A recent photograph of Elías Querejeta.

Querejeta in the 1970s.

Luis Cuadrado, before he tragically turned blind.

Real Sociedad in 1955. Querejeta is in the front row, second from the left.

Pablo G. Del Amo, editor of all of Querejeta’s productions until his death in August 2004.

Carlos Saura and his partner and muse Geraldine Chaplin in Cannes, 1968.

Ana Torrent and Geraldine Chaplin in Raise Ravens.

Ana Torrent in Spirit of the Beehive.

Luis de Pablo, Querejeta’s in-house composer, who experimented with electronic sounds, atonality and dissonance.

Carlos Saura and his partner and muse Geraldine Chaplin in Cannes, 1968.

Gracia Querejeta has directed five Querejeta productions.

Promotional still from The Hunt.

The rabbit hunt as an allegory for the Spanish Civil War in The Hunt.


Producing resistance:
Elías Querejeta’s
political landscapes

by Tom Whittaker

To speak of the socialist producer, Elías Querejeta (Hernani, 1934), is to speak of the history of modern Spanish film. From the early 1960s to the present day, he has overseen the production of 59 feature-length films. Many of these have been among the most important in the history of Spanish cinema. El espíritu de la colmena/ Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973), Cría cuervos/ Raise Ravens (Carlos Saura, 1975) and Barrio (Fernando León, 1988), for instance, have earned critical acclaim with domestic critics and film festivals alike, while catapulting their respective directors to international fame.

Although Querejeta has collaborated with numerous directors, his productions are all clearly unified by their political commitment. Over the years, his films have consistently held up a mirror in which Spain has seen the true conditions of its existence. As such, they have provided a crucial means of resistance within Spanish culture to the hegemonic structures of politics and capitalism. During the early stages of his career, however, his engagement with contemporary issues was deeply problematic for the Franco regime (1939-1975). Stifled by official censorship, the Spanish film industry was predominantly characterized by a more escapist, genre-based cinema. Within this context, a socially committed national cinema largely struggled to find its own voice. Nevertheless, as I will show, a good number of Querejeta’s 1960s and 1970s productions managed to break the silence. In developing a highly cryptic and allegorical visual style, Querejeta managed to produce politically subversive films which often evaded Franco’s censors. Franco’s death would eventually signal a change in direction for the producer: as Spain eventually became a democracy, so Querejeta was able to back more openly social realist films.

Both during and after Franco, however, the Spanish landscape and cityscape have occupied a central position in Querejeta’s filmmaking: throughout his long career, it emerges as a mechanism that unifies much of his vast body of work. As I will show, the representation of Spanish geography in Querejeta’s productions often serves as a site of political contestation; it emerges as a terrain across which the struggle between resistance and hegemony is played out. This article will therefore present an overview of Querejeta’s work from 1960s to the present day through exploring the relationship between landscape and political resistance in his films. In so doing, this article will address two areas of importance in film scholarship: first, it will respond to the conspicuous lack of scholarship on the role of the producer in political filmmaking, and filmmaking in general; and second, it will contribute towards the growing importance which has been attributed to space and place in Film Studies in recent years.

As a producer, Querejeta is as unique as he is prolific. Unlike the majority of producers, his role stretches far beyond the usual industrial concerns such as fundraising, distribution and coordination. More a creator than a producer, he most regularly has a hand in every artistic aspect of the filmmaking process. Inevitably, this has thrown into question the authorship of his productions. Hernández Les, for instance, maintains that his official title as producer is often misleading (1988: 39), while Marsha Kinder writes that he is often considered an auteur in his own right (1993: 474). Indeed, the question, “Who is the author?” is the promotional tagline of El productor/ The Producer (Fernando Méndez Leite, 2006), a recent Spanish documentary film which celebrates Querejeta’s life and work.

Querejeta’s creative intervention is most evidently felt in the scriptwriting stages of the film, where he has co-written no fewer than 23 of his productions. In certain cases where he is not credited as co-writer, Querejeta has offered financial backing to scripts which are presented in rough or skeleton form, thereby leaving significant room for modification during shooting.[1] [open endnotes in new window] But while his “hands on” approach has contributed towards consistently high production values, it has also often moulded and compromised the vision of the director. Jaime Chávarri, for instance, who directed El desencanto/The Disenchantment (1976), has spoken to this effect. When working with Querejeta, it is very difficult for a director not to succumb unconsciously to his way of seeing (Baza, 2000: 56).

It is not surprising, therefore, that Querejeta’s interventionist production method has sparked collisions of interest with certain directors. After Querejeta cut ten minutes of The Scarlet Letter (1973), a Spanish-German production directed by Wim Wenders, the latter declared that he would much rather work with a fascist who left his negatives alone (Angulo, 1996: 36). But while this is perhaps not that surprising—producers, ever intent on saving money, are renowned for wanting to shorten the length of their productions—Querejeta has also been known to demand precisely the opposite. The making of Carlos Saura’s film Elisa, vida mía/Elisa, My Life (1977) was a case in point: the producer wanted to keep the final cut at a length ten minutes longer than the director himself wished (Cueto, 2003: 98).

Arguably, the perceived visibility of Querejeta’s creative influence has been carefully managed throughout his career. His name provides films with a certain “seal of quality” which has been nurtured by his enduring presence at international film festivals and the countless homages and seasons devoted to his work. As well as anticipating a level of critical expectation, the producer’s name also serves as a commercial endorsement that unifies a large, sometimes irregular, body of work. This was especially borne out by the video release of his entire back catalogue, Filmografía de Elías Querejeta (Coleccionista de cine, 1987), which saw the resurrection of obscure flops such as Next Autumn (Antxon Eceiza, 1963) and Fierce! (Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, 1984).

In centring Querejeta’s name as an overarching source of meaning, the marketing of these monographs promoted the producer as an auteur in his own right. In so doing, this approach resonates with the auteurist tradition of criticism. As Andrew Sarris has written, there is always something worthwhile to be found in the worst of an auteur’s films (1968: 17). Nevertheless, the distribution and exhibition of his films, as well as the publicity which has surrounded them, have served to showcase Querejeta as a creative producer, as opposed to the producer as the faceless money man. He is a self-professed “man of cinema, rather than a man of business” (Del Corral, 1973: n.p.). Or as the Spanish newspaper, El País, has put it more recently, he is the consummate “producer without a cigar” (García, 2006).

But a fully-fledged auteurist approach towards his productions, of course, has considerable limitations. Querejeta’s creative presence has been inseparable from his regular team of film professionals. As the producer himself has commented, his films are constructed by a “multiple vision” (Heredero, 1987: 7). Often referred to as “la factoría Querejeta,” his crew has over the years included some of the very best technicians of the Spanish film industry: Luis Cuadrado, Teo Escamilla, Alfredo Mayo and José Luis Alcaine as directors of photography; Pablo G. Del Amo as editor; Luis de Pablo as composer; and Maiki Marín, to whom the producer was married, as costume designer.

From his earliest productions, Querejeta actively encouraged his collaborative team to break away from the visual language which had been largely employed in Spanish popular cinema. The industry’s genre-based box office hits—namely comedies, melodramas, child-based musicals, epics—were predominantly made in the continuity style, which was in the words of Bordwell and Thompson, the “dominant aesthetic system of classical Hollywood” (1998: 4). In Spain, because of its murky associations with National Catholic values, the continuity style was viewed with suspicion by Elías Querejeta, who on several occasions has attacked Hollywood filmmaking for its allegedly duplicitous nature (Hernández Les, 1986: 30). For instance, Cuadrado’s cinematography sought to react against the aesthetically conservative style of Spanish cinema of the day, which he later referred to as “grey, like society in those days” (Barroso, 1989: 229). Before collaborating with Querejeta, Pablo G. Del Amo had spent four years in prison for his affiliation with the Communist Party. Inside, he learnt the basics of editing from reading the works of Soviet film theorists, Lev Kuleshov and Pudovkin, which had been smuggled into Spain from Toulouse (Hidalgo, 1987: 50). Often elliptical or associative, Del Amo’s richly expressive style of editing calls attention to itself and, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, was frequently inflected with ideological meaning. The prominent Spanish avant-garde composer, Luis de Pablo, began his musical career composing the scores for fifteen of Querejeta’s productions. He has commented that he was allowed absolute freedom in the films, on the condition that his music was geared towards the experimental (Anon, 1984: 139).

Together, these collaborators have brought to bear a politicization of form: aesthetic and ethical meaning are inextricably linked in Querejeta’s productions. As the producer has commented, the social message of his films always arises from the form of his films, rather than the other way around (Velasco, 1993: 48). It is not surprising, therefore, that in spite of the different directors he has worked with, “la factoría Querejeta” has yielded a distinctive visual style. This is chiefly because the team have always adhered to a consistent, if austere, method of production, which has in part arisen from the tight budgets at their disposal. This method generally can be characterized by the use of location shooting, natural lighting and a preference for unobtrusive long- and medium-shots held in deep focus. This style of filming, along with a relatively slow pace of cutting, serves to respect the spatial unity of the image, and in so doing, tends to place emphasis on the mise-en-scene of the films. As such, the films have adistinctly “visual” quality in which geographical space, whether rural or urban, is often privileged within the frame.

The realism of the films is further heightened through the use of naturalistic sound design. For instance, the Querejeta production of El Jardín de las delicias/The Garden of Delights (Carlos Saura, 1970) was the very first Spanish film to use synchronous sound, clearly demonstrating the producer’s unswerving commitment to improving the production values of Spanish cinema. In addition, the casting of famous actors against type, and in later films, the casting of unknown or unprofessional actors, and continuity filming (i.e., the filming of sequences in the order they occur in the script) have all contributed towards their distinctive visual style. Viewed as a more or less cohesive body of work, then, authorship in Querejeta’s productions emerges as a plural system, in which producer, director and crew are placed in a democratic relationship to one another.

Spaces of modernity

In the 1950s, the Spanish film industry was in a poor state. Opportunities to view other European filmmakers’ works were thin on the ground, and predominantly limited to local, small-scale cine-clubs. In 1953, Querejeta swiftly rose to prominence as a professional footballer in the Basque team Real Sociedad. As the decade wore on, however, his passion for cinema far overtook that of football, and along with Antxón Eceiza, a fellow student and friend, he organized his own cine-clubs in San Sebastián and Cantabria, providing local audiences with the rare opportunity to view the work of heavyweight European auteurs such as Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer—two directors that Querejeta says have since influenced his vision of cinema (Angulo, 1996: 69).

A few years later, the pair moved from their native Basque country to Madrid, where they would both pursue careers in film.[2] There, they would together co-direct and produce the short film, A través de San Sebastián/ By Way of San Sebastián (1960), a documentary which observes everyday scenes in this Basque city, from people sunbathing on the beach to men eating tapas in a local bar. Together the two created an idiosyncratic visual language, which drew eclectically on the styles of the French New Wave and Soviet montage. In its use of the hand-held camera, freeze-frame images and discontinuous editing techniques, the film explores the space of the Basque city in a highly poetic way. Somewhat inevitably, Franco’s censors, unaccustomed as they were to art cinema, complained of the film’s “cinematographic stupidity” and “avant-garde pretensions” (Hernández Les, 1986: 160).

Two years later, Querejeta and Eceiza together directed another short film, A través del fútbol/ By Way of Football (1962), which attempted to recount the nation’s polemical recent history through the development of Spanish football. A thinly veiled critique of Franco’s regime, the film was mutilated by the censors: originally lasting eleven minutes, it was cut to just seven.[3] Although the producer has since dismissed these two short films as “naïve” (Hernández Les, 1986: 56), they arguably provided a blueprint for his productions to come. If the first shows how the adoption of a modern film language gives rise to a new representation of Spanish geography, the second anticipates the cryptic, allegorical mode of storytelling that would characterize many of his films during the Franco years. Most crucially, By Way of San Sebastian brought together for the first time three of the members of the “la factoría Querejeta”: Luis Cuadrado, Pablo G. del Amo and Luis de Pablo.

While these two short films were being made, dramatic social and geographical changes were sweeping across Spain. Slow, inward-looking and predominantly agrarian, Spain was still classified as a developing country by the UN in the 1950s. By the end of the decade, however, this was all set to change. In 1959, the Spanish economy was finally opened up to foreign investment, thereby bringing it into line with its European neighbours. This would pave the way for fourteen years of spectacular economic growth, which would become known as the “miracle years.”[4] The process of modernization led to a massive exodus from the country to the city, where the majority of the new jobs in industrial and service sectors had been created.[5] While the cities saw the arrival of millions of migrants, the Mediterranean coast also swelled with unskilled workers, taking advantage of its burgeoning tourist industry. However, European-style modernization failed to bring with it considerable social change. Despite its success, the economic miracle sat awkwardly with the stagnant, repressive ideology of the Francoist regime.

This, however, was not the message that Spain wanted to convey to the rest of Europe. Intent on shaking off the nation’s image abroad as the quaint backwater of Europe, Manuel Fraga, the Minister of Information and Tourism, identified cinema as a means by which a new, modern Spain could be projected (Triana-Toribio, 2003: 72). As a result, from 1962 to 1967, films deemed artistically ambitious were heavily subsidized by the government and showcased at international film festivals. Taking their cue from other international young cinemas (Nouvelle Vague, British New Wave, Cine novo), these subsidized films would be designated as the Nuevo Cine Español (NCE). Faulkner has pointed out the inherent contradiction of this system of government subsidies: while on the one hand, the NCE directors were opposed to the regime, on the other, they were complicit in it by taking government subsidies (2006: 14-15).

Querejeta’s production company, Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinemtográficas, arose in 1963 precisely because of these reforms.[6] His first five productions all received government subsidies: El próximo otoño/ Next Autumn (1963), De Cuerpo presente/ Present in Body and El último encuentro/ The final meeting (1966), were all directed by Eceiza, while La caza/The Hunt (1965) and Si volvemos vernos/ If We Meet Again (1967) were directed by Carlos Saura and Francisco Regueiro respectively. The first film, Next Autumn, clearly broke with the style of filmmaking that had been dominant in Spain. With its loose-knit plot, jazz score and thematic emphasis on alienated youth, it contained several of the hallmarks of modern European film. Its innovative visual style, however, stood in stark contrast against the country that the film depicted. Shot on location in Andalusia, the film registers the upheavals of a sleepy coastal village awakening to international tourism. It centers on a holiday romance between two teenagers: Juan (Manuel Manzaneque), a poor, sexually repressed Spanish fisherman, and Monique (played by a French actress, Sonia Bruno), a cosmopolitan French tourist. The presence of Monique throws into relief the superficial nature of Spanish modernization. This is emphasized through the frequent appearance of Monique with her camera. As she is frequently taking photographs of the village, her perspective invites the viewer to share her European way of seeing. Through both her external gaze and the film’s modern film language, the familiar local landscape becomes unfamiliar, and Spanishness is represented as both quaint and exotic.

In De cuerpo presente/ Present in Body (Eceiza, 1965), the duo’s next collaboration, an outsider similarly captures the experience of a country in the midst of transformation. Its madcap, absurdist narrative follows a young man, Nelson (Carlos Larrañaga), who has come to the city to find a girlfriend. One day he awakes to find himself in a coffin, dressed in his pyjamas, ready to be buried alive by gangsters. After escaping from the coffin, he finds that every woman whom he encounters falls madly in love with him. The breakneck pace of editing, along with the dizzying use of whip pans and jump cuts, form an image of the city that is chaotically fragmented. The urban landscape, which is shot with foreboding, high-contrast lighting, is one of unrelenting transformation. Building sites often figure in the external shots, and in one early sequence, the protagonist is chased into one.

La caza/ The Hunt (1965), marks the first of thirteen collaborations with Carlos Saura. Of all the directors that Querejeta has worked with, Saura has perhaps received the most international acclaim, and The Hunt is clearly one of his controversial works. It tells story of three ageing veterans of the Spanish Civil War, who reunite after several years on a rabbit hunt. As the day progresses, feelings of resentment between the men bubble to the surface, irrupting in their sudden and violent deaths. As in the previous two films, space almost becomes a protagonist in The Hunt, taking on an even more overt political function. As D’Lugo has point out, the film is actually shot at a former battle site of the Civil War, and the rabbit hunt alludes to the violence of the war, and by extension, Franco’s military regime (1991: 57).[7] Cuadrado’s high-contrast photography, coupled with the natural light of the intense Spanish sun, works to emphasise the violence and oppression of the landscape (D’Lugo, 1991; Kovács, 1991). This relation between political violence and space would be explored in many of Querejereta’s anti-Francoist films to come.

Go to page 2

To topPrint versionJC 52 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.