Euskal Pilota, larrua harriaren kontra

Julio Medem


La Pelota Vasca web site             London Film Festival

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To be shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January

Fiachra Gibbons in San Sebastian
Monday September 22, 2003

Medem's The Basque Ball

The most controversial Spanish film in decades was shown last night in the face of a government campaign of opposition to it that has raised the specter of the bad old days of General Franco's dictatorship.  The Basque Ball, an emotionally-charged documentary by the acclaimed director Julio Medem, which urges the authorities in Madrid to reopen talks with Basque extremists, was cheered at the San Sebastian film festival after convulsing Spain in an ugly debate over whether it should be outlawed.

The ruling right-wing Popular Party refused to take part in the film, and has kept up a ferocious assault on what they termed Basque-born Medem's "suspicious enterprise", with the culture minister Pilar Del Castillo leading the attacks on the festival organizers for showing it.

But many anti-secessionist Basques have rallied to Medem's defense, with the socialist mayor of San Sebastian Odon Elorza claiming the clock was being turned back to the "time when the man with the little moustache (Franco) covered women's breasts, had the bottoms of nudes draped and eliminated all 'red' films... It is one thing to criticize a film, but it's another to do all you can to make sure it is never shown."

Medem, the director of Sex and Lucia, the Red Squirrel, and Cows, claimed he was not a nationalist, but despaired at the division the lack of dialogue was causing in the Basque country, almost half of whose inhabitants are "immigrants" from the rest of Spain, drawn by its relative prosperity. Advocating talks with the separatist terror group ETA or its supporters, however, has been heresy since the Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar's government banned the group's political wing Herri Batasuna last year and closed down a string of cultural organizations, including dance and music groups, which it claimed were fronts for its activities.

The ban has led to a revival in support for party, whose vote had plummeted to a mere 10% after ETA broke a 14-month ceasefire in 1999, alleging that Mr Aznar - who survived an attempt on his life before he was elected - had sabotaged peace talks.

Ms Del Castillo, who refused an invitation to see the film, accused Medem of blaming Mr Aznar as much as the terrorists for the impasse. "When you start from the position that a legally constituted government voted for by 10m people is one pole, and the other is a terrorist group, that puts you in a delicate position.  With that starting point it would be very difficult to make a balanced documentary... I find it odd that the film festival has allowed it to be screened," the minister said.

But far from taking a pro-nationalist line, the film, for which more than 70 of the autonomous region's politicians, intellectuals and victims of violence were interviewed, makes extremely uncomfortable viewing for the Basque country's nationalist government, never mind ETA.

Even some victims' groups angry about the film's mention of torture, and the secret GAL assassination campaign waged by the security forces - who account for half of those killed by ETA - said the film was generally fair and honest. 

Two of those interviewed, however, remain deeply unhappy about how other contributors were allowed to claim that some victims, and the Popular Party, had manipulated the suffering for their own ends at the ballot box.

Even so Spanish critics, including some who had been hostile to the film before it was shown, as well as several ETA victims and those on death lists, gave it a five-minute standing ovation at its premiere.

Medem refused to comment in depth on the controversy he created. "I want to let my film, and the very many people it features, talk for themselves," he said. But the author and academic Maria Delgado, who was criticised for making sure it would be screened at the London film festival next month, said Medem was too subtle to point the finger. "There is no comfort in the film for Basque nationalists, but neither is there for the government. The absence of the Popular Party, which Medem points out at the beginning of the film 'it will always miss', speaks loudly... It's a difficult time in Spanish history. It is certainly not healthy when any government tells you how to receive a film - tells you how to think - particularly when no one had seen the film. That's the Franco era once again."

Meanwhile, a film about another murky chapter in Madrid's difficult relationship with the Basques is also making the headlines. The Galindez Mystery, starring Harvey Keitel and British actor Saffron Burrows, recounts how the CIA allegedly colluded in Franco's kidnap, torture and murder of the former Basque prime minister Jesus Galindez, who was living in exile in the United States after fleeing Spain at the end of the civil war.