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Tracking the Past

Filmfest Dresden’s focus on short films from The Basque Country and Catalonia

notes by Savina Petkova

Tracking the Past

“Cartography of Contemporary Basque Society” and “Parallels” were the names of the two-part selection for this year’s ‘Discourse: Europa’ strand of the Filmfest Dresden, a specially curated political programme that zooms in on places and issues crucial for understanding Europe’s identity today, from the sidelines. While last year’s focus was on Bulgaria, for the 2023 edition, the line-up is split between Basque and Catalan short films, past and present. Watching these curated selections inspires acts of defiance: to rebel, to revolt, to speak up against injustice and the fabricated ideals behind a notion of one-ness, be it Spanish or European. There is no coherent, singular (supra-)national identity to be gleaned from these programmes, but rather a chronically fragmented one, that abounds with desire for change.

The image of a map becomes a metaphor when applied to fluid entities such as nation-states, even against said states’ own judgement. Mapping, or presenting a cartography of, a place implies a desire to fix it, to make it comprehensive, strictly delineated by limits before the paper runs out. A map is two-dimensional and relies on scaling down reality to fit neatly into the rectangular shape, but the third dimension still haunts the picture with its absence: time. Maps seem immutable, being a snapshot of time, but also somehow immune to time’s merciless touch. Yet, this is precisely why we draw new maps to replace the old ones, and in this sequencing, time is made present. If we project a map’s many variations in chronological order, we’d end up with a film.

While the two parts of this programme don’t adhere to a strict chronology, the presence of time is felt throughout. Some shot on film, others being tactile animations, the mere materiality of these encounters has more to do with a certain earthliness of cinema, not its ephemerality. Stamped — and sometimes wounded by — time, these shorts feel heavy on the viewer’s eyelids, challenging their sight but not with harsh, rough imagery, but with that mark of time, the imprint of reality in a fight for independence that has blood all over it, everyone’s. In ‘Estado de Excepción’ (‘State of Exception’), Iñaki Núñez takes up a frank and blood-curdling approach to the photo-film or photomontage with black and white archival photos. From everyday scenes of work and leisure, the images turn violent: from working the farmland, attending to animals, to protests, imprisoned and tortured men. The shadows outnumber the people and their faces, grainy and cued to the static noise of a projector switching between the frames. One can hear a Basque song in the background, intentionally left unsubtitled, tied town by a string score that amplifies the grief evoked by meeting these (probably now dead) people with one’s eyes.

The film was made in 1977 and uses footage of the way members of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), the far-left separatist organisation to shape a long period of Basque history, were treated and persecuted. We see officers, scenes of abuse, and even dead bodies. Confronting such imagery as an archive always begs the question: who took these photos? What was their initial purpose before they became witnesses to such atrocities? But Núñez does not want to simply show us the not-so-distant past. He interferes not only by arranging the photos in sequence, dividing the film into two parts, and including inspirations from Berthold Brecht’s poem “The Song of a German Mother” mourning her dead son, but also by intervening in the frame. Zooms, pans, and a lingering camera state the authorial presence: we, as the audience, are guided; we are aided in covering the shot’s painful terrain. Knowingly, the filmmaker offers a helping hand to guide us through the most challenging parts, but his empathy is solely with the victims, not with the audience, when the film calls for action and resistance. The past is always with us, in all the battles that we fight.

— ‘Heltzear’ (2021) by Mikel Gurrea

Gonzalo Quincoces, a young filmmaker himself, is visibly fascinated with the 1980s. He set his short ‘La Caída del Vencejo’ (The Fall of the Swift) in Bilbao, 1984 (per the title card). But this film is not about that year’s legendary football rivalry between Bilbao and Barcelona, even if the characters briefly mention it. No, the historical reference is provided in the film’s first shot — a long, steady tracking one showing the backseat of a car and a man looking out his window — with a port in the background that is now closed. Night descends over Bilbao, and Kepa is secretly planning to leave this town, leaving his family, friends, and political unrest. He is secretive, of course, but something in the twitch of his face as he retreats from his friend group that night will give him away. But only to the viewer; no one else will suspect his plans to desert. He only shares his plan with his younger brother, Urko, whom he feels tangible responsibility for. Their brotherhood may not be depicted in the film in much detail, but the fragility behind every touch and word they share suggests a closeness, a bond that cannot be broken so easily. “I’ve met someone,” Kepa says, “We’re leaving on the night bus.” In his hope to avoid the protests against the shipyard’s closure, he neglects the fact that his brother may want to carry on the fight. The film works with finely-tuned emotion and regulated outburst: its grainy, nighttime visuals twinkle as Kepa fills up with rage he is surprised by. Misdirected frustration turns into aggression on a violent night, and the film ends with the back seat of a car passing by the shipyards, in a cyclical return to the beginning.

We’re staying in Biscaya, with the short Imanol Uribe made before he became a well-known and prolific filmmaker, called ‘Ez’. An activist film in the vein of Third Cinema, ‘Ez’ opens with stunning shots of Ría de Guernica, where land and water meet in an estuary to then dispense with the aesthetics of beautification; the pans and zooms over boats, the glowing water; and the sunlight reflected in it, are countered by a protruding construction site. A nuclear powerplant is being built; and a monotonous narrator’s voice relays the cooling mechanisms which use the water to dispense it back but heated up. Intertitles inform us about mishaps and accidents in the US, where the letters are punched onto the screen as if on a typewriter, assertive and threatening. The educational part of this film also stresses the latent contamination and irreversible consequences that accumulate slowly, inviting thematic links with contemporary ecological discourse in Anthropocene times. Even if the film doesn’t include any footage or mention of the ETA, the Lemóniz Nuclear Powerplant in Biscay proved to be a major anti-nuclear issue in the 1970-80s in Spain. Uribe made the film in 1977. Due to the opposition from the Basque anti-nuclear movement and ETA, the powerplant’s construction was stopped six years later with the end of the Spanish nuclear power expansion programme. However, the half-finished remains will forever be part of the landscape, and the turbines will be isolated as nuclear waste. This past never truly passes; it is too heavy just to dissipate.

Reflecting on the nature-man relationship, in 1969, Basque artist Rafael Ruiz Balerdi made the experimental short animation ‘Homenaje a Tarzán’, which he made tracing the frames of Tarzan in black contour onto celluloid. Material doubling and ghostly presence that abstracts and subtracts itself from the background. Collective Hauazkena Taldea’s ‘Ehiza’ (‘Hunting’) begins where Ruiz Balerdi’s film ends with a continuation of style and visuals. The film’s definitive use of black and white lines to shape people and animals — from cattle to giraffes, zebras, and rhinos — frames their interactions as an intermingling of species. Often, the visuals can be disorienting (Where is the line between character and background?), but it is in precisely that uncertainty that ‘Hunting’ becomes a testament to the ever-complex relationship between humans and animals. Without spelling it out, the animation calls for a rethinking of the way we position hierarchies between human and nonhuman species, and its jarring end with its drawings of police violence, capsizing overcrowded boats, and people climbing over the walls that divide them, alert of the dangers inherited from massive inequalities.

— ‘Ehiza’ by Collective Hauazkena Taldea

The last film of ‘Discourse Europa I’ (programmed by San Sebastían’s Yunuen Cuenca Vázquez) was last year’s winner of the Golden Horseman for Best International Short Film, ‘Heltzear’. This alignment is not at all incidental, as the programme’s second part is curated by the filmmaker himself, Mikel Gurrea. The film’s elegant title reveals its conviction and ever-renewing energy. In Basque, the root of the word “heldu” can mean “to hold”, “to grow”, “to arrive”, and “heltzear” is a particular declination of that verb: it conveys a preparatory, near future aspect of that action, i.e., “about to…” The film’s protagonist is Sara, a 15-year-old climber, who narrates throughout and with an affectionate tone to someone who is not there to hear her. She writes a letter, but we hear a speech, a confession of everyday occurrences and deep longing since the dialogue between her and her absent brother is now impossible. The year is 2000, the turn of the new millennium, and the Basque conflict is ongoing. Sara’s climbing routines make up most of the film’s screen time, filmed in affective, handheld close-ups, alternating with long shots to capture her ascent to the top of the exercise wall. She is preparing and training for the most challenging climb so far, which will take her to a cave and have her put all the hard work to the test. Impressive filming techniques here preserve the gentleness within her discipline, and we never fail to notice she is doing it for her brother, even long before we see an old photo of him in climbing gear later in the film. ‘Heltzear’'s take on personal micro-histories is informed by these details — precise, but never obtrusive — just as the scribbled “ETA” sign on the bus window when Sara’s on her way to practise.

In the Catalan part of the programme, the past can be made to look absent, forcefully. Cordelia Alegre’s ‘Mestral’ presents the well-off Soldevila family and its many members as they convene at the beach house owned by the family matriarch, Grandma Nuri, who is now in a nursing home. While everyone else is in a rush to pack things up and sell the house, Júlia, the family’s youngest member, wants to hold on to it for what seems like more than mere sentimental value. ‘Mestral’, too, is a personal story, but it can be easily read as a metaphor for the lost, idealised unity of a Spanish state, one which was maybe never even there. In Júlia’s resistance, there is certainly a drop of naivety, but she still defies the familial conventions by sabotaging their clear-cut intentions to move on, forget, and sell out their past, literally.

At the other end of the class spectrum, Séverine Sajous and Patricia Sánchez Mora’s ‘Mot de Passe: Fajara’ (‘Password: Fajara’) looks at the homeless and homeland-less people in Calais, stuck in limbo between their past and a possible future on the other side of the Channel. Sajous’s background as a visual artist gives the short a crisp sensitivity and a suitable visual form. Shot at night with infrared images, ‘Mot de Passe: Fajara’ dives head first into Europe’s metaphorical waiting room. The filmmaker shot the images herself, in the refugee camps and the Eurotunnel, at night, usually between midnight and 5 AM, between April 2016 and January 2017. We learn to track this by the date and time of filming, kept in the bottom right corner of the screen, which takes on a time-measuring function of its own. Some shots are minutes long, and others, only a few seconds, so the timer is the only means to tell one day apart from the next. With these signifiers in place, the film aligns the viewer with the sense of loss eating away all these suffering people, even when their frankness includes a few jokes to brighten up the mood.

— ‘Mestral’ (2022) by Cordelia Alegre

In addition to its direct, visual use of nighttime footage to conjure shadows and abstract images, the film also makes a case for the arbitrariness of language by calling attention to three words in their newly acquired, local slang meaning. The third one is “fajara”, the Arab word for an explosion, appropriated by the people of the Jungle (the refugee camp sites) to mean a new beginning, to make it on the other side. Neologisms and meaning swaps are intelligent devices and may seem at odds with a film that is so viscerally related to a certain kind of lived reality where refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, and more, are forced to survive in sheds whose walls barely hold together. But in ‘Mot de Passe: Fajara’, languages create worlds and manage to conceal them from danger. Séverine Sajous’s camera follows the journey of at least one person from the road to a truck to the tunnel to the UK but assures no one’s identity is revealed in the process, by mismatching images and sound and by never showing anyone’s face.

In the whole programme, people rarely talk about their past but desire a linear journey to an endpoint that would liberate them from the limbo they are in at present. With this, the latter film performs another kind of mapping in dialogue with the Basque and Catalan films tracing the movements of an otherwise immutable border. This, as another meta-act of defiance, makes me think whether all these fixed maps we’ve inherited in this world all have a secret reality adjacent to them but hidden from the grand narrative?