are a few of his more recent films. However, he still returns to his roots every now and then, as we have seen recently with Mama (2013) and therefore is never too far away from the Spanish and Latin American films which established him to be the great film-maker he is today.
– Lucy Kennerley
It appears as if Spanish film is currently in a limbo land in terms of cinema. With the success of only a handful of Spanish and Latin American actors, directors and producers it is time to see what is being done to finally put Spanish cinema on the global map. One of the greatest influences in Britain at this time is the Spanish and Latin American film festival ¡Viva! which arrived once again in Manchester for its 19th year. The film festival, which takes place during the first three weeks of March, showcases nineteen films per year. The festival started in 1995 and is a non-profit educational charity event. It is currently in a partnership with Instituto Cervantes, a centre also based in Manchester which is funded by the Spanish government in order to promote the culture and language of Spanish speaking countries all over the world. Viva encourages this attitude by showing only films from Spanish speaking countries from a variety of different eras and genres in order to appeal to a wider audience, ranging from horror to comedy with both big blockbusters and short independent films being shown.
Yet, Viva offers much more than just films. The film festival also works with the Universities in Manchester and in doing so offers lessons on Spanish speaking cinema whilst some of the films being shown provide question and answer sessions, giving anyone with an interest in the subject the opportunity to pick the brains of the directors themselves. In addition, 2013 saw the festival hold the UKs first public exhibition by Yoshua Okόn, a Mexican artist, with Cornerhouse showing his video performance of a very peculiar re-enactment of the Guatemalan Civil War. His take on the event saw the war take place outside a supermarket using trolleys to represent tanks and the common brush stick to illustrate a gun. Historical accuracy was clearly not the focal point for Okón, however, his simplistic take on the civil war portrays an alternative culture to the audience. Viva is the only UK film festival dedicated to both Spanish and Latin American film, giving it something unique to offer and making it very popular for both film fanatics and people simply looking to try something new. In order to widen our own appreciation of Latin American and Spanish cinema myself and two other students decided to visit Viva to see what it was all about.
Game of Werewolves
– Lucy Kennerley
As we made our way into the cinema, the rows of empty seats did nothing to quash the excitement we all felt at the prospect of seeing the first of three films at the festival. Personally, I had never attended a film festival before which almost definitely intensified this feeling. The cinema soon started to fill up for the film I was most looking forward to: Game of Werewolves directed by Juan Martinez Moreno. Knowing how the Spanish enjoy their horror, we were all beginning to prepare ourselves to be scared, yet, Game of Werewolves had been described as a ‘comedy horror’ and therefore left us unsure of what to expect from the film.
This uncertainty did not last long as the film had the whole cinema laughing out loud a lot more than they were screaming. There were still some tense moments nonetheless, with things popping out of wardrobes, the stereotypical dark tunnels and werewolves seemingly lurking around every corner. The film was always looking for a gag to make the audience chuckle, and it definitely succeeded. The three main characters when together provide us with lots of laughs – usually via their stupidity, which included frying a finger in herbs to make it appealing to the werewolf, not forgetting the small dog sidekick, who was probably the most intelligent of them all.
The only problem we experienced was the ending, as there were just one too many twists. When what I thought was a good scene to end on faded to black, an involuntary roll of the eyes was triggered by the picture returning for one final twist which I hope was not hastily stuck on there to enable a sequel.
The film is like a Spanish Shaun of the Dead but with werewolves trading places with zombies. The low-budget special effects (of the werewolves in particular) actually make the film stronger and fit the retro style Moreno was going for, showing clear influences from the classic film American Werewolf in London. If you’re a fan of either one of these films then Game of Werewolves is certainly for you.
The World is Ours
– Phoebe Farr
Although we had been pleasantly surprised when watching Mureno’s Game of Wolves we were unsure of what to expect from our second film, The World is Ours (El Mundo es nuestro). The movie was written, directed and produced by Alfonso Sanchez, who also stars as one half of the comedic dim-witted duo Cabesa and Culebra who try to rob a bank in Seville in the hope of using the money to fund their new criminal lives in Brazil. There is a plot twist in which the two thugs from the hood, wearing their market bought gold chains and sport tops are held hostage by Fermin, a distressed construction worker who has been badly affected by Spain’s economic downturn and is willing to go to any lengths in order to be noticed. Even though The World is Ours follows a relatively conventional narrative, it is slow in places and at times is difficult to follow. Tordorov would not be pleased that his narrative theory is not practiced in this film; characters begin as villains but end as heroes and the distressed victims become liberated by their experience instead of saved by a heroic action. It was also evident that The World is Ours had a significantly lower budget than the other films we viewed. The film did not contain that Hollywood gloss but instead opted for a documentary, hand-held camera feel and in some respects was more conventional to what you would think when ‘film festival’ comes to mind. The main downfall for Sanchez’s debut film was the fact that the comedy was obviously directed towards a Spanish audience rather than an international audience and therefore the jokes didn’t hold the same impact. For one Cabesa and Culebra first appear on screen in masked costumes in order to rob the bank. To the Spanish these outfits represent a ‘penitent’, a man of faith and therefore a man of value, however, to others or at least to me the pair looked like they’d forgotten to remove their outfits after a meeting with the KKK. This aside, one thing we gained from the film was a better understanding of Spanish culture, both in its similarities and differences with our own and for this alone I would say that the film is worth watching, even more so if you can speak Spanish.
Violeta Went to Heaven
– Heather Coleman
And lastly, we experienced the award-winning biopic ‘Violeta Went to Heaven’ (Violeta se fue los cielos) directed by Chilean director Andres Wood. The film was one of two main films being shown at Viva and images of ‘Violeta’ where used to advertise the festival. The film, a biography of the famous Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra played by Francisca Gavilan, used the key aspects of the singer’s life such as her eventful childhood, challenging relationships and her journey for self-discovery in order to create the award winning film. Still, within each depiction of Violeta’s life the director demonstrates her love for music, heartfelt poetry and her passion to paint.
Knowing that ‘Violeta Went to Heaven’ was one of the festivals more high profile films our expectations were high which furthermore enhanced our anticipation for the screening. The film had the largest audience compared to the previous two films we had been to see, therefore making us more intrigued about what we were about to watch. ‘Violeta’ differed from the other films we had watched at the festival as we knew that the film would be directed towards the drama genre rather than comedy. However, we found that the style of the film and Woods abstract camera work made the film appear more ‘arty’ and intelligent. It presented itself as a bit confusing at times. Yet all in all, we enjoyed the film and believe it was a successful and interesting depiction of Parra’s life. We thought Gavilan’s performance held the character of Violeta very well, especially through the use of the directors close ups as we were able to experience the protagonists true emotions.
The film has won many awards including the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance film Festival. ‘Violeta went to Heaven’ also won the Fripresci Prize at the Guadalajara Mexican Film Festival in 2012. Gavilan was nominated for her effective performance and won best actress special mention at the Lima Latin American Film festival.
What a student gains from attending a film festival
– Heather Coleman
The film festival as a whole was a great opportunity. As a student it offered an alternative way of learning, a more hands on approach rather than just in a lecture theatre. Though this was not a part of our university course we inherited different skills that that we could use within our studies. For instance the atmosphere when watching the film is far different to a film screening at university as the audience’s reactions in the cinema aided our understanding of certain elements of the films, something you may not receive directly in a class room. Furthermore, we all accounted different feelings before watching the film which as a result we were able to reflect on. In addition, viewing films at an independent cinema like The Cornerhouse gave us a great insight into the importance of the more intimate cinema experience as we were clearly able to acknowledge that there would have been less audience reaction or none at all in an Odeon or larger cinema, as the Cornerhouse attracted more of a film cultures audience. Therefore the venue was a crucial part of how we experienced the film.
And lastly, going to the film festival gave us the opportunity of working as professional journalists. We believe a key part of learning is work experience and more university courses should enable the chance to experience the first hand-working within their chosen career paths. By going to the Viva film festival we felt it enhanced certain skills such as organisation, time-management and the confidence to travel independently. It also increased our understanding of the professional media world as when at the festival you couldn’t just simply watch the film, there where subtitles to concentrate on as well as the audiences reactions and the overall production of the film. Even though it took a bit of getting used to we now all have the ability to multitask when analysing the film. Furthermore, as film students we also improved our research skills and our ability to analyse new films individually which will most definitely help us in the future.
How it’s helped our learning/future career
– Lucy Kennerley
As a result of attending the Viva film festival I have to say that I wish I had gone to one sooner. Not only because I enjoyed it but I feel that as I have studied media for the past four years it has allowed me to apply this knowledge and ultimately provide me with a better understanding of the films I watched. In addition, the fact that for some of the films, the directors are there to answer any questions you may have offers a invaluable insight into what the director intended for the film which also gives an understanding of the process of what a director must do in order to create a film. Such experience is something that is rarely achievable within a lecture. Furthermore, going to a film festival provides valued experience in what it would be like to go into a career in film journalism, knowing that note-taking for one can be the most vital aspect, as without this there may be little to report. It also illustrates to an individual whether or not that particular profession is right for them, after all no one wants to find themselves in a job they hate for the next forty years of their life. So should going to a film festival if you’re a film student be a vital part of your learning? I think so, not only does it get you out of the lectures, it gives you a better understanding as to how the film industry works and if you are thinking about pursuing a job within the industry then it will give you a taster as to what it is really like. I hope to see in the near future that trips are taken to events like ¡Viva! by Universities as it has been a very enjoyable experience for me and one I hope to be doing again.
– Phoebe Farr
Spanish cinema may not be held in the same regard as American, British or even French cinema but one thing for sure is that it’s certainly not dead. The likes of Almodóvar and Del Toro are at last bringing Spanish cinema to the forefront of the film industry and in doing so are allowing audiences all over the world to finally experience it in all its glory. No longer will Spanish-speaking movies be reserved for their own population but instead they are preparing to reveal to the world its sights, sounds, cultures and people. Although it is evident that horror is a favourite for the Spanish and gritty dramas for the Latin Americans, this only reinforces the success Spanish cinema could hold in the future. During our time at the Viva film festival, we were exposed to an array of alternative films and art exhibitions. Not only did these change our perspective on Spanish cinema but also caused us to question the film industry. Referring back to one of the first questions of why more people don’t watch Spanish speaking films, perhaps if we gave it a chance this question would cease to exist and finally cinema, whether from Spain or South America, would find its rightful place internationally. The Viva film festival appears to share this aim and hopefully in the future there will be more people who see the importance of the exposure of world cinema.
Image © Jenny Mugridge