Les États généraux du film documentaire 2016 Doc History: Spain

Doc History: Spain


The Civil War and the Transition

Rather than covering the aesthetic evolution of Spanish documentary through its history as we usually do in the Doc History programme, we have chosen to look at two key moments of Spanish history: the Civil War from 1936-1939 and the transition from Franco’s dictatorship towards a form of democracy in the middle of the seventies. During these two periods of chaos and stymied hopes, cinema played an important role. It was used both to influence the population and/or international community and to mobilise solidarity on one side or the other, but also as a vector of ideas and hope. This short programme does not permit us to account for the social and political complexity of the two periods. Our ambition is necessarily more modest: to approach the way that documentary film forged an image, a memory of this period, and to what extent this image and this memory are powerful and engaging, even if subjective and fallible, and are part of the writing of a history, a multiple history. We have opted to concentrate on films made exclusively during the two periods and not to open the programme to the plethora of documentary productions made afterwards.

The Civil War

Newsreels and documentaries were important propaganda tools for the different parties and factions that made up the divided Spain of the thirties. Well beyond a binary opposition between partisans of the Republic and of Franco, it is necessary to mention the political parties, unions, the army, the state and regional governments, the anarchists, communists, Trotskyists, nationalists, loyalists, Falangists, a heterogeneity that also concerns cinematic production. During the Civil War, numerous foreign filmmakers were engaged in Spain – Joris Ivens, André Malraux, Roman Karmen, Ivor Montague, Paul Strand, Esfir Choub, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and many others. Heart of Spain (Herbert Kline, Geza Karpathi, 1937) among others shows the involvement of foreigners in this war. We will not be screening The Spanish Earth (Joris Ivens and Ernest Hemingway, 1937) one of the most important films on the subject, but also one of the best known and most easily accessible.
Furthermore, a lot of the material shot by camera operators in the field can be found in several films. It is difficult to avoid some redundancy in the programming: many films contain the same type of images (bombings, destruction, combatants, daily life) and the same themes (work, liberty, blood donations...). On both sides, we hear denunciations of the danger represented by the others (fascism for some, communism for the others) that it is hence necessary to fight. On the ideological front, outside of bellicose calls to arms, people aspire either for a society based on traditional values or on new ones. In Defenders of the Faith (Russell Palmer, 1938) for example, political and public order as well as the traditional values of family and church are glorified. In “Republican” films, the advances made towards a new, fairer and freer society are emphasised and a lot more interest is taken in workers. España 1936 (produced by Luís Buñuel) and España 1937, “Republican” films, make a claim to a certain objectivity, but today’s viewer will not be mystified. Yet, they communicate well the political and ideological “programme” of the Republicans for Spain. Russell Palmer’s film, the only one in colour, highlights nationalist values. It is interesting to see these films together to better comprehend their strategies of persuasion.
The second screening is devoted to the end of the Civil War and to the Retirada, the exile of nearly 500,000 Spaniards in 1939. L’Espagne vivra by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Un peuple attend by Jean-Paul Le Chanois (under the name of Jean-Paul Dreyfus) communicate the strong feeling of bitterness caused by the policy of non-intervention adopted by France and Great Britain in particular, whereas on the other side the Germans and Italians were vigorously supporting the fascists. L’Espagne vivra uses many of the same images as Prisoners Prove Intervention in Spain (Ivor Montagu, 1938) to relay the “proof”. The defeat of the Republicans leads to an exodus the size of which is particularly visible in the film by the enlightened amateur Louis Llech, L’Exode d’un peuple. Better than in newsreels or professional documentaries, thanks to greater distance and much longer shots, the film relates the exile and the “welcome” extended to the Spanish by France in concentration camps, also denounced in Un peuple attend.

The Transition

It is generally estimated that the period of “transition” extends from Franco’s death in November 1975 to the adoption of the new constitution at the end of 1978, but we can also consider that it began on 20 December, 1973 with the assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco by the ETA. Carrero Blanco had been appointed President of the government by Franco in June 1973 and was an emblematic figure of the Franco regime.
Under Franco’s reign, cinema was subject to extremely rigid censorship, documentary perhaps even more so than fiction. A film like Caudillo by Basilio Martín Patino (1975) could never have been released. Since his film Canciones para después de una guerra (1971), released only in 1976, Patino had decided to continue working clandestinely. This montage film ironically juxtaposes and associates popular Spanish post-war songs and archive images which rather communicate fear, hunger and death. Caudillo uses a similar method, but Patino was not able of course to use archives from the Spanish state. He therefore resorted to foreign archives to sketch an offbeat portrait of Franco. This film is at the same time a reflection on the representation by the filmed image and on the mystification of history.
After Franco’s death, cinema was freed from a heavy yoke. In 1976 finally Patino’s Canciones... appeared on the screen. Also began a labour of recovering history and memory, painful for many. This work of memory is precisely at the heart of films like Jorge Semprun’s Les Deux Mémoires (1974), Jaime Chávarri’s El desencanto (1976) – a portrait of the family of Leopoldo Panero, Franco’s official poet, showing the disillusionment of Franco’s inheritors – and Jaime Camino’s La vieja memoria (1977). This film was a project conceived at the beginning of the seventies. Camino’s film Las largas vacaciones de 36 (1976) prompted him to return to the idea. In La vieja memoria, Camino assembles the testimony of those who participated in the Civil War, on different sides, but he confronts this past to the present and raises the question of the fallibility of memory. It is perhaps the film which best communicates the complexity of the situation and the factions during the Civil War, while proposing a reflection on the way the present tries to rewrite history.
Resolutely turned toward the future, Pere Portabella’s Informe general sobre algunas cuestiones de interés para una proyección pública takes the transition itself as its subject: how do you go from a dictatorship to a democracy? The film shows in its form and content the chaos and simultaneously the hope reigning through this period. Portabella adopts a very free documentary style, characteristic of his work, and has no hesitation integrating elements of fiction. Portabella himself participated in the writing of the new constitution.

This programme is necessarily incomplete, but perhaps can serve as an incitement to discover other films on these periods of recent Spanish history.

Kees Bakker


As an introduction to this programme, a special screening of Espoir, Sierra de Teruel by André Malraux will take place on Monday, 22 at 10:00 am.


In the presence of Kees Bakker and Esteve Riambau, historian, film critic and director of the Filmoteca de Catalunya.
In partnership with the Archives françaises du film – CNC, the Filmoteca española, the Filmoteca de Catalunya, the Institut Jean Vigo and Ciné-Archives.

With support from the Office Culturel de l’Ambassade d’Espagne à Paris and Acción Cultural Española (AC/E).