Richard Prost has made four documentary films on the history of left libertarian movements in Spain. The focus of his work is the period of the Spanish civil war and its importance. The outbreak of revolution in July 1936 transformed economic production, social relations, political life and mentalities and the importance of these events cannot be over-estimated. However, this is the very reason that the revolution has been systematically ignored in mainstream publications, education and communications. The liberating force and the collectivisations of the revolution frightened favoured classes everywhere. One response to it was the non-aggression pact concluded by the Western countries that left Republican Spain open to attacks by the fascist states.
In effect, the capitalist class in Spain lost its authority, power and possessions during the three years of the revolution and civil war. ‘It was a time when the Spanish proletariat took charge of economic production and distribution and, in fact, capitalism disappeared.’ These are the words of Federica Montseny, anarchist minister of Health of the Republican government, that open Richard Prost’s film series, collectively titled Un autre futur (‘Another future’, 1990-97). Each of the four individual films presents a particular aspect of the war and revolution. Je demande la parole (‘I demand to be heard’, 45 min.) explores the origins of the CNT (Confederacion Nationale del Trabajo, the Spanish confederation of anarcho-syndicalist labor unions) and the causes of the social revolution. Sous le signe libertaire (‘Under the libertarian sign’, 52 min.) describes the social revolution of 1936 and then the Civil War. Il n’y a plus de fous (‘There are no more crazies’, 55 min.) discusses the end of the War and the beginning of exile. Contre vents et marées (‘Against winds and tides’, 55 min.) concerns the question of the second world war, the resistance in France, the liberation of Paris and the resistance in Spain up until the end of the 1970s.
Prost has also made a documentary film on the production of films in Spain during the civil war and revolution: Un cinéma sous influence (‘A cinema under influence’, 2001). This groundbreaking film recounts how films were made on both the republican and fascist sides from 1936 to 1941. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the film industry during these years of fundamental importance for Spain and the rest of the world.
Workers in the film industry were unionized in 1930 with the formation of the ‘Union of public amusements’ (SUEP). It was in August 1936 that the SUEP decided to create a ‘Committee of Cinema Economy’ in order to define the goals and decide on the administration of the amusement industry within the revolutionary movement. Early in 1937, SIE Films (‘Union of the amusement industry’) was created, and it was under its label that most of the CNT films appeared. As Prost observes in his documentary: ‘Right from July 1936, the anarchists decided to work within this essential dimension of the culture industry that is the cinema’. The film industry was therefore collectivized by the CNT, and its members produced and directed documentaries, newsreels and fiction films, all of which are anchored in the events of the war and revolution. They made no less than 200 documentaries and eight fiction films.
The fiction films are of special interest. Thanks to Richard Prost and his associates, four of them are today available on DVD. Pedro Puche’s Barrios bajos (‘The lower depths’, 1937, SIE Films, 90 min.) is a melodrama placed in Barcelona’s Barrio Chino. It is the story of a young dockworker hiding a young lawyer accused of committing a crime. He also saves a young girl from prostitution. Valentin R. Gonzales’ Nosotros somos asi (‘This is how we are’, 30 min.), is a musical comedy starring children. It is, in fact, a children’s story in which mainly poor children – singing and performing – band together against the adults in order to save the life of one of the children’s father. Antonio Sau’s Aurora de esperanza (Dawn of hope, 1936, SIE Films, 58 min.) is a social realist drama, taking place in Barcelona in 1935. During the economic crisis the factories are closing and workers are massively laid-off. At the beginning, Juan is the only worker to revolt. But after a stint in prison he organizes a hunger march during which the revolution breaks out. This film clearly prefigures post-war neo-realism. Fernando Mignoni’s Nuestro culpable (‘Our guilty party’, 1937, FRICEP films, 84 min.) was shot in Madrid. It features a burglar with a big heart who is arrested in a banker’s house for a theft he did not commit. It was, in fact, the banker’s mistress who stole the two million missing dollars. Thus begins a satirical comedy about money, justice, the prison system, and bourgeois morality.
A fifth feature film, Carne de fieras (‘Wild meat’, 1936, 60 min.), also now available on DVD, was begun as a private production, scripted and directed by the established filmmaker and anarchist Armand Guerra. Production was halted when, as a response to the military uprising against the Spanish Republic, the revolution broke out on July 19, but the film was later completed under the auspices of the CNT. It is a drama centred on show business performers. Pablo is a boxer who loves his wife, Aurora, but she is cheating on him with a singer. When Pablo learns this he is so depressed he loses a boxing match. Then he meets Marlene, a variety actress who dances nude in a cage with four lions. Marlene is attached to Marck, the lion tamer. When Pablo is attacked, the police arrest Marck, but the real culprit turns out to be someone else.
Christiane Passevant has talked to Richard Prost and Andres Garcia-Aguilera, who was Prost’s assistant director and soundman for Un cinéma sous influence.
Richard Prost (RP): Once the war was over, the fascists did not bother to destroy audiovisual material, probably because they had other priorities and, fortunately, the power of images did not figure to them. The reels were forgotten until the 1970s. There was only a vague listing and a confused awareness of them. The CNT produced 200 films – documentaries and fiction films – and none of this production was touched. This is a bit like the story of Armand Guerra’s film about the Paris Commune, made in 1913. This film was stored in the Cinemathèque and discovered by accident. In Spain, la filmothèque has always existed and, beginning in 1976, professionals began to inventory what is stored there in order to bring the catalogue up to date. The republican films were numerous and so they were the first to be rehabilitated.
FI: Film production was abundant during that period, but on the fascist side it was limited to around 50 films. How do you explain this difference? Does it mean that the Republicans better understood the political importance of images?
Andres Garcia-Aguilera (AG): Definitely. The populism of Primo de Rivera left its mark and the power of images and of propaganda was evident. This accounts for the attention given it by the CNT.
RP: I worked 15 years on this project and what surprises me is how veterans of the Spanish civil war and revolution have forgotten these films. They remember the films but cannot recall any details of them. There seems to have been very little transmission of the reality evoked in the films. Is this because this generation is a literary one, for whom reading was more important than the cinema? I always try to understand why there wasn’t more discussion about or promotion of the films. Even the exiled Spanish anarchists have forgotten about them. And when I explained that I wished to distribute them, even my friends in Madrid didn’t realize their importance. Still, certain details have remained in their minds, such as the image of the hook in Barrios bajos.
FI: Valentin R. Gonzalez’ Nosotros somos asi is quite a special film, in that it stars children.
RP: This is a short film – a musical comedy – that indeed is acted by children. I have looked for information about the making of this film because the acting of the children reveals such conviction that I would be amazed if they hadn’t somehow contributed to the script and the direction. For example, in their demands for more recess, for more bread and chocolate and for less math! In 1985, when I saw the film for the first time, Aimé Marcellan [who co-wrote the script for Un autre futur] told me that the dialogues were in rhyming verse. And in the subtitles we tried to retain their rhythm and this special atmosphere. Nosotros somos asi is a musical comedy inspired by the US cinema of the time. In fact, there were anarchist cinema magazines then, like Mi Revista, and in them there are many articles on Hollywood and on musical comedies. The film has tap dance numbers, flowered sets, and fadeouts. All this is done with a certain moralistic insolence, as a lesson to adults given by the children.
FI: The lesson given is thus facilitated by the acting and spontaneity of the children?
RP: Well, the children’s acting lends grace to the film.
FI: The political awakening of the children is important, but the most astonishing scene is the debate where the topics are the liberation of women, inequality between social classes and the whole question of domination in capitalist society. In this part, the children seem to reveal convictions that must relate to the conditions in which the film was shot.
RP: One of my projects is to make a documentary about the making of this film, but to do it we would have to find the actors. Thanks to a fellow filmmaker, we have perhaps found one of them, but we have to find others.
FI: Where exactly were these films made between 1936 and 1937?
RP: In Barcelona for the most part, because of the situation. Nuestro culpable and Carne de fieras were shot in Madrid. In August 1936, a general meeting of the entertainers’ union [SUEP] declared the collectivization of the cinema industry. Collectivization concerned production, but also distribution and diffusion. The libertarians were quite sensitive to all this, as they understood the importance of the industry. The CNT was all-powerful in Barcelona and they requisitioned the two largest studios in the city… along with the corresponding laboratories.
AG: Another interesting thing is the accent of the characters in the films. They represent all regions in Spain.
FI: The production of Nosotros somos asi began before July 19, 1936. Were the barricade scenes constructed and directed, or were they real?
RP: Out of the five scenes shown in the film, two were taken from a documentary and the other three were reconstructed, most notably the very nice but not very believable scene featuring the woman with long hair. These scenes are fiction.
FI: How did the public react to the films?
RP: We found very little about Nosotros somos asi in the press of the period. The film was shown before a feature film, and the critical reviews were almost always focused on Aurora de esperanza and Barrios bajos. Nuestro culpable is one of the last films produced and undoubtedly did not benefit from widespread diffusion.
RP: It’s a social drama that is different from the other films. It is serious in its form and its dialogues, and classic in its direction. The film is close to the Soviet-style cinema. In the second part, there are lots of scenes filmed in low-angle shots that add to the dramatic atmosphere of the hunger march. It’s less a film in the style of Jean Renoir or René Clair than a political film. There is no ambiguity here. The starting point is an individual who, thrown out of work, rediscovers his lucidity and his courage in and thanks to a group. This is the classic activist schema. We have here a film that is solidly within a tradition of social struggle. Certain parts are interesting from a critical point of view. For example, when the family returns from vacation to their home. The wife puts on her apron and gets busy in the kitchen while the man, a future activist of the CNT, sits down and begins reading a book. This is the cliché of the time and the director decided to show a reality rather than an ideal couple where there was no sexism. He was not showing a hero, but rather an ordinary man. He is a worker who, like so many others, didn’t understand what was happening once he was fired from his job. In his family life, he simply took up the role society traced out for him. The message of the script is that anyone can become conscious, rebel and participate in the collective struggle.
FI: The path taken by this man towards political consciousness is shown well. At the beginning, he’s a rather docile worker who only wants to work. Then the various humiliations lead him to see the society as unjust, and the result is revolt and the hunger march. The poor cease begging and begin to fight back. Is this, then, the simple result of economic necessity?
RP: Yes. In fact we could ask the same question in relation to all these films. In 1936, the entertainer’s union [had declared the cinema] collectivized, so why weren’t there even more really revolutionary scripts? Why, in Aurora de esperanza, isn’t the main character already a member of the CNT? Why wasn’t a politically committed hero the star of the film? Why not an exemplary, politicized couple? It is clear that the appeal was being made to all those who were liable to join the CNT. The film had to be pitched to the general public.
FI: The film recalls those of Ken Loach about the unemployed.
RP: True. Moreover, the film ends with a big march of unemployed people that recalls the European marches to Amsterdam [in 1997]. With Aurora de esperanza we are in the middle of a current situation in which the major elements are the right to lodging and the right to have meaningful work.
FI: What about Juan’s anarchistic reaction in refusing to pay for a restaurant meal?
RP: One of the most interesting supporting roles is also in this scene, that of the jaunty policeman who is sympathetic to Juan’s miserable situation. He arrests Juan but, once outside the restaurant, lets him go, only telling him not to return to the neighbourhood. Nothing is black or white in this film.
FI: Fernando Mignoni’s Nuestro culpable is a very different film, one that develops a cutting, subversive kind of humour. The film reminds me of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), which may underscore the link between Spanish cinema and that of the United States.
RP: It seems that this film is the only one made by Fernando Mignoni, who was a set-designer before 1936. Mignoni was without doubt someone artistically free with a script ready to go and who was able to take advantage of the changed circumstances. The tone of this film and the dialogues are incredibly insolent. The hero of the film is a combination of Arsène Lupin and Durruti. He is a burglar who steals from a banker in order to give a wedding present to some friends. Thus, the film begins with a kind of revolutionary morality. But in the act of stealing he meets the banker’s mistress who opportunistically seizes the occasion to steal a suitcase containing two million dollars. The burglar is then accused of the theft. The film then becomes an indictment of bourgeois hypocrisy and corruption, and then of an unjust system of justice. It is a satire of a society that is unjust on every level and, it must be said, the dialogues between El Randa, the burglar, and the banker are extraordinary. At one point, El Randa declares to the Banker: ‘I stole two million dollars!’ and asks rhetorically: ‘Do you know what that means?’ It is left to the viewer to decide who is the biggest thief. All the dialogue in the film is like this.
FI: His life in prison is quite idyllic in the film. Of course he knows where the money is, and to make him talk he is given favoured treatment. In prison, the burglar becomes a famous VIP. Over the gate of the prison it is proclaimed: ‘Hate the crime and pity the criminal’. Is this also part of the satire?
RP: Every detail is thought-out. The wordplay is intricate and the sentences often have double meanings. Nuestro culpable recalls films of the times, such as Julien Duvivier’s La belle équipe (1936) and René Clair’s Quatorze juillet (1933). Even the title, ‘Our guilty party’, is significant. Once the guilty party is designated, the system of justice will not change the judgement. The last part of the film is, in effect, a scathing critique of the justice system. When the real guilty party decides to give back the loot she is told by the judge that the crime is already solved. Since the guilty person is already in prison there is no reason to upset everything with a new confession. The judge is corrupt, taking orders from the banker and the authorities.
FI: At the time, the Minister of Justice was an anarchist.
RP: Yes. When the film was being shot Garcia Oliver, member of the CNT, was Minister of Justice. Mignoni doesn’t seem to have felt inhibited in this satirical and surrealistic depiction of the justice system. The criticism is unrelenting and, in fact, his insolence was not opposed. Unfortunately, the film was not well distributed. It was finished too late, and we haven’t found any article mentioning how the public reacted to the film. We have found articles about Barrios bajos and Aurora de esperanza and the reception was quite varied. Some are opposed to how the subjects were treated. The libertarian movement was diverse as far as peoples’ tastes were concerned. Some of the authors called for more rigour. After all, the revolution was taking place within the context of the war. Today these films interest people because of the situation in which they were made, but also for their cinematographic qualities.
FI: Is Pedro Puche’s Barrios bajos the Spanish version of Renoir’s film, Les bas fonds (1936)?
RP: Yes. Like Renoir’s film it is based on Gorki’s novel. The film is certainly inspired by both Renoir and Pagnol. In fact, the main character looks like Raimu. This is a melodrama. The film was even criticized because it made people cry.
FI: Were the films of the CNT made in 1936 or before with the idea of changing people’s perspectives and behaviour?
RP: The production of the CNT films did not begin before the revolution of July 19, 1936. Many activists of the CNT were technicians or artists in the film industry, and just happened to be members of the union. It was natural that, once the industry was collectivized with respect to the means of production, the movie houses and so forth, that the workers should take over film production including script writing and the actual shooting of the films.
FI: What is the exact chronology of the production and distribution of the five films made by the CNT that we have discussed; Nosotros somos asi, Aurora de esperanza, Nuestro culpable, Barrios bajos and Carne de fieras?
RP: We don’t know exactly. We do know that Aurora de esperanza was the first shot. Nosotros somos asi was shot in 1936 as a short film to precede a feature film. The last to be made were Barrios bajos and Nuestro culpable, which were done in Madrid. Carne de fieras is different from the others in that it wasn’t really a CNT film. Begun before July 19, 1936 by a private producer, the filming was stopped when the revolution broke out. The director, Armand Guerra, who was an anarchist and member of the CNT, wanted to go to the front lines to film the war. Guerra was a well-known filmmaker who, in Paris in 1913, shot a film on the Paris Commune. Well, the union asked him to finish Carne de fieras so as to fulfil the contracts signed with the technicians and actors so that they could then go to the front. The film was then finished, but the rushes remained unedited throughout the whole war. Then the containers disappeared, only to be found by the Saragossa Film Institute in 1992.
FI: What condition were they in?
RP: Very good actually. The 35 millimetre images had aged a bit and needed to be restored, but the film was in good condition. It wasn’t edited by Armand Guerra but rather by Ferran Alberich in 1992. Alberich is a filmmaker who has restored many films for the Spanish filmothèque.
FI: Why was production stopped in summer 1937?
RP: As my friend, the filmmaker Antonio Artero, explains in my film Un cinema sous influence, the events of May, 1937 ended the CNT’s production of films: ‘This the moment when the propaganda facilities of the Spanish Communist Party and related parties took over communications’. After May 1937, collectivization was stopped. The Communists intervened with force to militarize the popular militias and to put an end to all sorts of collectives, including those in the cinema industry. From this time, films in progress were finished, but fiction films were no longer made and this was the brutal end of the imaginative, libertarian spirit of Spanish cinema. Only propagandistic documentaries were then produced.
FI: Where did they find the film for those propaganda documentaries?
RP: The CNT had collectivized the laboratories, but we must assume that there existed a sufficient stock of chemicals at the time of the revolution and that it was still possible to obtain them.
FI: In May 1937, the creation and production of fiction films stopped. In 1939, in spite of Franco’s seizure of power and the retirada (massive exile of the Republicans), the films were preserved in the cinemathèques. Where exactly?
RP: Mainly in Barcelona and Madrid. Some copies got into France. They went from Spain in diplomatic pouches after 1976. Some shipments were affected from Madrid by the CNT in exile. This is what facilitated recognition of the copyrights of the CNT on all the films they produced.
FI: In 1939, what became of the technicians, the directors and the actors who worked on and in the fiction films made by the CNT? Did they become refugees? Were they imprisoned?
RP: Armand Guerra, like many active anarchists, crossed the border in 1939. Unfortunately, he died several months later of a brain tumour in France where he took refuge with his family. Mignoni went back to his profession as set-designer. Some of the actors continued to work in films under Franco’s regime, including some of those who acted in Carne de fieras. Although, of course, since this film was never edited and projected, it did not exist so they were not compromised. It should be said that some of these actors were just doing their job: they were not necessarily members of the CNT or otherwise politicized. In making Un cinema sous influence, we classified the names of actors and their activities and found that some acted for both sides, in both the films of the CNT and then in films made under Franco’s regime during the 1940s.
AG: Some technicians who worked on anarchist productions also worked under Franco’s regime.
FI: What about Mignoni, who worked on one of the most insolent of the libertarian films, was he bothered?
RP: No. But it is an open question whether or not the authorities knew about the films. I have met people who saw the films, but did the authorities take the time to see the films after the war? I don’t think they did. No investigation was made of who did what, and no analysis done of the films. This is certainly why Mignoni was able to go back to his work as set designer without being bothered. The cinema is an artisans’ work, and if you are good at it people in the profession will call on you. The number of technicians and artists in the industry being limited at the time, especially in that some of them were in exile, the demand was strong.
RP: There must have been, but not necessarily for professional reasons. It was without doubt the case for people who had been in the union. These went into exile, and some were imprisoned and even shot. But I can’t say that technicians and artists were tracked down in 1939.
AG: There was the inverse case of the actress who played the wife of the lead character in Carne de fieras, and who was shot by the Republicans because she was suspected of being a fascist spy.
FI: So the libertarian films were not subjected to retroactive censorship or destruction after the fascists came to power?
RP: The censorship came from loss of memory and, for the filmgoers, the fact that it was impossible to see the films. So it was a censorship of forgetfulness, by neglect, more than one of destruction. On the other hand, Rojo y negro (‘Red and Black’), a falangist film that I used in Cinéma sous influence, was destroyed three days after its release because it didn’t please Franco’s regime.[i] And the destruction was total, except that by chance we found a copy in 1996. Sometimes Franco’s regime showed a real desire to destroy everything, negatives and copies. But the CNT films were simply stocked on the interminable shelves of the national film institute in an administrative and bureaucratic way.
FI: Other than for purposes of historical witness, what is the interest in showing the CNT films today?
RP: I addressed this question in my film Un autre futur. The interest is multiple. First it is to give more legitimacy to Spain in relation to European cinema as a whole. It is important to see how Spanish filmmakers of the time were the equals of those in other European countries. In spite of the difficulties present, Spanish cinema was of a great quality. There are no masterpieces, but there are sequences in these films that are aesthetically remarkable. These are films made during wartime conditions and the lack of means is sometimes clear in them. Specifically, their endings are sometimes strange, a bit rushed. If the conditions had been different, the films would have certainly been better. In spite of everything, there are beautiful elements that lend legitimacy to Spanish filmmakers in relation to their counterparts in other countries. In addition, it is interesting to show the place of these CNT films within the context of the anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist movements. The films are eccentric in relation to these movements. Can we imagine them being made by other revolutionary activist formations? These are films that enable us to see the CNT from a different angle.
AG: Many CNT members don’t like these fiction films because they are not explicitly political, and not activist enough for them. Especially, the spirit of them was too libertarian, and with moralistic messages. For example, they thought Nosotros somos asi, the musical comedy played by children, was useless and provocative in the wartime context.
RP: The critics were unsympathetic. Nuestro culpable was [deemed] shocking. Barrios bajos was also attacked. But this is why I invoke diversity. Among the exiled anarchists there are multiple forms of thought and taste. Some were partial to rigour; they are ascetic and don’t like these films. The interesting thing is that the CNT brought together people with different ways of thinking. This was a mass movement where people thought differently. For this reason the example of the CNT in Spain in 1936 is tremendous: it was a movement of two million individuals, together, certainly with different visions, but also with basic principles in common. So they had different aesthetic tastes in cinema, so what?
FI: These fiction films show the revolution in its diversity, and the approaches are different.
RP: You can see how the revolution was filmed in the documentaries, in Bajo el signo libertario, Aguiluchos, and La silla vacia [three filmed reports on the Durruti column] among others. But the objectives of the fiction films were different. Here the European and American influences are present. To entertain is important, even if the directors inject libertarian and anti-capitalist dialogue and situations into the films. But none of these films involved filming the revolution.
FI: What is the importance of these films for the young generation in Spain?
AG: For me, the fiction films of the CNT are an especially interesting and important discovery from a political and ideological point of view. They are a cultural and artistic product of a workers’ federation, of a union, that is not only political. They go beyond propaganda. At the time, the anarchists and the CNT thought it was possible to make libertarian films with artists and technical workers and to express themselves in dignified conditions, and to do it freely without any rigid political guidelines. This is the most interesting aspect of these films. Everyone had freedom of expression, in the comedies as well as in the melodramas.
FI: Do you think these films can still have an influence today, or are they seen simply as historical documents?
AG: These films are not known in Spain. A few years ago, a commemoration of the Second Spanish Republic was held at the film institute in Valencia where a series of anarchist films was shown. I spoke with filmgoers about all this and they, like me, were very excited about the discovery of these films because, even today, it is difficult to see them or even to learn something about film production of the time. The forty years of Franco’s dictatorship erased the cinematographic production of the war and revolutionary period. To see these films today would be very positive for young generations in order to compare and to follow artistic and political change in Spain.
FI: Is it easier for the present generation, raised at it is on images?
AG: Images are far more present than they were thirty or forty years ago. They are a direct and accessible means of communication for young people and all others. It is the second most important channel of education. Images are absolutely essential.
FI: Have the retrospectives and documentaries of the CNT aroused the same interest?
AG: Documentaries are even more interesting to people because of the ‘real’ character of the images. Documentaries raise more interest, but less curiosity.
FI: Un cinema sous influence speaks of the fiction films and the documentaries of the CNT, but also of film production during Franco’s regime. Is this the logical continuation of your research?
RP: In effect, I have been working on this subject, on the history of the period and its cinema, since the mid-1980s. Thanks to this research I did work for the Ciné Classics channel when I learned they wanted to do a series of 15 to 20 Spanish films – both fiction and documentaries – of the war period. In addition they wanted a documentary about its cinema. So I wrote up the project called Un cinema sous influence. Cinematographically, the period runs from 1936 to 1941-42, ending with Franco’s film Raza.[ii] The documentary places the films in historical context, explains the evolution of the film industry in Spain, the arrival of talkies, the number of films produced, and then what happened in 1936. The film extracts shown in my documentary are largely from productions antedating the Spanish civil war.
FI: In addition to the influence of American films, what were the other influences before the arrival of sound films?
RP: Thanks to the very beautiful film journal Mi Revista, we can see to what extent the Russian cinema – especially Eisenstein – was known to the public, as well as French films – Renoir and René Clair. In fact, René Clair wrote articles for the Spanish press. We find all these influences in the fiction films produced during the war.
FI: Ideologically and visually, the differences between the CNT productions and those of the fascists seem almost to be the stuff of caricatures. Take the representation of women, for example.
RP: I wanted to show a certain reality that is striking when viewing the films. On the fascist side, the films show stereotypical images and characters. Male-female relations almost don’t exist in them. On the Republican side, and especially during the anarchist period of film production, the films are innovative in the same way as European films at the time. They even go beyond French films in their insolence and in the way they transgress conventional imagery and are liberated from taboos.
FI: Un cinema sous influence was first shown on Spanish television, and a few months later on French television (in 2001). How did the directors interviewed in the documentary react to the film? To what extent was the work a common effort?
RP: I mainly worked with friends, those close to and interested in my research. So the work was done naturally in a spirit of collaboration. I was also to do the work over several years during which I worked on the development of the Spanish Film Festival in Nantes (France). Antonio Artero – a filmmaker originally from Saragossa – who knows the anarchist cinema very well, and Ferran Alberich, with whom I worked at the Nantes festival and who has restored many films for the Film Institute, are the two directors most extensively interviewed. Alberich has recently finished a marvellous restoration of Bunuel’s Chien Andalou. Another director interviewed in the documentary is Carlos Saura. Saura’s vision is interesting for two reasons. First, he didn’t know the films of the period. Second, he comes from a family whose ideas were divided about the war and revolution. In his youth he lived with his Republican parents and family in Barcelona and then, at the end of the War, he lived in Huesca with his grandparents. He was very young at the time and didn’t understand what was happening. In Un cinema sous influence he emphasizes how traumatic the situation was for him: ‘Once the war was over, I left Republican Barcelona to live with my grandparents who were on the right and who were terribly Catholic. They went to mass every day. The explanation of the war they gave me was upsetting. The bad people became the good people. The aesthetic of the war was very dangerous, and we must distinguish between fiction films about the memory of the war and those that were part of the war’. This, then, is an interesting perspective coming from a generation of Spaniards who experienced the war as members of divided families. And this is the theme of my film: the confrontation of the two camps. The cinema is divided, as was the society.
AG: This was not the case of my working-class family. Their social origins were clear: both sides of the family were Republicans. My maternal grandfather joined the resistance very young and my paternal grandfather was a captain in the regular Republican army. However, among the young volunteers in the militias who were at the front and did not go into exile many joined Franco’s army after 1939. This was a very hard choice for my maternal grandfather. After three years of fighting in the civil war, he left for three more years as a soldier in Africa. Because he stayed in his village, where everyone knew him, he couldn’t escape joining the army. Leaving the country would not have been easy either, because there would have been reprisals against the family. Many stayed in Spain for this reason. But in my case there was no division within the family.
FI: How did the filmmakers participating in the documentary discover the CNT films?
RP: Ferran Alberich is certainly one of the people who most contributed to the recovery of these films, along with Alfonso del Amo who works at the Madrid Film Institute and who inventoried all the films there and some more elsewhere. For them, a film is never lost. It is always still possible to find it. The restoration work really began after Franco’s death, but only within the limits of the resources of the Film Institute. However, even before this event they had begun to look at the films and to classify them. Then began the restoration work. Ferran Alberich was one of the first to rediscover the films of the civil war period. It’s thanks to him that today I can speak about this falangist director, Manuel Augusto Garcia Vinolas.[iii] I would like to continue all this work by showing a film made in 1947 by Lorenzo Llobet Gracia[iv] on the civil war. Vida en sombras is its title. It is a very strange film – entirely centred on the cinema – about a director born in front of a screen during the first projections of the Lumière brothers. The hero becomes a cameraman during the Spanish civil war. The film did not have much success, in spite of being a masterpiece. The films produced by anarchists and those produced by nationalists are undeniably important in the history and the evolution of Spanish culture and political life. They are inevitably ignored because of fears that the old demons of the civil war will be revived. Here is what Carlos Saura says in Un cinema sous influence: ‘There has been a kind of will, voluntary or not, to forget everything concerning the Spanish war. Perhaps it’s because present existence is going in other directions. They have succeeded in giving people other preoccupations, but the Spanish war is certainly not one of them. I think this is part of the frivolity we are now immersed in. We are in a new society that does not know where it is going. The film on the Spanish war has not yet been made. We have made films on the war, but not the one that we could have made’.
Christiane Passevant is a journalist and film editor who writes on the cinema. In 2004 she published Cinéma Engagé, Cinéma Enragéwith Pascal Dupuy and Larry Portis.
You can see excerpts from Un autre futur and buy the film here.
The CNT films are available here, where you can also see excerpts from them.
[i] Rojo y negro, made by Carlos Arevalo in 1942, is a story of a love affair between an anarchist man and a falangist woman that certainly did not appeal to the censorship bureau. In Prost’s Un cinema sous influence it is said that the composition, editing and lighting of the film ‘recalls the cinema of Ingmar Bergman or Carl Dreyer’.
[ii] Raza (1941) was directed by José Luis Saenz de Heredia. The script is credited to Jaime Andrade, but this is the pseudonym of Francisco Franco. The film covers the whole period from 1898 to 1939 traced through the story of one family. It is a propaganda film purporting to present how a model society emerged from tragic social conflict. Saenz de Heredia, the director, worked with Luis Bunuel before the latter’s exile from Spain. In Un cinema sous influence, Richard Prost says: ‘The film is an awkward transposition of [Franco’s] own life. The narrative relates all Franco’s frustrations and those of the petty bourgeoisie, the class to which the dictator belonged’.
[iii] Manuel Augusto Garcia Vinolas was director of the National Department of Cinematography and a personal friend of Leni Riefenstahl. He planned and oversaw all of the cinematographic propaganda services in Franco’s camp, according to Richard Prost in Un cinema sous influence.
[iv] Lorenzo Llobet Gracia was an amateur filmmaker from Catalonia. Vida en sombras was his only film. It is a reflection about images and their power over the filmmaker and on his or her creativity. Considered largely ahead of its time in terms of its tone, its lighting and its acting, it also contains some clearly anti-Franco scenes.