copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

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 a distinctly “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.

Spaces of violence

By the end of 1967, government subsidies were cut, and possibilities for artistic filmmaking in Spain became scarce. Nevertheless, Elías Querejeta continued to produce artistically ambitious films. In subsequent years, the producer’s success was largely due to his tenacious managerial style, which chiefly involved providing a false script for the censors but using another, more politically subversive script for the actual shooting. As his films from the late 1960s onwards were increasingly met with acclaim in international film festivals, censors had to begrudgingly accept the final version of a film. After all, to seriously impede Querejeta’s creative vision would be seen by Franco’s image-conscious technocrats as disastrous for Spain’s cultural standing abroad.

As his international success as a producer grew, so too did his reputation as a risk-taker and a polemicist. Saura’s second collaboration with Querejeta, Peppermint Frappé (1968) was supposed to premiere at Cannes in May 1968. At the beginning of the screening, however, the producer took to the stage with a microphone to demonstrate his support for the strikers and to denounce Robert Favre Le Bret, the president of the festival. Meanwhile, Carlos Saura and Geraldine Chaplin, the star of the film, were joined by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, who halted the screening by climbing up the cinema curtain and dangling from it.[8] As the director Roman Polanksi has recently recalled, “They were hanging off it like grapes” (Grey: 2008).

However, it was the Querejeta/Saura collaboration La prima Angélica/ Cousin Angelica, Spain’s official entry for Cannes in 1973, which would prove by far the most controversial of all his productions. At the festival, news broke out that four masked teenagers had attempted to steal reels of the film from a projection booth during one of its Madrid screenings. Unable to fit the reels into their bags, they fled with just twelve metres of the film. The Spanish right-wing press were outraged by an infamous scene in which a Falangist soldier is represented with his right arm in a cast, thereby locking his body in a permanent fascist salute. Despite mounting pressure from the government to cut the scene and public protests boycott the film, Querejeta steadfastly refused to compromise, stating publicly.

“I will not submit to any kind of intimidation which attempts to suppress what has been legally authorised” (Galán, 1974: 144).

The ongoing conflict culminated in July 1974 when a screening of the film in Barcelona was firebombed by fascists.

Although this was Querejeta’s most explicitly anti-Francoist film, the overall look and tone of Cousin Angelica typified his productions of this period. The film centers on the journey of its protagonist, Luis Cano (José Luis López Vázquez) as he travels to the provincial town of Segovia to bury his mother within the family cemetery plot. In the middle of his journey, he stops and gets out of the car and looks at the Castilian landscape. The surrounding geography reminds Luis of the journey he took as a child in 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War broke out, to visit his Nationalist-supporting grandmother. As the war progressed, it would become too dangerous for the young Luis leave the town, so he was forced to remain with his fascist relatives. As in Cousin Angelica, intersections between the trauma of violence, memory and the landscape are a constant theme throughout several Querejeta’s productions of this period. Meager budgets and production offices in Madrid meant that the majority of his productions (excluding co-productions, a total of fourteen out of nineteen feature-length films between the years 1967 and 1979) were shot in the surrounding region of Castile. The rural landscape of this region consists predominantly of the meseta, the vast and arid plateau that makes up a third of Spain’s surface area. Although collaborating with a number of different directors, the recurring backdrop of the flat Castilian landscape lends a degree of visual unity to his productions of the 1970s. The sharply delineated textures of the rough land and the sheer weight and volume of the buildings were thrown into relief by the painterly, chiaroscuro cinematography of Luis Cuadrado, and from 1975, of Teo Escamilla.[9]

That the geography of the meseta, in particular, should be symbolically associated with violence is not coincidental. Over the centuries, this iconic landscape has emerged as the timeless, spiritual center of the nation, a marker of authentic Spanishness. It follows that Castile and agrarian life were fundamental to Francoist mythmaking. During the early years of Spanish fascism, the regime believed that “people would be saved from the divisive evils of progress and returned to their ‘oneness’ with nature” (Labanyi, 1989: 38). The peasants who most embodied the values of National Catholicism were those from Castile, whom Franco eulogized as the moral backbone of the nation. As the historian Juan Andrés Blanco Rodríguez has pointed out, Franco attributed to the Castilian peasant the virtues required of each and every Spaniard—hardiness, honesty and austerity—and they exemplified the Spanish caste at its purest (1998: 368-369). However, Franco’s Castilian idyll would bear witness to violence and social deprivation. In order to return the people to nature, he subjected the peasants to a “repressive system of agricultural labour,” where they were compelled to work the soil under the most brutal of conditions (Sevilla-Guzmán, 1976: 103). Behind the privileged space of Castile, therefore, lay a regime of violence which concealed itself under the guise of “la España eternal,” erasing the historical specificities of a starving, war-torn nation through the creation of a mythical geography. Vast and spare, the meseta served as the ideal tabula rasa on which Franco could reconstruct a great, unified Spain, in which regional differences such as Basque, Gallician and Catalan were elided.

In response, Querejeta’s productions during this period sought to expose the violence behind Franco’s mythical geography of Spain. Of these films, Los desafíos/ The Challenges (Claudio Guerín, José Luis Egea, Víctor Erice, 1969), El espíritu de la colmena/ Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice, 1973) and Pascual Duarte (Ricardo Franco, 1976) most explicitly expose the brutality of peasant life on the meseta. Consisting of three different episodes by three different directors, The Challenges stands out as one of Querejeta’s most experimental projects to date. In each section, the arrival of an U.S. tourist (played by Dean Selmier in each part) not only brings into focus the repressive mores of Francoist Spain but also leaves a trail of shocking violence in the tourist’s wake. On the film’s representation of violence, Guerín, one of the directors, remarked that “it is hidden in the environment” and that it could “irrupt at any moment” (Torres, 1969: 46). In the second episode of the film, for instance, the idealized myth of the Castilian country folk is shattered. The representation of a subjugated peasant, Benito, (Fernando Sánchez Polack) and his family exploited by their smooth-talking, neo-feudal landowner (Alfredo Mayo) clearly struck a nerve with the censors, who demanded that the scenes in which the peasant family were mistreated be removed (Hernández Les, 1986: 175).

The landscape is one of the most enduring images of Spirit of the Beehive, the most critically celebrated Querejeta production to date. Set in post-war 1940s Spain, the film centres on Ana (Ana Torrent), a young girl with a vivid imagination. On meeting a Republican fugitive, she believes him to be Frankenstein’s monster. Kovács has written of the film’s many images of “claustrophobic enclosure and imprisonment” where human figures appear dwarfed by “the emptiness of the space and the vastness of the silence” (1991: 31). While the opening credits show the words, “Once upon a time … Somewhere on the Castilian meseta in the 1940s,” a camera focuses on a wall on which the Falangist yoke and arrows are painted, the symbol of the Spanish Fascist party. Although a village marker, “Hoyuelos,” indicates the precise setting for the film, the words of the opening credits serve to generalize the location, as if to suggest that the village was like any other Castilian village in the 1940s—that is, under the iron fist of Franco. The producer was so fascinated by the village that he himself returned to Hoyuelos some years later in 1977 to direct an observational documentary of its people, although that film was never released.

Of all the films, the meseta finds its most violent expression in Pascual Duarte. Here Pascual Duarte, an illiterate peasant, goes on a killing spree and is sentenced to death by garrotte. As his violent acts appear unmotivated, we are asked to look elsewhere for clues. Frequently framed in long shots and extreme-long shots, the surrounding environment is key to understanding his descent into violence. According to Faulkner, the film’s hostile representation of rural space is used to “debunk the Francoist myth of nature and, by implication, attack the entire ideology of the regime” (2004: 58).

The majority of Querejeta’s collaborations with Carlos Saura were also filmed in Castille during this period. In common with his other productions, they clearly evoke a strong sense of place. In Peppermint frappé and Cousin Angelica, for instance, the provincial towns of Cuenca and Segovia are presented as asphyxiating and static. Both films centre on a middle-aged, sexually repressed man (played in both cases by José Luis López Vázquez) whose neuroses and prejudices arise from the influence of his oppressive surroundings. In Elisa, vida mía/ Elisa, My Life (1977) and Los ojos vendados/ Blindfolded Eyes (1978), urban outsiders seek tranquillity in the meseta, only to find that it is a site of violence. In the former, Elisa (Geraldine Chaplin) visits her elderly father Luis (Fernando Rey), who for the last twenty years has lived alone in the country. The field near his house, however, is haunted with memories of a woman whom he found murdered mysteriously several years ago. Precisely the same stretch of landscape provides a dramatic backdrop for Fascist torture in Blindfolded Eyes. In this film, Geraldine Chaplin plays an actress called Emilia, who performs the role of Inés, a woman who has been tortured by the Argentine state. While performing the play, she speaks of her relief as the terrorists released her from the car into the middle of the countryside. The play within the play/film allegorizes Spain’s Franco era.  Thus, a cutaway to the meseta evokes the composition of Wyeth’s painting Cristina’s World, with Chaplin’s emaciated body captured in the same position as that of the disabled figure Christina.[10]

Other directors working with Querejeta during this period also drew on the powerful symbolism of Castile. The controversial documentary El desencanto/ The Disenchantment (Jaime Chávarri, 1976) centers on the family of Leopoldo Panero, the regime’s official poet, in the wake of his sudden death some fourteen years earlier. His pastoral poetry contrasts with the social reality of Astorga, the town in which they lived, which is wracked by parochial hypocrisy and hatred. In Las palabras de Max/ Max’s Words (Emilio Martínez-Lázaro, 1978), a divorced academic, Max (Ignacio Fernández de Castro) travels with his teenage daughter (played by Gracia Querejeta, the producer’s daughter) to a villa in the Castilian countryside, where the location serves to underscore the father’s psychological and emotional isolation.

Other landscapes

Although the majority of Querejeta’s productions during the 1970s made use of Castile to convey their anti-Francoist messages, the film Habla, mudita/ Speak, Little Mute (Gutiérrez Aragón, 1973) stands out as a departure from this politicized style of filmmaking. Its release also signals the beginnings of a trend in Spanish film that explores the wilderness of the Northern regions of Spain. Speak, Little Mute and the later Feroz/ Fierce (also directed by Gutiérrez Aragón in 1984) are set in the wet, mountainous region of Cantabria. Taking his lead, other directors under Querejeta also turn to the Northern wilderness for inspiration: El sur/ The South (Víctor Erice, 1983) and Tasio (Montxo Armendárix, 1984) exploits the vistas of the breathtaking green forests and valleys of the Basque country and Navarre respectively.

If the Spanish miracle years of the 1960s were shaped by accelerated economic growth, urbanization and prosperity, the period between 1973 and 1984 was marked by recession, environmental crisis and a subsequent process of counter-urbanization. The slump in economic growth was a result of the 1973 Oil Crisis, which had a particularly severe effect on Spain. As its economy was more reliant on external factors than most, the repercussions of the crisis were more intensely felt (Lawlor and Rigby, 1998: 101). This crisis led to far-reaching social and spatial changes. The city, which during the 1960s was emblematic of progress and modernization, became for many in the 1970s an ugly symbol of unrestrained capitalism and unemployment. Moreover, the shortage of petroleum prompted Western nations to reassess their consumption habits, which in turn generated an increased awareness of the natural environment. The journalist Pedro Costa Morata demonstrates that Spain was no exception to this rule, nothing that 1973 was the year in which Spanish environmentalism gained momentum (1985: 171). In this context, therefore, it is perhaps not coincidental that several Spanish filmmakers turned to the rural for inspiration.

The problematic relation between the rural and the urban provides the focus of both Speak, Little Mute and Fierce. In the former, this tension arises between Ramiro (José Luis López Vázquez) a middle-age linguist from Madrid, and the residents of a Cantabrian village in which he spends his holidays. In the latter, Luis (Fernando Fernán Gómez), a psychologist who is on holiday in the country, finds a local boy who has been transformed into a bear. He captures the boy and takes him back to the city, where the psychologist attempts to “civilize” the bear so that the boy/bear may become a human once again. Through the use of poetic visual language, the wilderness of Northern Spain in both films is represented as a mysteriously remote terrain, positioned beyond the reach of its urban visitors. The use camera movement conveys this eloquently. Extreme long shots, together with the horizontal panning and vertical tilting of the camera, mould a sublime vision of nature that is both inaccessible and limitless. In seeking to separate the urban and the rural both spatially and symbolically, the films articulate an anxiety towards both the ecological fallout of industrialization and the demise of Spanish rural life.

Tasio similarly expresses a need to preserve the rural landscape. Rather than focusing on man’s alienation from nature, however, this film captures the experience of rural life from the perspective of those who dwell there. It centers on the life experiences of Tasio, one of the last remaining charcoal burners in Navarre, who as his friends and family all eventually migrate to the city, stays alone in his village. As foregrounded in the film’s promotional tagline, “a hymn to freedom,” the protagonist throughout remains free from the pervasive structures of modern capitalism, an aspect which particularly appealed to Querejeta (Gurruchaga, 1984: n.p.).

Marginal spaces

From the 1980s onwards, Querejeta’s filmmaking realigned itself with profound industrial and political changes. The removal of censorship in 1977 along with Spain’s long-awaited transition to democracy in 1982 inevitably altered both the style and general concerns of his films. Indeed, no longer the enfant terrible of the film industry, Querejeta’s work now became part of the establishment: feted by the new socialist government, the PSOE, he would consistently receive generous subsidies for his productions. However, this did not mean that the political resistance that underpinned his earlier work would lose momentum. The struggle that he once articulated against Francoist ideology would now be directed towards Spain’s embrace of free-market capitalism—or, more specifically, to support those that have been left behind in its wake. Without the strictures of censorship, Querejeta’s ethical vision could now be openly expressed through a more social realist style of filmmaking. This shift in style, moreover, brought with it a general shift in emphasis from rural to urban spaces. As such, Querejeta’s productions during this period sought to enunciate the social reality of Spain from the geographical speaking position of those who have been marginalized by an urbanized country.

The first of these films was Deprisa, deprisa/ Fast, Fast (Carlos Saura, 1980), which centers on a gang of migrant delinquents who roam around the fringes of Madrid, stealing cars and robbing banks. Neither rural nor urban, neither adults nor children, the delinquents’ in-between identity is reflected in their marginal location on the periphery of the city. In their search for authenticity, Saura and Querejeta cast real-life delinquents for the roles of the teenagers. Ironically, the fictional trajectory of the protagonist, Pablo (José Antonio Valdelomar), would turn out to anticipate events in the actor’s real life. Three weeks before the premiere of Fast, Fast, Valdelomar was arrested for robbing a bank on the outskirts of Madrid (Anon, 1981: 27). As a result, the actor could not attend the premiere of his own film since he was serving a prison sentence. In an interview, Querejeta has stressed his social engagement with juvenile delinquency and interest in the causes behind this issue (Hernández Les. 1986: 88).

This interest would also go on to yield several later productions like Fast, Fast that would explore the relationship between the social and the spatial. 27 Horas/ 27 Hours (Montxo Armendáriz, 1987), for instance, follows the lives of two teenage junkies in San Sebastián, a city then afflicted with mass unemployment. The film’s tight, hermetic framing works to dislocate the characters from their surroundings and emphasizes the solipsistic nature of their heroin abuse, while the washed-out, glacial hues of grey and blue reflect the emotional coldness the youth encounter in their families and personal lives. Teenage life would also provide the focal point for Armendáriz’s next collaboration with Querejeta, Historias del Kronen/ Stories of the Kronen (1995), which depicts the ennui of a group of privileged, upper-middle class students one summer in Madrid. As Fouz-Hernández has pointed out, the space of the city at night becomes a major ground for youth resistance in the film (2000). Barrio (Fernando León, 1998), which focuses on younger teenagers, is also set in Madrid. The city in this film is one of static, exclusionary borders that further marginalize the young characters. As in Deprisa, deprisa, these films reveal the extent to which social identities are constituted and shaped by their surroundings.

In recent years, Querejeta has also focused his attention on issues beyond the national borders of Spain. For instance, El úlimo viaje de Robert Rylands/The Last Journey of Robert Rylands (directed by his daughter, Gracia Querejeta, 1996) is a psychological drama set entirely in Oxford, while Cuernos de espuma/ Shampoo Horns (Manuel Toledano, 1998) is a fictionalized account of the drag queen nightclub scene in New York. With Jaime Corcuera’s hard-hitting documentaries La espalda del mundo/ The Back of the World (2000) and the Invierno en Bagdad/ Winter in Baghdad (2004), the producer has continued to back projects which center on the marginalized and the dispossessed, but on a global scale. While La espalda del mundo examines child labour in Peru, the death penalty in the United States, and political refugees in Sweden, Invierno en Bagdad provides an exposé of the atrocities committed in the recent Iraq War. In narrating other geographical spaces, these films arguably seek to widen the horizons of Elías Querejeta as a producer.

If these productions all seek to represent the global over the local, Los lunes al sol/ Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León, 2002) and Las cartas de Alou/ Alou’s Letters (Montxo Armendáriz, 1990) demonstrate how the local is affected by the global. Addressing the growing Spanish social problems of male unemployment and illegal immigration respectively, the films point to globalization as their cause. In Mondays in the Sun, Santa (Javier Bardem) plays an unemployed shipbuilder who angrily protests against a global, post-industrial economy through which Spain imports foreign ships and, in the process, makes indigenous workers redundant. But while the nation readily promotes capital’s unfettered mobility, it pointedly does not encourage the free movement of immigrants. This is borne out in Alou’s Letters, in which a picaresque narrative follows Alou (Mulie Jarju), an illegal Senegalese immigrant, in constant search of work and shelter. The protagonists in each film, Santa and Alou, dream of other places: Santa fantasises about living in Australia, while Alou dreams of finding an utopian Spain that will integrate him into society. The tension between fantasy and reality is evoked in Alfredo Mayo’s cinematography, whose warm, sunlit palette in both films provides a contrast to the protagonists’ dismal material surroundings.

Despite his age, Elías Querejeta tirelessly continues to make a significant impact on the Spanish film industry. This was borne out in April 2008, when Querejeta was awarded a lifetime achievement award—the latest of a long line—at the San Sebastián Festival of Cinema and Human Rights. There, he was commended for his courageous and socially committed method of filmmaking that has consistently spoken out against injustice (Montero, 2008). Inspired by his award, Querejeta went on to make his debut as director the following year with the documentary Cerca de tus ojos/ Close To Your Eyes (2009), a film that observes the many breaches of human rights which are committed throughout the world. Although the producer has always remained tight-lipped about future projects, he will undoubtedly continue to support young Spanish directors and to promote cinema as a force of visual truth. As I have shown, to trace the history of Querejeta’s productions is to trace the history of modern Spain. And this history, we have seen, has been dependent on constant geographical transformation. From the idyllic rural backwaters of Next Autumn to the global flows of Mondays in the Sun, the recurrent emphasis on Spanish landscape in his work has consistently provided a means of political resistance.


1. For instance, the director Fernando León’s proposal for Barrio (1998) simply took the form of a letter where he scribbled just a brief outline of the film (Ponga, 2002: 39) [return to text]

2. Eceiza moved to Madrid in 1957, where he enrolled at the national film school, the Institute of Cinematographic Research and Practice (Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias Cinematográficas) and began collaborating for the film journals Film ideal and Nuestro cine/ Our Cinema. Querejeta followed his friend to the capital in 1960, where he would find work at the polemical left-wring production company UNINCI. Despite not enrolling at the film school, Querejeta would make invaluable contacts with Eceiza’s fellow graduate, who would soon make up the collaborative team for their first production together.

3. According to Hernández Les, all references had to be omitted to the bloody and divisive Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), during which Franco seized control of Spain (1986: 161).

4. Known in Spanish as “los años de desarrollo,” Spain’s industrial growth during this period was almost unparalleled in the Western world—only Japan would boast a higher rate (Harrison and Corkhill, 1995: 76)

5. As Riquer I. Permanyer shows, Madrid alone grew by two million during this period (1995: 263).

6. In 1966, the producer argued in defence: “I try to fight against the system by using its own arms” (Monleón, 1966: 6).

7. Because of censorship, any mention in the script of the polemical Civil War had to modified to just “the war” (D’Lugo, 1991: 56; Hernández Les, 1986: 164).

8. Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie, met Carlos Saura during the film premiere of Dr Zhivago (David Lean, 1965). Saura and Chaplin swiftly became lovers, and had a son together in 1974. Chaplin first made her appearance in Saura’s films in Peppermint Frappé (1967), and went on to star in a further eight Saura/Querejeta collaborations. During the 1960s and 1970s, Querejeta always supported the appearances of foreign actors in his productions, as they served to widen the appeal of his films outside of Spain.

9. This style of lighting was made possible through the following techniques: the use of more sensitive, faster to develop film stock which produced darker images (Barroso, 1989: 240); a reliance on natural lighting when filming inside buildings (Barroso, 1989: 246) and a preference for filming at dawn and dusk, a time which the Cuadrado would affectionately call “the witching hour” (“la hora bruja”) (Barroso, 1989: 244). Having received his professional training from Cuadrado, Escamilla took over from his colleague as director of photography two weeks before the end of filming Pascual Duarte, as the latter had to be rushed to hospital for an operation on his eyes (Heredero, 1994: 248). In the several productions that followed, most notably in The disenchantment/El desencanto, Cría cuervos and Elisa, vida mía, his style of photography remains practically the same as that of Cuadrado. Escamilla has commented that Cuadrado had indelible influence on his cinematography (Heredero, 1994: 248). However, in later films such as El amor brujo (Carlos Saura, 1986), which were not part of “la factoría Querejeta,” Escamilla appears to find his own style of photography, experimenting with more artificial-looking high-key lighting.

10. She also appeared in Saura/Querejeta collaborations Ana y los lobos/ Ana and the Wolves (1972) and Mamá cumple cien años/ Mama Is One Hundred Years Old (1979), in which she plays an English au pair who comes to work for a bourgeois family in an isolated country house in Torrelodones, Castile. Presided over by the senile and infirm Mamá (Rafaela Aparicio), who symbolises the rapidly ageing dictator, the house is presented as a microcosm for Francoist Spain. This symbolism of the Spanish home can be seen in the most famous Saura/Querejeta collaboration Cría cuervos/ Raise Ravens (1976), which also starred Chaplin. Although set within Madrid, the gloomy low-key lighting and camerawork focus our attention on the sheer scale and consistency of the home, and huge mahogany furniture and high ceilings create an architecture of oppression. In addition to these, she also appeared in Saura’s earlier Stress es tres, tres/ Stress Is Three, Three (1967),whose protagonist Fernando (Fernando Cebrián), becomes violently jealous as the characters travel through the Castilian landscape. Saura has commented that the violence in the film appears to irrupt from the surrounding landscape (Brasó, 1974: 213).


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