Issue 2: Autumn 2008: Spanish Avant-Garde Film

There is an Experimental Cinema in Spain, But...

Albert Alcoz

The main aim of this text is to briefly outline the history of experimental cinema in Spain, to examine what it has been and seek the keys to its possible survival. If ‘experimental cinema' is a hard category to define, it's almost harder to pin down ‘Spanish experimental cinema' in geographical terms. This difficulty is mainly due to a longstanding lack of appropriate means of production, distribution and exhibition in the country. There's certainly never been a shortage of restlessly innovative filmmakers. Many artists have made use of the cinematic medium to express feelings, communicate ideas and transmit impressions without limiting themselves to the institutional mode of representation of fiction cinema or sticking to accepted documentary norms. They have attempted to subvert, transgress and interrogate these accepted cinematic forms, whilst cultivating other levels of visual and conceptual intensity. Because, aside from the plastic qualities of its imagery, experimental cinema has constantly questioned the existence of the cinematographic medium, both as art and as mass media spectacle.

What is cinema? What are its possibilities? Cinema could be described as the movement of images plus time. It could be defined as an artistic medium but also as an industry, a show biz trade. Experimental cinema responds to the industrial model with art created from the standpoint of individual creation: an abstract practice falling into categories such as ‘visual music', ‘lyrical cinema', ‘mythopoeic film' or any number of such labels indicating the privileging of plasticity, rhythm, montage and the power inherent in sound/image combinations over narrative and literary considerations. Avant-garde cinema answers the industry by exploring alternative means of production, reclaiming film technology and articulating its anti-illusionistic potential (found footage, structural cinema, lettrism, handcrafted cinema, expanded cinema, etc). In Spain, such films have only existed as exceptions, albeit unarguably valuable exceptions.

According to Manuel Palacio and Eugeni Bonet's correct diagnosis, Spanish experimental and art cinema have always been "in a perpetually embryonic state" (1). Historian and essayist Román Gubern has traced the origin of this absence of avant-garde cinema in Spain back to the 1920s (2). Having exhaustively researched films created with formally experimental intentions or a deliberately transgressive attitude, Gubern indicates the factors causing this absence which he ultimately boils down to one underlying circumstance: the lack of a solid film industry to fight against. His book Proyector de Luna- about the relationship between the '27 generation writers and the cinema- closes with an analysis of the collaboration between director Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí. He comments on the production vicissitudes of the most famous Surrealist film, explaining its origin: "Un Chien andalou got Spanish financing, was filmed in Paris, with French studios and technicians, and with the title and original credits in French" (3). This geographical displacement is a definitive example of the precariousness of a production, distribution and exhibition situation which has relegated practically every attempt at avant-garde cinema to the status of an anomalous one-off, without any kind of continuity.

Although there isn't really a tradition of avant-garde cinema in Spain, a number of avant-garde elements cropped up in early fiction features, films now sadly lost, like Madrid en el año 2000 (1925) by Manuel Noriega, shorts like Historia de un duro (1928) by Sabino Antonio Micón, Esencia de verbena (1930) by Ernesto Giménez Caballero and narrative movies with metafilmic and self-reflexive plots like the ones by Nemesio Manuel Sobrevila (El Sexto Sentido and Al Hollywood madrileño (1927), also lost).

Granadian filmmaker José Val del Omar is the only representative of avant-garde cinema to break with characteristics of early 20th century filmmaking and create powerful, unprecedented works employing a purely audio/visual poetics. His films have much in common with ‘60s North American experimental filmmaking. Eugeni Bonet situates the films Aguaespejo Granadino (1953-55) and Fuego en Castilla (Tatilvisión del páramo del espanto) (1958-60) between the graphic experiments of the ‘20 and ‘30 avant-garde and the technical solutions of late ‘60s expanded cinema (4). Val del Omar is a visionary auteur possessed of a deep visual lyricism (making wide use of superimpositions, slow motion, freeze frames, optical filters, etc), an inventive artist and restless engineer able to create unique, immersive and unrepeatable cinematic experiences imbued with luminous religiosity and transcendent mysticism. His influence is detectable in the work of some young contemporary filmmakers, but not in that of ‘60s and ‘70s cinema. That epoch was dominated by the systematic fight of artists against the political and cultural repressions of the Franco regime.

Many filmmakers during those two decades of smouldering fervour used paint to mark out risky cinematic trails for themselves, scratching and painting directly on to the celluloid surface (José Antonio Sistiaga, Ramón de Vargas, Eugenio Granell, Jordi Artigas, Benet Rosell, etc). Others leant with more or less conviction towards deconstructive, minimalist and conceptual approaches (Pere Portabella, Carles Santos, Paulino Viota, Valcárcel Medina, Antonio Artero, Javier Aguirre, etc). Some embraced ambiguous and camp narratives, pop scenarios, psychedelic textures and underground environments (Joan y Oriol Duran Benet, Adolfo Arrieta, Antoni Padrós, Jose Antonio Maenza, Iván Zulueta, Pedro Almodóvar, etc). A few worked with the premises of structural cinema or with found footage (Eugenia Balcells, Eugeni Bonet). Together, they constituted an independent cinema, operating on the margins of the industry in terms of production.

This was a marginal cinema, even clandestine, sometimes created as an aspect of the filmmaker's wider artistic or political activities. It was very common at this time for visual artists to make films. These movies displayed innovative forms or outlaw ideology and were shot on substandard formats such as 16mm and Super 8. The names listed above are, roughly speaking, the nucleus of Spanish experimental cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The largely documentary anti-establishment, political activist cinema lost its sovereign force with the coming of democracy after Franco's death (in November, 1975). But the more specifically experimental cinema was at the peak of its success. As Manuel Palacio noted: "The years after Franco's death saw the convergence of a large number of events that allowed for a little confidence in the creation of a stable infrastructure for avant-garde cinema"(5). Premonitions of this apparently nascent film culture included the Semana del Film Super 8 in Barcelona and the Anémic Cinema exhibitions, as well as the retrospective of Avant-Garde Cinema in Spain at the Georges Pompidou Centre (París, 1982) and the appearence of the magazine VISUAL. But it was not to be.

The filmmakers' creative effervescence broke on the consolidation of video art in the ‘80s. Some directors decided to get involved in the world of television, and to keep working as visual artists or to embrace the new audiovisual format, now visible in festivals and video shows appearing scattered across the peninsula. Others settled permanently in the feature film industry, an easily accessible environment which absorbed some experimental filmmakers who went on to make conventional movies (Almodóvar, Manuel Huerga). But it also facilitated major works such as one of the most amazing feature films ever made in Spain: Arrebato (1979) by Iván Zulueta.

The area of video art became somewhat diffuse and confused. Not because of any synergic impulses (these were less vital than in experimental cinema thanks to the important role of museums and art centres) but rather due to a lack of common sense and the inappropriate defence of the video by the video. Many video artists were content to misuse this new creative tool by simply documenting their private lives- fortunately not always from completely egotistical points of view. If we consider experimental cinema as a matter of medium, very few works of the ‘80s fit that category. The innovations of the ‘70s were in large part inspired by the economic and technical circumstances that filmmakers worked with. The fact that there's no book documenting ‘80s and ‘90s experimental cinema is because it essentially didn't exist, even though isolated, more or less experimental animation works (Begoña Vicario, Isabel Herguera) appeared at festivals like the Semana del Cine Experimental de Madrid or in some editions of l'Alternativa, Festival de Cinema Alternatiu de Barcelona. But, overall, video art dominated the scene. Video artists like Josep Montes Baquer, Xavier Villaverde, Jordi Torrent, Javier Codesal, Josu Rekalde, Francisco Ruiz de Infante, Ignacio Pardo, Marcel·lí Antúnez, Joan Leandre, Marcelo Expósito, and Pedro Ortuño have established their videos as part of a dense, heterogenic cultural panorama.

With the arrival of the new millenium some unique and iconoclastic feature films opened in movie houses (the magnificient homage to José Val del Omar entitled Tira tu reloj al agua by Eugeni Bonet and some fragmented narrative movies with abstract aesthetic strategies like Tren de Sombras by José Luis Guerín and El silencio antes de Bach by Pere Portabella). But, sadly, they didn't open doors to the consolidation of the infrastructures necessary for the development of experimental cinema.

One of the paradoxes of recent years is the proliferation of experimental cinema sessions concentrated around contemporary art museums (MACBA, Museo de Arte Reina Sofía, Espai d'Art Contemporani de Castelló, CCCB) where national work is almost ignored. Histories of canonical cinema and the international avant-garde are the main focuses. But, recently, it is posible to observe a resurgence in experimental filmmaking, and filmmakers are beginning to find places to exhibit in. Of course, it is not strictly accurate to speak of experimental cinema anymore, even though contemporary artists are familiar with the history of avant-garde film. But account must be taken of the proliferation of new audiovisual media and the multiplicity of artists' fields of interest. These engender films and videos that continually give rise to sub-categories stemming from documentary, film/video essay, video art, fiction, and music video. The absence of schools or universities in which to study this kind of cinema is counteracted by the widescale availability of such films, and information on them, through channels like the internet.

To compile a list of contemporary Spanish experimental filmmakers, one could start with the programmes of festivals like D-Generados (Las Palmas Festival) or Heterodocsias (Punto de Vista at the Navarra Festival). Or consult the catalogues of distribution companies like Hamaca, Media & Video Art Distribution of Spain. Or attend screenings at the Xcèntric (CCCB), or at alternative projection spaces like La Enana Marrón, Miscelània or Amalgama.

Through these exhibition channels one can easily find people working on Super 8 since the ‘90s with contagious impetus and to fascinating ends (David Domingo); others who use found footage to achieve amazing aesthetic results (Oriol Sánchez) or grotesque discourses (María Cañas); those who use science fiction stories to create immersive narratives linking the paranormal and the surrealistic (César Velasco Broca); some whose work has much in common with the music video, a genre they also work in (Luis Cerveró, Nicolás Méndez, Lope Serrano); and still others who depart from documentary foundations to create self-reflexive and humanist essays about contemporary conditions (Andrés Duque, Isaki Lacuesta, Luis Escartín, Alberte Pagán). Many others have demonstrated their own particular skills in making personal cinema, each with his or her own exceptional point of view on the relationship between images and sound (Armand Rovira, Reivaj Yudato, Gonzalo de Pedro, Fernando Franco, Antoni Pinent, Laida Letxundi, Esperanza Collado, Emiliano Cano, Manuel Asín, etc).

Looking at this list of names, one can justifiably hope for a better future for avant-garde film and video in Spain. We can even talk about a generation "homesick for celluloid which is appropriated as a gesture of nostalgic irony" (6) in playing and experimenting with found footage, photographic techniques or analog visuals. A new generation that finds fresh approaches to various sub-categories of the documentary label: essay, diary, archival compilation... It's in this amalgam of influences assumed by current artists that we should begin to trace the course of Spanish experimental cinema in the new century.

The title of the text is an homage to the one used by Eugeni Bonet in his article There is an Independent Cinema in Spain, But... for the New York based magazine Millenium Film Journal (1978) in which the writer explained the difficulties effecting late ‘70s independent cinema.

To read this article in Spanish, visit visionary-film.blogspot.com

All stills in this article are from David Domingo's Película Sudorosa

James Devereaux